Almanac Rugby League – Tigers fans have ’89: The 1989 NRL Grand Final

In the winter of 1989, the gods of the NRL and the AFL convened on Cloud 9 to talk about their respective Grand Finals. Celestial competitiveness gave way to cosmic collusion and it was universally agreed that this would be one of those years when the stars aligned to produce classic Grand Finals in both codes. In recent times, we’ve heard a lot on The Almanac about the AFL version. Guy Ragen was a Balmain Tigers fan. The 1989 NRL Grand Final would provide him and his extended family with years of bbq conversations from the analytical to the reflective and the philosophical. Eventually, Guy wrote it down and this is what emerged – ’89.



Sports fans have a way of speaking in code using verbal shorthand to convey a set of emotions or memories or, maybe, a moment in time. For generations, “99.94” conjures Bradman and, therefore, peerlessness. The word “Bodyline” connotes deviousness and bravery, and hits upon an underlying national resentment to Britain. In England, “’66” strikes memories of a time when the nation could still feel like it could conquer, or at least match it with, the world.


Balmain Tigers fans have ‘89. Not 1989. Just ’89.


A year or two ago, I was at a family Christmas gathering. It was like any other. The men stood outside and opened Crown Lagers or Tooheys New. They wore new shirts self-consciously. The day settled into its comfortable rut when, almost by accident, the conversation pivoted on that number. Eighty-nine.


I forget who said it first but, as soon as they did, the series of stilted personal ‘year-in-reviews’ stopped. All of a sudden we were reliving a game of rugby league that took place a quarter of a century ago. We were asking the same questions Balmain fans have asked themselves repeatedly ever since.


What if Harrigan hadn’t ruled that shepherd? What if Mick Neil was two yards quicker? What if Benny’s drop-kick sailed five centimetres higher? Why did Warren Ryan replace ‘Blocker’ and ‘Sirro’? How did ‘Junior’ drop the ball with the line open?


Then the philosophical answer to all questions: Mate, the Tiges just weren’t meant to win.


As the debate went back and forth, the real question I wanted to ask was, why does this game continue to have such a hold on otherwise sensible people? There are a few obvious possibilities.


For me, it’s always had something to do with family. At the Christmas lunch that day were my father Frank and Uncle Bobby, both of whom played for Balmain in the 60s and 70s. Sadly, Dad’s ability didn’t find its way to his two sons. Yet, even for my brother and me, a great deal of our childhood was spent at Leichhardt Oval watching Balmain. Cousin Gary fared better playing lower grades with the Tigers while a couple of other cousins played junior rep for the club.


I’m the youngest cousin on that side of the family and only got to see the tail end of Balmain’s almost golden period. In fact, most of my “memory” of ’89 is a mixture of colour, feel and atmosphere. I remember the excitement in the family as August turned into September. There was an expectation that it was now or never for the Tigers. And I remember the devastation around the place in the aftermath of the game.


In part, 1989 became a frame of reference for watching the decline of Balmain during the 1990s to their death as a stand-alone club in 1999. It was always that elusive thing I could never touch or relive. If anything, it loomed larger for me as Balmain moved closer and closer to death.


I was very lucky as a league mad kid. I’ve never really told Dad but, when we used to walk into Leichhardt and many of the old-timer fans and players knew who he was, it made me feel proud. It also gave me, as a kid, a sense that this was truly my club. It was something more than just the team I watched every Sunday.


When Super League came along and, in its aftermath, Balmain was forced to merge, I took it very personally. Something snapped and it has never really been put back together again. I still follow the game closely and head to Leichhardt Oval when the Tigers play, but there’s always something slightly off. For me, it’s sort of like walking through the ruins of Pompeii. You can see and feel the outline of what once was, but isn’t.


So 1989 has always occupied some weird crossroads between memory, regret and what I implicitly knew I couldn’t recreate. But that doesn’t explain it for the rest of my family or the other Balmain fans with whom I’ve shared the “’89 chat”. Why are otherwise sane people drawn to this game of football like no other?


The 1989 Grand Final was arguably the greatest game of rugby league ever played, and Balmain lost. No other modern era rugby league Grand Final can match it for the tension, controversy and storyline. The young Canberra side was on a roll, the first team from outside Sydney to win the premiership, against an ageing Balmain side whose style of football belonged to the decade being ushered out.


