Almanac Rugby League – 1989 Grand Final: Dreams and Nightmares

One of the recurring tropes from Indiana Jones is his statement that a priceless artefact “belongs in a museum”, a noble sentiment. The audience is left to cynically assume, however, that all those treasures end up in Hangar 51, stored in stamped wooden crates. I feel the same about the 1989 rugby league grand final: a little over 30 years ago this week, it belongs in a museum, or at least to loom larger in the collective consciousness than it does. Instead, it sits stored in a rugby league’s Hangar 51, with only perfunctory where-are-they-now and reminiscing articles trotted out every few years or as another anniversary nears.


Rugby league and Australian rules occasionally have synergies, such as their drawn grand finals and decisive replay victories in 1977. The 1989 season was another one of those occasions, where six days apart both codes staged what are considered the greatest grand finals in each sport. A further synergy is the absence of books covering both of these grand finals, though the 1989 VFL grand final will reportedly get the book treatment in early 2020. No such plans are apparent for the 1989 NSWRL grand final, so – at the very least – this game belongs in a book.


Leading into the game, this matchup was noteworthy for multiple reasons.


Firstly, it was the last grand final of the 1980s, a decade that started with Canterbury-Bankstown’s “Entertainers” and one of the greatest grand final tries by Steve Gearin. A decade in which the code exploded with innovation, ranging from the increasingly popular midweek competition, the birth of State of Origin, the introduction of non-Sydney teams and the staging of matches outside the major cities on the eastern seaboard.


Secondly, this was a decade in which two teams, Canterbury and Parramatta, dominated the premiership. Up to 1989, each team contested five grand finals and won four. The only blip in this dominance was the 1987 season, where the two finished sixth and seventh, a dominant Manly putting a halt to Canberra’s fairytale end to the season. So the 1989 decider marked a shift in the dominance of traditional Sydney clubs and foreshadowed the decade to follow, where the trophy would travel outside Sydney for eight of the eleven seasons (including Super League).


As Joe Cocker screamed at the audience repeatedly on the way to every commercial break, both teams were “on the edge of a dream”. In narrative terms, this was a classic David and Goliath story – at least on the surface and approaching the game. Balmain were the betting favourites at 2 to 1 on, as well as the sentimental favourites. The Tigers were a foundation club perennially in the mix throughout the 80s, spearheaded by some of the bigger names of the decade: representative players Steve Roach, Paul Sironen, Ben Elias, Bruce McGuire and Garry Jack to go with internationals Gary Freeman and Shaun Edwards. They were led by a favourite son in Wayne Pearce, the source of endless media coverage about his strict nutrition and dedication to fitness in an age of players drinking just as hard as they played, and certainly harder than they trained. The Tigers were thus the experts, as well as the romantic’s choice. They were due.


The Raiders, on the other hand, were a mix of youth, journeymen and Queenslanders, six in all. The adage of the day was that forwards win grand finals, and in the eye of just about all the media, the Tigers had the forward pack to win the battle in the middle, specifically through their giant trio of Roach, Sironen and prop Steve Edmed. Compounding this, the Raiders had had to win five straight games just to make the finals, coming in fourth on points differential alone. No team had ever won the premiership from fourth or fifth position on the ladder. No team from outside Sydney had ever won the premiership either, though with expansion only in its ninth season, this was understandable. Notwithstanding that the Raiders had lost the 1987 grand final, and thus qualified for the you-have-to-lose-a-grand-final-to-win-one adage, this apparently wasn’t their time, not yet.


The uniqueness of the match was also evident in that it was only the third time since the introduction of mandatory grand finals that the runners-up of the two previous seasons had faced off. This element added an extra urgency to the teams and supporters bases. You may have to lose a grand final to win one, but you certainly don’t want to lose two in three years if you were Canberra, and you most definitely don’t want to lost back-to-back grand finals if you were Balmain. 


