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The Forgotten Fend: 2005 Grand Final

As the Rugby League career of Benji Marshall comes to an end in Round 26 against the North Queensland Cowboys, the team he helped defeat in the infamous 2005 Grand Final, and as old favourites Pat Richards and Dene Halatau are set to re-join the club in 2014, NRL.com reflects on one of the most famous and celebrated plays in recent memory.

Everybody remembers the key moment in the 2005 Grand Final – the dazzling footwork of the Wests Tigers five-eighth and the audacious flick pass that has been forever etched into Rugby League folklore – but not many remember the story behind it.

There is a key figure in the play who should never be forgotten.

It was a minor miracle that Pat Richards even took the field that day, let alone was able to come up with one of the biggest plays of his career, to palm off Rod Jensen and score a try that would be forever remembered for Marshall’s flick.

In reality, Richards’ season should have ended in the Preliminary Final a week prior when he badly injured his ankle. Carried off the field on the stroke of halftime and resigned to the role of a spectator. Richards watched on as the Tigers booked their first Grand Final appearance in the merged club’s history with an upset victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons.

His place in the decider was a long-shot at best.

“I just heard a couple of crunches and clicks surrounding my legs,” Richards says in Rugby League Films’ documentary produced in association with NRL.com The Forgotten Fend.

“I just thought that is it... the game’s over... season’s over. I was absolutely devastated.

“I thought with the pain I got straight away, with the Grand Final only a week away, it was definitely over. My foot just ballooned.”

After a week of extensive rehab and recovery sessions, Richards underwent a 20-minute fitness test the day before the Grand Final at ANZ Stadium, the very surface he hoped to run out on in just over 24 hours’ time.

The story varies depending on which player or staff member you talk to, but some insiders insist Richards needed an extensive series of pain-killing injections in his ankle and knee just to get through the 20-minute test.

Richards walked back into the inner sanctum of ANZ Stadium after completing his fitness test, his head bowed as he entered an eerily quiet change room. His teammates were huddled in anticipation – waiting for the news.

It was the day before the biggest game of the year and the inner sanctum of the stadium was dead quiet.

Two simple words sent the room into hysterics: “I’m in!”

“The whole room erupted,” Richards recalls. “It was one of the best feelings of my life, to hear all the support from the boys.”

Former Wests Tigers captain Mark O’Neill continues: “The room just went up, they threw the Gatorades and waters, the cups went flying... the excitement in the room then is hard to describe,” he said.

“You never know you are going to win a game of football until that final whistle sounds, but it sure felt like we were going to win it then just from the lift we got from Patty being available.

“Speaking to Pat, he says himself he has never felt more loved in his life, just how much he meant to the squad, I’m not sure he even knew how important the rest of the playing group thought he was.”

Six days after he was carried off the Sydney Football Stadium by two trainers, his season seemingly ended by a cruel twist of fate, Richards was miraculously declared fit and would take his place in the biggest game in the merged club’s history.

And in the 35th minute the score tied at six-all, the Grand Final poised on a knife edge, fate came knocking.

Cowboys halfback Johnathan Thurston kicked deep into the corner, where Brett Hodgson and Marshall were waiting. Marshall had moved to defend on the wing – ironically because Richards was starting to feel the pain of his ankle and had asked Marshall to go back there.

Marshall broke a couple of tackles, skipped down-field and tried to goosestep Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen, to no avail. It was then he produced the moment that would define his career, the flick pass to Richards who had cut in-field.

While this iconic image has been replayed on endless promos, it is what happened next that should also hold a special place in Rugby League folklore.

Richards, having defied the odds to play, was now faced with a fast-closing Rod Jensen with little room to move down the eastern touchline. Carrying a bung leg, he also had to contend with a little-known fact: he apparently had no right-hand fend.

“When Pat was on the right-hand side he would have the right hand carry and the big left-hand fend. That always worked, it was such a natural movement for him,” O’Neill explains.

“When he was on the left, he would have a left-hand carry and right-hand fend – and it didn’t work too well. He would usually have to try to run around them or bump them, because his right-hand fend wasn’t very effective.

“He actually got bundled into touch earlier in the Grand Final diving for the line, because he didn’t trust his right hand, he tried to steamroll over the try line and he was pushed over the sideline.

“But the fend he produced in that play was enormous, it was probably the first time his right-hand fend had ever worked, to be totally honest – and it was awesome!”

Richards timed his fend perfectly, with little room for error down the touchline, the covering Jensen was left sprawling helplessly as Richards roared as he crossed the line. It was one of the most memorable Grand Final tries, and from that moment, the Wests Tigers were on their way to their maiden Premiership.

For those involved, they will never forget the involvement or story behind Richards’ heroics.

From the series of injections just to get through a 20-minute fitness test to the incredible fend off his traditionally weak side, Richards deserves his place in Rugby League folklore.

Richards is set to return to the Wests Tigers in 2014 on a two-year deal, while his partner in crime in the famous Grand Final Try, Benji Marshall will play his last game in the NRL against the Cowboys at 1300Smiles Stadium on Saturday.

Buy the 2005 Grand Final on DVD here.

@AndrewBryan321

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