In the years following ‘89, Canberra and Brisbane dominated the competition with a more free-flowing style of play. But Balmain were from the ‘80s, the era of Canterbury and Parramatta, featuring forward packs winning games with brutal defence.


Balmain’s two first half tries were lucky and scored largely against the run of play. The first came from a loose Canberra pass, allowing James Grant to capitalize and scoot 40 metres to score. Then, after being camped in their own half for much of the next 20 minutes, Balmain ran the ball on the last tackle. Decades down the track, the try that followed is still watch. A blind side move, a deft pass, a speculative kick, and there was Big Sirro thundering across the line as Clyde clung to him!


Balmain led 12-2 going into half-time despite the territorial advantage Canberra held for most of the first forty minutes. No team had ever come back from such a deficit in a Grand Final.


While you can watch the first half with a sense of detachment, the second half draws you in. It started much the way the first half went with Canberra still having the better of possession and field position but unable to break through. Balmain’s luck stayed with it deep into the second half and then, suddenly, evaporated. Soon after a confusing penalty in possession against McGuire, Belcher scored. 12-8 with 20 on the clock.


The Tigers then enjoyed their best period of the game but just couldn’t put the Raiders away. In quick succession there were so many near misses, all of them destined to become a part of the game’s folklore. Neil was through a hole but ankle-tapped by a desperate Meninga; Balmain created a three man overlap – just catch and pass, catch and pass but Pearce, of all people, spilled it with the line open. A penalty took it out to 14-8 before Elias was perfectly positioned for a field goal, fifteen out and straight in front. But…thump! In a sound that belied the technology of the 80s, the noise as the Steeden cannoned into the crossbar came out of the television speakers.


And Canberra kept coming. A spilled ball gave Canberra one last chance. A bomb, an overhead throw (not a pass) found Ferguson, he jinked and went in under the posts tying the scores with 90 seconds to go. 14-14. A drawn Grand Final.


Extra time. Canberra had the momentum, they kicked a field goal, and the last image of the game was unheralded Steve Jackson dragging four tired Tiger defenders over the line for a final 19-14 scoreline. Balmain players slumped to the turf; their fans cried in the stands.


I know Balmain fans, myself included, who cannot watch the game more than 25 years later without a weird feeling of disbelief and hope. You sit there watching it and can’t help but think to yourself, “Maybe, this time, they win.” For most of the game it is still, literally and bizarrely, hard to believe they lost. But then the calamitous end knocks you back to reality.


Losing has a way of sticking with people more than winning. It does not define your day-to-day life. Except that it sort of does. The grand loss teaches you to never feel comfortable. To take your chances. That heroes are fallible. That life doesn’t turn out the way you expect. And a whole lot of other clichés, all of them true. But this doesn’t answer the question of why the game continues to exercise an occasional fixation for normally unsentimental people.


Within ten years the Balmain Tigers were dead as a stand-alone entity. So 1989 belongs to a world that cannot be recreated. I should know. I tried innumerable times up in my family’s backyard as I grew up in inner western Sydney. I was smart enough as a kid to realise that the only way I was ever going to play for the Tigers was in imaginary games in the backyard. And although I had a vivid imagination, I only ever recreated that one game and I was the answer to all those rhetorical questions asked at a Christmas lunch 25 years later. I was Michael Neil, with an extra yard of pace escaping Mal Meninga’s ankle tap. I was Benny Elias, hoisting a drop-kick a few centimetres higher.


There is something to ‘89 that can’t simply be explained by mere sporting failure. The game is something more than the greatest rugby league game ever played. Even if it was just that, it’d be worthy of the usual anniversary articles and players’ reunions.


There have been beer advertisements where the dream result happened and Balmain won; the Tigers team was reunited by a television station to relive the game for the first time since that fateful day. When the Wests Tigers won the premiership in 2005, many of the 1989 veterans received a more rousing cheer at Balmain Leagues Club than the players who had just actually won a Grand Final!


So why does it linger? Well, for me, it lingers for the reasons above and possibly a more profound one: the match took place at a moment when one Australia was giving way to another.


The Trinidadian cricket writer CLR James asked, “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” His point being that when it comes to cricket, the game is bound up with the social, political and economic strains of the wider world; social reality does not stop at the white line.