Historically, teams losing two of three grand finals was a rarity, happening only three times in history. None of those three teams had made the grand final again the following year. Losing back-to-back grand finals was similarly rare, it had only happened four times before, and of those, two teams (Newtown and Wests) never made it back to the grand final, while the other two (Manly and Parramatta) took four more years to get there. So the stakes could not have been higher for both teams: it was now or never. They were on the edge of a dream, but for one of them, also the edge of a nightmare.


The pregame entertainment – including but not limited to Con the Fruiterer’s wife Marika and a caged tiger – complete, the teams came down the tunnels. Balmain were urged out by their singleted, sexagenarian, shadowboxing supporter Laurie Nicholls, Canberra by their mascot Viktor the Viking, brandishing a clear perspex square with the Raiders logo printed on it. They hit the turf of the Sydney Football Stadium, two thirds of the ground bathed in spring sunshine, thanks to the undulating roof of the the eighteen-month-old stadium.


The game pulsated from the kickoff, the play reflecting the vaunted styles of both teams: the big forward pack and starched defence of the Tigers against the enterprising flair in attack of the Raiders. The Tigers also had plenty of mongrel in them – not unexpected with a Warren Ryan coached team – and in under five minutes the pugnacious Gary Freeman showcased this side also: after pawing at John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson’s face in a tackle on the eastern touchline, he chased Dean Lance from marker, swatting at him several times and instigating a brawl. The Tigers remained unpenalised, however, as Mal Meninga missed the penalty goal attempt.


If the Raiders were to draw blood against their Goliath, they needed to make a statement of intent early. And after Dean Lance pinballed down a skinny blind and was driven into touch by three Tigers forty metres out from their tryline after eight minutes, the Raiders needed one even more. More than one Tiger sprayed Lance on the way up from the ground, with centre Andy Currier contemptuously ripping the ball out of his hands for the sake of it.


Lance waited less than sixty seconds to make amends. It is a function of the game having been played in 1989 that we will never really get to see the full beauty of Lance’s tackle on Steve Roach. The television director chose to shift from the wide shot to a close-up a split second after impact. What we do have of the tackle is this. Five metres into Raiders territory, following a solid run by Balmain’s giant prop Steve Edmed. Elias, ever probing, ever scheming, looks left to the blind while waiting for the play the ball, then picks it up, comes open side instead, dummies to Pearce, who fades inside. To dummy, Elias turns his body sideways, pushing the ball into his right hand away from the defence, and that movement and the resulting transfer of the ball back to his left hand for the pass to Roach, gives a sprinting Lance the extra fraction of a second he needs to meet Roach just after he collects the ball and looks to offload to the right. Lance’s momentum causes them both to fall backwards towards the Tigers line and to the left – a brutal, clumsy dip in their waltz to the ground. The headgeared Lance returns the mustard from a minute ago, using his forearm to leverage himself back up after the tackle. Statement made.


Even though one tackle – less than thirty seconds – later, the Tigers draw a penalty after having been held back from a Canberra play-the-ball, the statement was still made. Nonetheless, the Tigers draw first blood, Currier converting the penalty for 2-0, eleven minutes gone.


Three minutes later, another ill-advised venture down the blind side ends poorly for the Raiders. After a strong carry from prop Glenn Lazarus brings the Raiders out over their own 22 metre line, Brent Todd follows up with a hitup angling towards the shadows, offloading after contact, but the Tigers line is up and in, with winger James Grant – who commentator Rex Mossop decides has the reflexes of a ‘cat’ – scoops the ball up with one hand at shin height and races twenty five metres to score in the corner, his momentum carrying him back up onto his feet, running backwards with arms raised, a Tigers raindance. Currier doesn’t connect as well with this kick from around the same spot as the penalty, so the score remains 6-0.


