Almanac Rugby League – Tigers fans have ’89

by Guy Ragen


Sports fans have a way of speaking in a code, of 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, bravery, and hits upon an underlay of 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. 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.




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 in the years 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.


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 – 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 would dominate the competition with a more free-flowing style of play. But Balmain were from the ‘80s, the era of Canterbury and Parramatta and forward packs winning games with brutal defence.


Balmain’s two first half tries were scored with an ounce of luck. The side took a 12-2 lead 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. Balmain’s luck stayed with it deep into the second half and then, suddenly, evaporated.


The Tigers had chance after chance to wrap the game up; each went begging. And Canberra kept coming, tying the scores with a lucky try 90 seconds from full time.


14-14. A drawn grand final. Extra time.


Canberra had the momentum, and they kicked away in extra time to win 19-14. Balmain players slumped to the turf. Balmain fans cried in the stands.


I know Balmain fans, myself included, who cannot watch the game 25 years later without a weird feeling of disbelief and hope. You sit there watching it and can’t help thinking 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 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 growing up in my family’s backyard in inner western Sydney.


I was smart enough as a kid to realise the only way I was ever going to play for the Tigers was in imaginary games in the backyard.


And though I had a vivid imagination, I only ever recreated 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 were reunited by a television station to relive the game for the first time since; 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 in 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.


The late-1980s and early 1990s, arguably, is the point at which the old semi-professional suburban Sydney game enters its death throes.


Looking back, the 1989 season provides a too-neat metaphor for this, as 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 rugby league was changing, and the 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 onwards had 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 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 their 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 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 channelled 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.


The old world may be gone, but that’s not a bad thing. Those asking the familiar 1989 questions lived through these 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, cars, some send children to private schools and university, and generally don’t work jobs which require hard physical labour.


So while their parents did not have all this, you can’t escape from the sense something has changed.  At my family Christmas, no one searches for that something, but they 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.


1989 is short-hand. It’s a way Balmain fans can talk about the world in which they grew up but to 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 Sydney is a different city to what it was. Nor would we want to, I suspect.


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





  1. A few years ago there was a documentary on Foxtel about the 1989 GF. Players from both sides were there watch the match on a big screen and to celebrate/commiserate the occasion while being filmed. It was great to watch the players enjoy the occasion, but what made it an even better show was watching the Balmain players be drawn into the replay on the big screen as they relived just how many chances they missed to win.

  2. Guy, I really enjoyed your story and I can see the broader point you make in your observation. In a way it was another world, for all the reasons you mention. The globalising process was in place but the internet really accelerated it. I think the affirmation of the personal is also significant – it’s one of the many things I like about the stories here at the Almanac.

    I recall the Sunday afternoon of `89. I was at a wedding at an Italian reception centre in the northern suburbs of Brisbane. By coincidence it was the wedding of the groundsman at Lang park. The bubble machine was outstanding, but the release of the doves was stunning. They flew straight at our table like a squadron of f111s swooped and then headed straight up to sit with the cocktail spirit bottles at the top of the back bar.

    WE listened on the radio.

    I watched the video late that night. Two crackerjack teams.

    You’re right, rugby league had something then. It has something now, but it’s different.

    Thanks again for your piece.

  3. Peter Fuller says

    The social changes you describe, which were so pronounced in suburban Sydney, do seem an apt metaphor for what was happening in League.
    As a Victorian I am an Aussie Rules enthusiast, and the class dimension of Melbourne football was less obvious, although it certainly existed. In fact my superficial take on it is that the late 1960s, early 1970s marked a period in which the game was progressively taken away from its traditional working class base.
    Player salaries, which had been rigidly democratic (and modest) became differentiated and increased significantly, marketing became a big deal, the corporate sector began to latch on to the sport. The origins of the full-time footballer with no alternative occupational income (and no need for it) loomed over the horizon.
    There are better informed Almananackers who would (or will) give a more authoritative explanation of these developments.
    This process was of course glacial, so not obvious at the time, even if some of the markers were evident. Naturally, we can only recognise the full import in hindsight, which is the fate of historical analysis.

    On a personal note, I often reflect that my experience might well have been different, if the place where I spent my formative years had been determined by my father’s origins (Newcastle, South Sydney, Newtown), rather than my mother’s (rural Victoria). Dad always carried the air of an exile, but his abiding interest in sport meant that he followed Victorian rules passionately, when it wasn’t possible to have any engagement with the code which he loved . You would appreciate that at that time it was barely possible to see the results of the Sydney comp, let alone any detail.

  4. Skip of Skipton says

    I was in the Army at Holsworthy then. I remember Balmain being the hot ticket item that year, there was a group of blokes from my unit that were on the bandwagon and used to go and help pack out Leichhardt oval. I never went but wish I did.

    I went to a couple of games at Brookvale with a mate who was a big Manly fan but that was all a bit ho-hum and Sunday picnic type of vibe.

  5. Great yarn Guy. As others have observed, where you stand depends on where you sit.
    I was a South Australian Aussie Rules tragic living in Canberra through the 80’s. I couldn’t help but get sucked into that season and the Raiders. The win seemed inevitable to me over the Balmain neanderthals.
    Ricky Stuart’s peerless kicking for touch. Gary Belcher running from full back late in the game. Clyde, Daley, Meninga. And if I remember right the old man river – indigenous winger – Chicka Ferguson put the TIgers to the sword late in the game.
    I can understand that the social changes you talk about were profound in inner Sydney, but they had happened a decade before in the rest of Australia. Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke had all come and gone (going).
    Thanks for the memories Guy.

  6. Guy
    I really enjoyed the themes in this piece: social changes, sporting changes, worlds which no longer exist.
    Incidentally, the only game of rugby league which I ever attended was at Leichhardt Oval in early 1989. I can still recall Blocker Roach.

  7. Thanks for the engaging comments, folks. Really appreciate it. Always great to know there’s an audience for this sort of stuff.

  8. Patrick Skene says

    Guy – your piece brought back some wonderful memories.

    I still feel guilty that my hero Terry Lamb took Ellery Hanley out in the 88 grand final.

    If you’d won in 88, 89 would have been a lot less painful.

    I find that old world you write of still lives on in Sydney suburban footy.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Sad that we will never again see the glorious Balmain Tigers jersey again on GF day. Tigers had a massive amount of support in country NSW back then. (those that were sensible enough to flee Sydney). Enthusiasm for the game in the country seems to have died out a bit these days.

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