Top 10 Preliminary Final heartbreaks
There's only one thing worse than losing a Telstra Premiership Grand Final; falling at the last hurdle in trying to qualify to play in it. Here are the Preliminary Final defeats that broke the hearts of players and fans alike.
10. 1998 Eels v Bulldogs
If not for the only 10-team finals series in the history of the premiership the Bulldogs' season would have ended after 26 weeks while the Eels finished just one win behind minor premiers Brisbane in fourth spot. Parramatta knocked off the Bears at home, upset the Broncos in Brisbane and leading Canterbury 18-2 with 10 minutes left to play in the preliminary final were all but guaranteed to go through to a grand final for the first time in 12 years. And then Polla-Mounter happened. The Canterbury No.6 scored in the 70th minute, had a hand in another and on full-time thought he had won his team the game with a field goal from halfway. It fell just below the black dot but in the first minute of 20 minutes of extra-time he put his team in front with a successful field goal, scored a second try in the 85th minute and potted a second field goal as a shell-shocked Eels outfit lost 32-20 in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
9. 1987 Roosters v Raiders
Far from the powerhouse they are today, the mid-1980s was a tough time to be a Roosters fan as the men from eastern suburbs went five years without qualifying for the five-team finals series. Coached by Arthur Beetson and with an inspirational captain in Hugh McGahan, the Roosters finished second on the competition table and knocked off the Raiders 25-16 in the major preliminary semi-final. They went down narrowly to minor premiers Manly 10-6 a week later and then met Canberra again for the third time in four weeks, the Raiders in the Winfield Cup finals for the first time. Signs were good early for the Roosters as they led 18-14 courtesy of a Steve Morris try two minutes into the second half but then the Green Machine ran riot, Gary Coyne, Matthew Corkery and Peter Jackson scoring tries in a devastating 12-minute burst for a 32-24 upset victory.
8. 1988 Sharks v Tigers
This game was as devastating for Cronulla fans as it was exhilarating for Balmain fans who saw their team surge from a playoff for fifth place all the way to the grand final. But for the loyal Sharkies, it was yet another glimpse at what a maiden premiership could look like that ultimately ended in failure. In a 17-week period the irrepressible young Sharks led by Gavin Miller lost just once to finish two points clear of Canterbury at the top of the table, the first minor premiership in the club's history. The experience of the Bulldogs told in their major semi-final clash but Cronulla did well to hold the Tigers to a 3-2 lead at half-time despite running into a strong wind. But the only try of the game came in the final 10 minutes of the preliminary final with English international Ellery Hanley sealing the deal.
7. 2011 Storm v Warriors
Under the old McIntryre finals system the sixth-placed Warriors met third-placed Brisbane in Week One of the 2011 Finals Series and were spanked 40-10, granted passage to Week Two courtesy only of the lower ranked Cowboys and Knights bowing out. They moved to within a game of the grand final when Krisnan Inu scored with two minutes to play to knock the Wests Tigers out of the equation but few expected them to trouble minor premiers Melbourne. The Storm had lost just five games all season and earned a week off with a win over the Knights as they sought to bury the demons of the 2010 season where they finished last as a result of the club's salary cap dramas. The Storm scored first through Gareth Widdop but in his 15th game in the top grade Shaun Johnson exploded, setting up the match-sealing try for Lewis Brown three minutes from full-time.
6. 2005 Eels v Cowboys
Tales of minor premiers crashing out before the decider are rare but not unheard of and in 2005 it was the Eels who inexplicably collapsed under the pressure of a preliminary final three weeks after claiming the club's fifth minor premiership. They swept past Manly 46-22 in Week One to earn a week off and were then confronted by a Cowboys team who bowed out at this stage the previous year. Yet the Eels were never in the hunt. They failed to capitalise on early possession and conceded two tries in the minutes before half-time to trail 18-0 and it was they who looked the nervous newbies and not the rampant Cowboys from North Queensland. Further tries to Ty Williams and Josh Hannay in the second half carried the Cowboys into their first grand final with a thumping 29-0 victory and left Eels fans devastated and deflated at what they had seen their team deliver with so much at stake.
