Almanac Rugby League – The highs and lows of a Preliminary Final

Oh, the highs and the lows of preliminary finals weekend. They’ll hit your harder than Brad Izzard on a cold day and they’ll stick with you until you breathe your last. There is something enduring about it, something special, something that separates it from Grand Final weekend, giving it a unique feel, an individual aura.

There is nothing quite so cruel as losing a prelim. There is no defeat that stings quite so badly. You were so close, you can taste it, you can feel it … but it was all for nothing. Losing a Grand Final hurts like sin but at least there are the memories of the lead-up…the excitement, the fervour, the nervousness, the hope.

You don’t even get to enjoy Grand Final week if you get rolled in a prelim, just fading into the dusty pages of history.

Just ask Cronulla fans. They have played eight preliminary finals, winning only twice (and one coming in Super League) and losing six times. They are yet to win a premiership but amazingly managed to lose four prelims between 1996 and 2002, three of which they held the lead at some point in the game. You can still see the sadness etched into their balding foreheads and heavy eyes.

Not that the Canterbury faithful haven’t had their heartache. Going bang-bang in ’93 was bad and losing to those dastardly Parramatta Eels in 2009 was devastating. But there was nothing worse than going down to the Broncos in 2006.

Leading 20-6 at the break, I was already making plans for the Grand Final. On the drive to Harden after the match, a four-hour journey, not a word was spoken between myself and Kendall, another Bulldog.

Of course, eight years earlier, at the same ground, Canterbury won what would turn out to be the infamous Paul Carige Game, a match that will forever rate as the favourite game I have ever seen. Down 18-2 with 11 minutes to play, all hope seemed lost. And then it happened. The Bulldogs scored three tries, Daryl Halligan slotted one from the sideline and on full-time, after Paul Carige’s fifth or sixth error, Craig Polla-Mounter nearly slotted one from halfway. It fell millimetres short. Canterbury went on to win comfortably in extra-time.

I dare say the Warriors faithful were similarly chuffed with their win in Melbourne on Saturday night.

Unexpected, impressive, brilliant, the Warriors completely dominated a Melbourne Storm team favoured for the last three months to win the premiership, a Melbourne Storm team with three of the best half-dozen players in the game and a Melbourne Storm team who had lost only two of their last 17 at home.

Few gave the Warriors much chance but it quickly became apparent that they were the team to beat.

Melbourne scored first through a soft Sika Manu try but the Warriors quickly wrested the ascendancy and astute judges soon realised that it was Ivan Cleary’s men with the whip in hand.

Two tries in five minutes and the Warriors led on the scoreboard. The Storm drew level after a lovely short ball from Billy Slater put Beau Champion downfield and over but a penalty on the siren saw the Warriors lead 14-12 at the turn.

The lead was handy but it was the way in which the Warriors controlled the middle of the field that suggested the margin should be far greater. The big, aggressive forwards and heavy-set wingers completely outmatched the unimpressive forward pack and with the Big Three shutdown, the Storm very much seemed like a team with few options.

Not a single point was scored in the first 36 minutes of the second half as the game sat on a knife’s edge but the reality was that the Warriors had all the ball, all the field position and all the running. The Storm spent the entire half rucking it out from deep in their own territory, unable to make nearly the same impact up the middle as the Warriors.

When Shaun Johnson put Lewis Brown over in the dying minutes and James Maloney slotted from the sideline, the Warriors were on their way to their second Grand Final, a just reward for a severely underrated coach and a team so full of talent that they could dominate for the next three–to-four years.

And for the Storm, well, they get their first taste of preliminary final misery. Craig Bellamy was furious after the game and after an outstanding season, he has little to show for it outside of redemption. It will be back to the drawing board as the sharpest coach in the game looks for that next premiership.

 

 

About Nick Tedeschi

Nick Tedeschi was the chief rugby league writer at Punting Ace for five years after a career in politics and bookmaking. He has written freelance for a number of organisations including Back Page Lead, Crikey and Betfair and now runs his own website. He writes an annual NRL betting preview and is a diehard Canterbury fan who lists Craig Polla-Mounter, David Stagg, Tony Grimaldi and Daryl Halligan as his favourite players.

Comments

  1. Paul Robertson says

    great read Nick

    Bellamy’s next premiership and first ;-)

  2. Come on now Robbo…we all know the Storm have two titles under Bellamy

  3. Nick,

    You sum up the Warriors’ domination well. They controlled at least 65 minutes of the game, shared the honours in another 10 and only “lost” the first 5 minutes of the game. Their forwards were very impressive, well backed up by their two winger-forwards. They’ll need every bit of that same forward surge this weekend. This superiority allowed the halves time and space to play a clever, if restrained, attacking game.

    High up in the eastern stand, I got the feeling that there were as many Warrior supporters as there were Storm followers. I sat next to a thick-accented Irishman who knew more about rugby than league. A Storm supporter, his recurring call was “Come on, Storm! Do something!” And that about summed it up – we were all waiting for some-one, probably one of the Big Three, to do something. There seemed an expectation that, sooner or later, one key play would see Slater dash into the open and away to score to deflate the dominating visitors. But it never happened – the Big Three were well controlled (Smith) and well covered (Slater). Only Cronk showed energy and urgency but he lacked support.

    ABM! Please, ABM!

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