The following ten minutes continue the frenetic pace, featuring excellent attack and defence from both teams. Seemingly, the pattern is for Balmain to commit an error, then defend that error stoutly, with Canberra attacking brilliantly all the while. In another prophetic touch, Ferguson ventures infield at one point after an expansive Canberra shift of the ball, ducking three defenders as he angles in away from the sideline. Canberra forces a repeat set of six, Laurie Daley is at his probing best, Bradley Clyde is stopped ten metres out, the shift right from Meninga to Belcher ending in a pass dribbling forward to Matthew Wood on the wing. Balmain holds. Pearce makes back-to-back tackles as Canberra bring it out from their territory – the former finally stopping a barnstorming Meninga who had beaten two or three already; the latter a driving tackle on his opposite number Clyde from marker. From a penalty, Canberra sends their unheralded pack at the Tigers line: first Todd, then Lazarus, Lance and finally Clyde coming back on the angle, slicing through but stopped ten metres out. Belcher is stopped three metres out next tackle, Steve Walters a foot short on the last. Continuing the theme of their day, Daley angles back in on the last tackle, chipping ahead and earning a penalty. While Meninga lines up the kick, McGuire reties a bootlace, Elias stretches in the in-goal, then collapses theatrically onto his back. Referee Bill Harrigan blows time off as a touch judge comes in to report a Balmain trainer who is distributing water to players right in front of the posts as Meninga lines it up. He makes time to give Currier some smelling salts on his way off the field, and Meninga slots the goal to make it 6-2 and get the Raiders on the board after twenty-six minutes, reward for continued possession and field position.


The next twelve minutes continues the sequence, great Canberra attack thwarted by stoic Balmain defence. Twice Wood is denied down the right wing, one of those times he is bundled into touch a metre out. Twice Elias cleans up kicks up in-goal. With two minutes left until half-time, Canberra halfback Ricky Stuart kicks from halfway, bouncing it over Neil’s head and finding touch five metres out from Balmain’s line. Despite Stuart limping and swearing his way to the scrum, this is effectively the perfect way to end a set so close to half-time.


Three tackles later, the Tigers are going nowhere. The commentators emphasise Elias not being himself, a lacklustre hitup from dummy half proving their point. Pearce is the only other forward to take a hitup in the set, the rest of them exhausted by the pace of the opening forty minutes. Freeman, another back, takes the last hitup – and his second of the set of six. He is tackled twenty-three metres out from his own tryline. Ninety seconds remaining. The plan is obvious, get a long kick in and tackle until halftime.


But they don’t. Instead, Elias goes down the shadowy blind side, flicks it one-handed to Roach, who draws Lance to find Currier. Currier kicks from behind the painted Raiders logo, forty metres out from his own tryline, his proximity to the sideline underlined by the fact that he kicks inside the field of play, but the effort of his heave brings both his feet in the air, both landing in touch. The ball bounces at the Raiders 22 metre line, ten in from touch, three metres behind a retreating Belcher. It’s an astonishing kick – around forty metres on the fly – that these days would win his team a scrum feed for a 40/20 had it found touch. But it doesn’t find touch, it bounces on its point, flies three metres in the air, giving enough hang time for Grant to get there and regather. He passes back to the trailing Currier moments before Belcher hauls him into touch, who lets Mick Neil fly through in support, and more importantly the looming figure of Meninga. Currier instead picks out Sironen, who repeatedly fends off Clyde on his iconic, angling, rampaging run long enough to score next to the posts. He bounces up, arms raised in a v, mobbed by jubilant Tigers. Against the run of play, the Tigers have scored one of the most scintillating rugby league tries in grand final history. With the conversion they are now leading 12-2 in a moment that defies the nature of the game so far and represents a huge lead in a grand final.


It’s worth pausing to consider the historical context of this grand final lead. Big second half comebacks are relatively routine in the modern game compared with games in the the eighties, with more focus on attack and fitter and stronger athletes. Of the eight biggest comebacks in history to date, only one is from earlier than this century. In fact, to get back to pre-1989, you have to include the sixteen biggest comebacks of all time. So the modern fan is accustomed to teams putting on three, four or five tries in the space of ten minutes to get back and win a game.