5. 2013 Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Losing Adam Reynolds to a hamstring injury while leading the Bulldogs in a Preliminary Final 12 months earlier was heartbreaking enough for Rabbitohs fans but their capitulation against Manly in 2013 was almost unbearable. Having jumped out of the blocks to lead 14-0 South Sydney fans certainly thinking about a long-awaited grand final appearance and the players seemed all of a sudden paralysed by the prospect. The Sea Eagles scored 30 unanswered points to win 30-20 and leave Rabbitohs fans wondering whether their premiership pain would ever come to an end.
4. 1979 Eels v Bulldogs
Pleasure was to come but in 1979 all Parramatta fans had known was pain. Beaten grand finalists in 1976 and 1977 the Eels were within reach of that elusive first premiership without ever being able to claim the prize. Under the coaching of Terry Fearnley Parramatta recovered from a slow start to lead the competition at the halfway point before finishing 22 rounds in second spot. Their major preliminary semi-final win over Cronulla was their eighth on the trot but they lost the major semi-final 15-11 to minor premiers St George. Battle-hardened due to wins over Cronulla and Wests, fifth placed Canterbury then sent Parramatta packing in the preliminary final, a Bulldogs team that included both the three Mortimer brothers (Steve, Chris and Peter) and three Hughes boys (Graeme, Garry and Mark). The Eels missed the finals altogether in 1980 but by 1981 the witch was dead.
3. 1989 Rabbitohs v Raiders
Back in 1989 the 18-year wait between grand final appearances was like an eternity for South Sydney fans and they excitedly thought that drought was coming to an end on the back of a runaway minor premiership. After dropping their Round 1 clash with arch rivals the Roosters the Rabbitohs lost just twice for the remainder of the regular season courtesy of a tough-as-nails forward pack and the skill and guile of halves Craig Coleman and Phil Blake. A crowd of 40,000 crammed in for an epic major semi-final between the Rabbitohs and Tigers won 20-10 by the boys from Balmain and then a week later Souths were swamped by a classy Canberra team who scored twice in the opening six minutes. Souths were dealt a further blow by having to use three of their four replacements in the first 32 minutes and the toll eventually told, Canberra scoring twice in the final eight minutes to continue their own fairytale while prematurely ending South Sydney's.
2. 1996 Bears v Dragons
Like the Rabbitohs close to 20 years later, this was the year that the Bears were going to finally turn some near misses into a grand final appearance 53 years in the making. Having played in prelims in 1991 and 1994, a Bears team boasting Jason Taylor, Greg Florimo and Ben Ikin in the backline and an all-star back row of Billy Moore, David Fairleigh and Gary Larson won four of their last five regular season games and then upset the Broncos 21-16 at Suncorp Stadium to earn a week off and direct path to a grand final qualifier. A try to Matt Seers saw the Bears trail St George 7-6 at half-time but they fell away badly in the second term, the Dragons scoring four second-half tries to win 29-12. It's one of rugby league's great tragedies that the Bears of the 1990s didn't qualify for at least one grand final before they were lost to first grade rugby league.
1. 1999 Sharks v Dragons
Like their teams of the late 1980s, this was a Cronulla outfit that should have played in a grand final of a united competition. Super League runners up two years prior, a star-studded backline featuring the likes of Peachey, Rogers and Ettingshausen was complemented by craft halves Adam Dykes and Mitch Healey and a mobile, tough and skilful forward pack. Minor premiers with a win-loss record of 18-6, Cronulla disposed of Brisbane 42-20 in the qualifying finals and then waited for the new St George Illawarra franchise in the preliminary final. A David Peachey special saw the Sharks lead 8-0 at half-time but 'The Man' Anthony Mundine single-handedly snatched Cronulla's dream from their grasp with a second-half hat-trick and a hand in another try for the Dragons to set up a grand final showdown with the Storm. The Sharks have appeared in three more preliminary finals since that game but failed to make the grand final on each occasion.