This sort of thinking is apt for rugby league, a game born out of an industrial dispute. The historic fault lines of class in Sydney can still be traced to which suburbs were traditionally home to union or league clubs.


Arguably, the late 1980s and early 1990s was the point at which the old, semi-professional, suburban Sydney game entered its death throes. Looking back, the 1989 season provided a too-neat metaphor for this when Canberra became the first team from outside Sydney to win the premiership by knocking off South Sydney and Balmain in consecutive weeks.


But there is another point which goes beyond the simple fact that rugby league was changing, and that goes to what was happening outside the Sydney Football Stadium in 1989. Australia was undergoing profound change, the old world was being swept away but, in 1989, enough of it still survived.


While Balmain was well on the path to gentrification by the late 1980s, Glebe still retained much of its working class identity and Redfern was still two decades away from what it has become. Sydney’s inner city was still largely populated by an (ageing) white working class. They voted Labor, worked full time, were union members, drank in the local pubs and watched rugby league. Immigration policies from the 1970s onward changed Australia’s suburbs. Economic changes progressively helped kill many of the industries working class people relied on.


To varying degrees, the men and women at my family Christmas gathering had grown up in the post-War years when Australia enjoyed a period of relatively benign economic growth and gains in the standard of living. This was a time when, arguably, rugby league peaked as an expression of Sydney working class life. St George and South Sydney may have dominated the era but Balmain, Newtown, Western Suburbs and Canterbury all produced champion teams. Australia began its long period of international rugby league dominance.


Along came the 1970s when the post-War social contract between labour and capital frayed. Global shocks meant that a generation felt the sting of unemployment for the first time. Whitlam shook Australia up. Thousands took to the streets against Fraser but he was elected twice with thumping majorities, and then for a third time.


This was a confused, angry time and it was reflected on the rugby league field. Violence marred a violent game. 1973 saw the most brutal of Grand Finals. Western Suburbs channeled class resentment into their clashes with Manly-Warringah. While Roy Masters may have invented the concepts of ‘Fibros’ and ‘Silvertails’, he tapped into something not so latent in the Australian community.


Then, in the 1980s, the old suburban rugby league reality began to fall apart just as the pace of economic change quickened around Australia.  Newtown died. Wests moved to Campbelltown. Souths and Easts left their home grounds for the new Sydney Football Stadium. The SCG saw its last Grand Final. There was talk of Balmain moving to Parramatta Stadium. This all took place even before Super League arrived.


That old world may be gone but that’s not a bad thing. Those asking the familiar 1989 questions lived through those changes and, by the early twenty-first century, their living standards are, to a man and woman, better than any generation before them. They own homes and cars, some send children to private schools and university and, generally, don’t work in jobs which require hard physical labour.


So while their parents did not have all this, you can’t escape from the sense that something has changed. At my family Christmas party, no one searches for that something but they do ask questions about why Balmain lost in 1989. And then it’s obvious: it’s not so much the game itself which lingers but the loss of another world, a culture which defined much of inner-Sydney for decades. And not just the loss of this world, but the loss of the people who populated it.


The family who stood around talking about the 1989 Grand Final loss a couple of Christmases ago was a family in the midst of loss. In quick succession, several beloved family members, including my cousin Gary, Auntie Janice and Uncle Bobby, who were there that Christmas, all died. In the years since 1989, everyone there that day has lost parents and grandparents as well as best friends. That’s the way of the world, of course, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.


As the years and the memories pile up, 1989 is shorthand. It’s a way Balmain fans can talk about the world in which they grew up but do so in an unsentimental way. It was a game of football and the Tigers lost.  We can’t change the result and we can’t change the fact that Sydney is a different city to what it was. Nor would we want to, I suspect. But it still doesn’t mean that people can’t recognize that, in all of this change that swept their city in the past three decades, some things, and some people, have been lost.


The 1989 Grand Final in all its genius, heartbreak and ability to grip your imagination after 25 years always manages to take you back to a different time and place. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve reconciled myself to a grand defeat. I’ve actually come to realise that it’s Balmain’s loss itself which maintains the game’s fascination: it’s that sense that Balmain just couldn’t win. And it’s this fact which has helped me look at both time and change with less sentimentality. You can’t recreate the past. Places and people change, that’s the way of things.