But that simply wasn’t the case in the 1980s. Along with the adage that forwards win grand finals, another accepted piece of logic was that you had to start well and keep pace with your opposition, if not gain the ascendancy. Of the thirty-five deciders staged in the mandatory grand final era, only three teams had trailed at halftime and gone on to win. Those teams had trailed by 4, 2 and 4 points. In the same period, only eight grand final teams had held a double-digit lead at half time, and none had ever lost. If fact, the average winning margin for those teams was more than 16 points. So after looking arguably the better team in the first half, Canberra found themselves down ten points against a Warren Ryan-coached team renowned for their defensive mettle, needing to create grand final history to win their maiden premiership.


The early stages of the second half continue the narrative of the first: once again, unforced errors from Balmain give the ball and good position to Canberra, who play expansive attacking football only to be denied by desperate Tigers defence. Case in point: a couple of minutes into the second half, Pearce uncharacteristically drops the ball running it fifteen metres out from his own line. Canberra respond with a wild attacking set of six, throwing the ball everywhere through multiple sets of hands, culminating in Meninga bodily throwing off McGuire, drawing and passing to Coyne who finds the slight Wood on the wing, who is barreled into touch by Pearce, atoning for his original error.


Fifteen minutes into the second half, ten metres in from the right touchline, one metre out from the tryline, Coyne plays the ball. In three passes from Walters to Stuart to Belcher to Daley, the ball has majestically travelled to the corresponding area of the left side of the field. Daley runs diagonally, almost aiming for the sideline, offloads back to Ferguson on the angle, who beats Currier then Neil, then offloads back to Belcher running the opposite angle. Belcher wrongfoots Currier, who has his jumper by a finger, almost seeming to redirect him back towards the posts, and like a pinball released, sets him off to the tryline when at last he loses grip. Belcher scores, Meninga converts, back to 8-12 with 24 minutes left.


At the hour mark, two turning points in the same set of six, only a tackle between them. Firstly, a Canberra fumble has the Tigers pressing the Canberra line. Mick Neil, all red hair and skinny legs and big shoulder pads, finds himself in a two-on-one, Steve O’Brien outside him in space past Paul Martin, who fumbled to set up the opportunity. Neil takes the extra step to go himself, not even dummying such is his effort, but is ankle tapped by Meninga as Martin takes O’Brien on suspicion. He is brought down a metre short.


Ankle taps are by definition a last resort attempt at a tackle. This one was the last resort of the last resort. Most ankle taps the defender aims for the closest ankle, hoping to knock one ankle into the other and cause the attacker to trip up. On this occasion, Meninga was so late to arrive that Neil was already past him. Instead he connects with Neil’s left leg, but with such force that he immediately falls to the ground.


On the next tackle, Balmain spreads it to the right side of the field with a three-on-one overlap – the closest thing to a certain try if they can just get it there quickly enough. Elias, seemingly in two minds, decides to cut out Currier and loops a pass to Pearce, which hangs in the air, finding the afternoon sun streaming through the gap between the stadium concourse and that wavy roof. This was desperately unlucky on two fronts. Firstly, the unique design of the stadium meant that there was at this stage of the game only a two to three metre swath of the ground in sunlight. The ball, at that moment, had found that patch. Secondly, Pearce had twice detached the retina of his left eye, so remained hampered by blurriness in parts of his vision on his left side. The ball managed to find the sun, and some height, at just the point to give Pearce trouble.


Eighteen minutes left, Roach is replaced by known defender Kevin Hardwick. Fourteen minutes left, Balmain attacking, they put up a bomb and Canberra are penalised for offside in regathering it. Currier duly converts, 14-8. Seven minutes left, Canberra attacks down the same blind side that gave Balmain their try before halftime, only Martin fumbles the pass out in front of him.


