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The Grandest Finals

The Grandest Finals

AFL and rugby league are Australia’s winter religions — but that doesn’t mean every decider is a match made in heaven. Here’s the best.

Alliance Magazine - August/September 2018

Words by: Ben Smithurst | Illustration: Anna Farrell


1. Thurston’s Cowboys pip Brisbane’s desperate Broncos, 2015
North Queensland 17–Brisbane 16

Few league players are as gifted as future Immortal Jonathan ‘JT’ Thurston, a beloved, pretty-eyed maestro who has spent his career putting kicks through, then being murdered by opposition forwards. But even his genius seemed unlikely to save his Cowboys with a minute to go in the 2015 grand final. Brisbane, up 16-12, were playing their seventh grand final. They’d won the previous six. But wait! On the bell, haphazard Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt scored, miraculously, in the corner, giving JT an after-the-siren chance to convert the try to win. He missed. 

“You think of your best sporting movies in Hollywood and you don’t get a moment like that,” gushed commentary blumpkin Andrew Voss. “This was real, Thurston was real, he hooks it right to left, they always swing back, but he hits the post. Then what happened to Ben Hunt from the kick-off in extra time was a rugby league tragedy.”

Indeed. In extra time, for no apparent reason, Brisbane half Ben Hunt fumbled Thurston’s kick off. The Cowboys were gifted unlikely field position, and their leader’s next kick was a wobbly drop goal. It won the match. 

“I can’t imagine it could ever get any better,” said Voss.

2. Scott Sattler saves the Panthers, 2003
Penrith 18–Sydney 6

The Sydney Roosters were juggernauts in the early 2000s, led by football genius Brad Fittler and coached to such defensive savagery that their 2002 premiership was a fait accompli. In 2003, Fittler’s super-rich, super-pretty, superstar Chooks lined up in the decider against his unfashionable trackie-daks boyhood club, Penrith. The climactic moment came surprisingly early, when Roosters winger (and alleged speedster) Todd Byrne burst into space and hared up-field — only to be, remarkably, dragged down by a single chaser: hulking Penrith lock forward Scott Sattler. Penrith crossed twice more, and the bubbly went flat in Bondi.

3. Joey’s Knights trample the Eels, 2001
Newcastle 30–Parramatta 24

Parramatta’s mighty Eels were unstoppable in 2001. Until the last hurdle. They’d won the minor premiership in a canter, five points clear, and with a for-and-against of +433. They entered the GF as red-hot favourites. Newcastle, on the other hand, had no expectations with Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns, and… some other guys. Pre-game, “Parra were shitting themselves and we were having a good time,’’ recalled Knights’ second rower Ben Kennedy. Then Joey fired his Knights out of the blocks at three-quarters the speed of light. By the 32nd minute, the Eels were down 24-0. A lopsided cracker.


4. Sonny Bill’s resurgent Roosters beat Manly, 2013
Sydney 26–Manly 18

Sonny Bill ‘SBW’ Williams is a polarising figure in league. Some — aka Bulldogs supporters — think he’s a traitor, having walked out on the club in 2008 without even finishing the season. Others think he has reformed, or he’s misunderstood. Either way, he’s very good. But with 25 minutes to go in 2013,
his Sydney side seemed cooked, down 18-8 (including a penalty try). They roared back, including with a cracking 70-metre try to Shaun Kenny-Dowall, a man who has dropped more balls than puberty, thanks to a lead-up line-break/offload from… SBW. Manly’s almost-as-polarising halfback Daly Cherry-Evans won Man of the Match in a beaten team. He’d later one-up Williams by walking out on the Gold Coast Titans without ever even playing for them.

5. The Storm (and the ref) slay the Dragons, 1999
Melbourne 20–St George Illawarra 18

The Dragons had lost their last four grand finals in a row, but things looked rosy at half-time in 1999: they were up 14–0. Winger Nathan Blacklock had scored one of the best grand final tries ever. It fell apart slowly. Anthony Mundine fumbled the ball over the try line. The Storm got back to 18-14, and in the 77th minute Melbourne halfback Brett Kimmorley kicked high to the corner. His winger, Craig Smith, was right on the spot — until he was coat-hangered by St George opposite Jamie Ainscough. Referee Bill Harrigan awarded Smitha penalty try and Melbourne converted to win.


1. Adam Goodes’ see-sawing Swans clip Clarko’s looming Hawks, 2012
Sydney 14.7 (91)–Hawthorn 11.15 (81)

Hawthorn had a lot going for them in 2012, including superstar Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, Alastair Clarkson in the coach’s box and football sociopath Luke Hodge as captain. But Sydney was right there with them, and while not all grand finals feature the year’s two best teams, the Swans and Hawks match-up was so salivating tickets should have come with bibs. Do you like twists and turns? Get ready for this then...

It started well for the Hawks, the favourites, who shot to a 20-point lead at quarter time. Then Sydney swung the pendulum back, blazing to their own 27-point buffer. Hawthorn rallied, seizing momentum, but at three-quarter time Sydney was in front. Then the Hawks started spraying it about. They still managed to eke out a 12-point advantage in the final term, but with Adam Goodes causing havoc up front, on one leg, Sydney kicked the last four majors. 

“This is a grand final from the top shelf,” crooned commentary genius Dennis Cometti. The Hawks were so steeled by the loss that they’d win the next three in a row.

2. Lions have last laugh as the Pies die hard in the wet, 2002
Brisbane 10.15 (75)–Collingwood 9.12 (66)

With a superstar team and a shrewd coach, Leigh Matthews, who’d been even better than any of them, reigning premiers Brisbane were expected to steamroll the Pies in 2002. Yet wet weather brought them back to the field, with only one goal coming in the first quarter. A narrow lead swapped throughout before a deciding snap goal in the final quarter to Jason Akermanis.

3. Collingwood draw with St Kilda, earning the AFL a motza, 2010
Collingwood 9.14 (68)–St Kilda 10.8 (68)

The Saints came within one skewed bounce of sealing the club’s second premiership, but as Emma Quayle, former AFL journo and now GWS Giants recruiter wrote, “Lenny Hayes’ long kick towards goal skidded away from Stephen Milne and through for a point, tying the scores at 68 apiece with 30 minutes gone in the last quarter.” Just the third drawn AFL GF ever, it was too much for a sore St Kilda during the replay a week later, when they were well beaten. The big winners? The AFL, who scooped an unexpected $16 million windfall in bonus ticket sales the second time round.


4. Indefatigable Weagles wreak revenge at the MCG, 2006
West Coast 12.13 (85)–Sydney 12.12 (84)

A replay of the previous year’s decider, won by the Swans, the 2006 grand final boasted a most intense fourth quarter. A higher scoring affair than in 2005 (when the Swans’ Leo Barry’s mark in the dying seconds sealed the game), this time the Swans were attacking hard when the final siren sounded — leaving them stranded just a point behind their bitter rivals. Chris Judd and Ben Cousins would hold the cup aloft, and West Coast had their third flag.

5. The underdog Dogs break a 62-year drought, 2016
Western Bulldogs 13.11 (89)–Sydney 10.7 (67)

The Swans entered as favourites and deserved to. They were going into their fifth GF in 11 years; the Bulldogs hadn’t made a decider since 1961. None of the Dogs’ 22 team members had even played a grand final at another club and stalwart captain Bob Murphy had a bung knee. And yet, helped by a 20-8 free kick differential and a brilliant game by South Africa-born Jason Johannisen, the Doggies caused an almighty upset. Their coach, Luke Beveridge, gave his coach’s medal to Murphy at the death, to tears all round. Or at least in the general area of Footscray. 



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