If Benny’s field goal had gone over, Balmain would’ve won but the game would be a lot less fascinating 25 years later.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. A calm and balanced reflection, Guy, all the more so because your Balmain boys didn’t win on the scoreboard. But every player on the ground that day was a winner in some way. At the very least, they were privileged to play in one of the two best Grand Finals of the past 30 years. Only 2015 is on the same level. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what Warren Ryan might have to say today? If Benny still has nightmares about the crossbar? etc, etc.

  2. Liam Hauser says

    Good article, Guy. I’m glad that you don’t place too much emphasis on the contentious penalty against Bruce McGuire in the second half. After Brisbane beat Melbourne in the 2006 grand final, Warren Ryan reportedly encountered Bill Harrigan and was still shirty about that penalty.
    The 1989 and 2015 grand finals are arguably the best two. For the record, I’m a Broncos fan, and I’m not suggesting that it was as heartbreaking to be a Bronco fan in 2015 as it would’ve been to be a Balmain fan in 1989. But I’ll be the first to admit that the Broncos weren’t at all unlucky to lose the 2015 grand final. Likewise, I don’t think Balmain was unlucky to lose the 1989 grand final. The Tigers (in 1989) and Broncos (in 2015) had ample chances, but couldn’t finish it off.
    I know it’s often said that Balmain would’ve won had Elias’s field goal attempt been successful, or if Pearce hadn’t fumbled when Tim Brasher was unmarked. The thing is, it’s much different now. Back then, 7 or 10 points would’ve been an insurmountable margin with 5 to 10 minutes left, but in more recent times, it’s not unusual for a team to score 10 or 12 points within 5 minutes.
    It also strikes me that the regulation 80 minutes in the 1989 grand final were played at a hectic pace, yet the players were so exhausted that the 20 minutes of extra time were virtually in slow motion!
    Guy, there’s another observation I’ve made which I’d like to share with you and seek your opinion, and that’s with regard to the 1988 grand final which Canterbury won 24-12 against Balmain. I think Terry Lamb was lucky not to be sent off for ironing out Ellery Hanley. Surely it could’ve been a totally different outcome if the Bulldogs were reduced to 12 men with more than 40 minutes remaining. Why is this always overlooked? (The referee was Mick Stone, who didn’t even penalise Lamb. By contrast, Stone sent off Phil Sigsworth for a more innocuous tackle in the 1986 grand final, having been lenient with high shots that were more callous).

  3. I’d say he was very lucky Liam!

  4. Mark Courtney says

    Thank you, Guy, I really enjoyed this. I was at the game and remember it well. Being a Souths fan, and having lost to both teams (controversially, IMO, but that’s another story) during the preceding fortnight, it was a particularly difficult afternoon, but in those days you could buy a ticket for the entire Finals series and have the same seat for all 6 games (how good?) so we had to bloody well go along. Although, given the Fenech- Elias feud, I was cheering for the Raiders, so….

    But I do love your reflections on a different era of footy, and of life in Sydney, which I think are very well observed. I sometimes whimsically remember days on the hill at Redfern, Endeavour Field, Lidcombe, Belmore, Kogarah, North Sydney, as well as Brookie and Leichhardt (where we still go occasionally, thank goodness). The train rides, a hot dog, getting home in time to watch Seven’s Big League. Another time, and a good one. Cheers.

  5. Adam Muyt says

    Thanks Guy, thoroughly enjoyed your personal insights into this classic match, and of a time and place now well and truly gone.

  6. craig dodson says

    What a great piece. I was only 10 at the time, so my memory of the game is largely made up of the replays I have watched over the years, most recently just a few weeks ago.

    My vivid memories of the Tigers came as a teenager through the Alan Jones years and when Junior was coaching. Not a golden era unfortunately, but gee I loved the old Tigers!

    As a uni student I attended the last game in 1999, coincidentally I had decided to study sports management as I wanted to work for, and save the Tigers! Oh, to be 18 and full of dreams again.

    I shed a tear that day as we walked off Bruce Stadium. I never really followed league again. I wish the Wests tigers well and love that the Tigers identify is alive, yet I could not bring myself to embrace them.

    With my uni mates I’ve carried the nickname SIRRO for 25 years…I still smile every time I hear it.

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