Inside the final ten minutes, the Tigers’ motives are clear. One more point and their lead is unassailable. With six and a half minutes to go, Elias attempts a field goal – the kick is charged down, Balmain regathers. A minute later, his kick hits the crossbar and bounces back into the field of play, only this time Balmain fumble and the ball goes back to Canberra. That attempt will be added to the litany of turning points in the match, surely the most famous missed field goal in rugby league history to this day. You could spend a week on the internet and not find written or visual evidence of another field goal attempt hitting the crossbar and bouncing back into the field of play. And this was to ice a premiership.


Five minutes left, the Raiders are in desperation mode. They run the ball on the last from their own 40 metre line but are tackled on halfway and the handover goes to Balmain. A diabolical result for the Raiders. From here the game plan for the Tigers is simple. Run from dummy half or one out, soak up as much time as possible, and if in range have another shot at field goal or pin Canberra as close to their tryline as possible. Instead, Balmain knock the ball on a mere 30 seconds later, and compound it with an offside penalty from the next tackle.


Three and a half minutes left, Sironen is replaced by Michael Pobjie, another noted tackler. Canberra throws the kitchen sink at them. First tackle, set play with Lazarus. Second tackle, backline spread to the right, only it is foiled by a loose pass, forcing Meninga to go back and regather, the Tigers tackling him back on halfway. On the last tackle, Stuart tries a chip kick in desperation. He is blocked from chasing his own kick, Harrigans calls play on, but the contested ball on the ground is regathered by Daley, his time in the head bin marked by some awkward head tape. 


Two and a half minutes left. The Raiders spread the ball the width of the field, first right to Clyde, then back to the left. After a settling run by Kevin Walters marks the fourth tackle, they spread it right again, Clyde again tackled 11 metres out. Last tackle, last throw of the dice. O’Sullivan is at dummy-half, looking right to the blindside and gesturing oddly behind his backside with his left hand. Trick play down the blindside? No, he steps out of dummy half, ensuring everyone is onside, and puts up a bomb. Players converge from both teams, but Jackson, Jack and Currier all come down without it. It falls back to Daley, who juggles it three times, and then – just like a soccer player throwing in from the sideline – heaves it with both hands overhead to Ferguson. He steps off his left, wrongfooting Grant and the sliding Pearce, both legs giving out completely under him as if he were on ice. Ferguson beats the outstretched arm of Neil, ducks under the left arm of Elias, and carries him and Sironen over with him, with an assist from the driving Jackson, and cheerleading provided by the jumping Steve Walters. It took eighty minutes but Canberra had received some luck to match the Tigers’ to close out the first half.


Meninga coverts, overcoming the much-vaunted ingrown toenail that had troubled him during the week. Underlining how close the Tigers were to the win, there is only time for two tackles after the restart. Extra time.


The teams switched ends for two ten minute periods, but it didn’t take long for the tone to be set. After swapping completed sets of six, Canberra kicks early for field position and Jack drops the ball fifteen metres out from his own line. From the ensuing scrum, Stuart passes to O’Sullivan who calmly slots a field goal. Canberra takes the lead for the first time in the match, 15-14.


The rest of the first stanza is an exhausted slog by both teams, but Canberra by far had the better of it, completing five from seven sets. In two of those sets Raiders players had the presence of mind to tap ahead at the play the ball with no markers, gaining precious metres forward. Balmain, on the other hand, seemingly demoralised by losing the lead, only get to the end of one of their sets, dropping the ball four times and giving away a penalty without the ball on the last tackle.


