It'll be a battle of the halves when Manly takes on the Roosters in the grand final. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
I HAVE faint recollections of Bulldogs hooker Mark Bugden barging his way over the tryline in 1984 and of St George coming up agonisingly short in 1985 but for me, the first Grand Final that I remember being completely engrossed in and which left a permanent mark on my subconscious was the 1986 decider between Canterbury and Parramatta.
Strange that a game without a try being scored should leave such an impression. Perhaps it was the desperation of the Eels’ defence, a bloke who looked a bit like my dad missing goals in his toe-poking fashion or the simple fact that at any moment someone – anyone – could score the try that would win their team the Winfield Cup. Either way, that was a day I haven’t since forgotten.
It’s been called the greatest Grand Final of all time so 1989 is another lasting memory unlikely to fade, Penrith’s maiden title in 1991 had fairytale written all over it while 1997 and 1999 featured two of the more dramatic finishes we will ever see.
But since the turn of the century – with all club biases to one side – I’m not sure we have witnessed a Grand Final that will go down in the annals as one of the greatest of all time.
There are few superlatives for Luke Priddis’s performance in 2003, Benji’s flick-pass from 2005 is a permanent fixture on the highlight reels, Shane Webcke got his fairytale farewell in 2006, Manly’s 40-0 drubbing of Melbourne in 2008 may never be repeated and Dragons fans will always consider 2010 a classic but the games, by and large, have failed to live up to the hype.
I hold no such fears for this week’s decider.
When these two teams went at each other like two heavyweight boxers with all manner of belts up for the taking in Week One of the finals, the lowest-scoring final in 20 years drew praise from every corner.
Manly’s superb backline that boasted five internationals on that night threw everything they had at the Roosters’ defence but were unable to break down the wall. It was rugby league of the highest order and had fans of all clubs in raptures.
A week later, physically drained from the punishment of seven days ago, it was Manly who were on the ropes without the energy to fight back as Cronulla pounded and pounded away looking for a chink in the armour.
That both teams taking part this evening have the ability to withstand wave upon wave of pressure without relenting makes me believe that by the time we reach the 70th-minute mark tonight we’ll all have to scooch forward on our seats just a little in excited anticipation of seeing just which team will cede.
Fifty years ago the game witnessed a moment that would come to define the values that rugby league holds dearest and tonight I have no doubt those qualities will be on display again.
Men will push themselves to the point of physical exhaustion for their mates, contests will be fierce and the skill level breathtaking and at the end of 80 minutes the combatants will come together and congratulate each other on a wonderful spectacle.
Good luck to everyone taking part, I reckon it’s going to be a game we’ll remember forever.