Canberra’s tactics in the second stanza continue to heap pressure on the Tigers, kicking before the last tackle to gain good field position and turn around their exhausted forwards, as well as continuing to attempt further field goals to extend their lead. With a couple of minutes left in the match, Balmain switch the ball from right to left, and from their 22 line, Currier attempts another miracle kick from inside his own half. This time, however, luck evades him. He mistimes a grubber, which Meninga duly scoops up and offloads to a trailing Steve Jackson, who first contacts the defence ten metres out from the tryline. He weaves, steps and beats five defenders, carrying two over with him. His first try in first grade an instant grand final classic. As described by Ian Maurice in commentary:


What strength!
What power!
What a grand final!
What a premiership!


Meninga misses the conversion to the right, leaving the Raiders five points ahead, theoretically still in danger if Balmain can score a converted try in the final 90 seconds. But their chances have been just that since the Raiders took the lead, theoretical. A set and a half later, it’ all over.


The Raiders erupt at full-time in a predictable celebration huddle echoed in sports all over the world and through the ages. Meninga and Stuart do-si-do at the margins. Ashley Gilbert, with his pristine lime green jumper from riding the reserves bench, pouring champagne over his teammates. Meninga chaired, then Lance. Meninga’s tears flow prior to one of the more tautological post-game interviews.


Balmain players spread in shock and grief, scattered around the ground in various poses. Jack lying face down on the turf, his head on crossed arms, one of those wrapped in an exaggerated arm guard signifying the broken arm he had returned from that season. Elias, his jumper dirty nearly to blackness from exertion, sits exhausted, his left hand on the ground, left foot tucked under his right leg, right hand holding his forehead, unable to comprehend what had just taken place. And Pearce. Frozen to the spot, on his haunches, spitting absent-mindedly as the workers file past to set up the presentation stage, echoing the premiership that has just passed him by for good.


So what’s the big deal with this game? I think the point is this.


We all have our teams, we all have dreams for them. Maybe they have been successful lately, maybe they are currently suffering from the longest active title drought in the league (maybe that’s my team). But 1989 serves to remind us that no matter what odds are stacked against your team, there is always a chance. Especially if your team has any mix of youth in it, you just never know. This Canberra team entered the match with eight players having played at State of Origin level (with three of those debutants in that season) and five international players. At the completion of their careers, this team contained eleven Origin players and twelve international players.


So the point is this, maybe, just maybe, your team will make a grand final. And it will have a bunch of good players, some accomplished already, some still young. And you are nervous for your team during grand final week, worried about their chances ahead of a matchup with a more-fancied opponent. Perhaps you can look at this grand final, and console yourself with the thought that maybe, ten or fifteen years down the track, you will look back at this team of yours and think to yourself “jeez, look at that team, they were never going to lose”.




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. John Butler says

    Tim, I enjoyed that. And I’m no League fan.

    You’ve almost tempted me to watch next weekend’s game. :)


  2. Peter Fuller says

    Riveting account, Tim, and while I knew that Canberra were victorious, I had no knowledge of the detail – not even the final score, nor the fact that the match was won in extra time. It surprised me how many names were familiar, even though my interest in/knowledge of League is modest.
    Thanks again for bringing this match to life in such timely fashion.

  3. What a remarkably thorough coverage, Tim. Well done. And, from that game’s perspective, much deserved. One of the greatest Grand Finals of all time. Rivalled since only by 2015 Cowboys v Broncos.

    JB, we NRL folk are really getting to you. I sense a conversion coming up – we’ll certainly try! (No puns intended). For now, just watch Sunday evening’s Grand Final.

  4. PS – Peter F, see if you can get a video of this game – it will add to your ‘education’ in the code.

  5. Your banned from the fishing trip I have trouble spelling my name. Cheers bne ahll

  6. Tim Johnson says

    Thanks for the feedback all, appreciate you taking the time to read and reach out.

  7. Michael Castrission says

    This was a brilliant description of a wonderful game. You really need to get some more from this bloke – his prose is excellent. Maybe you could ask him to do a profile piece on Geoff Bugden or a descriptive history of the Cumberland Throw?

    P.S. In his photo he looks a bit like Andrew Voss – are they related?

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