Familiar feel to Gold Coast finals charge
It was a game split in two yet the expectation in 1997 was that the Gold Coast Chargers would be the ones at the foot of the ladder at the end of the season.
A team that had finished 18th in the 20-team competition the year prior consisted of enthusiastic youngsters, journeymen facing perhaps their final opportunity and a lone player with representative experience in 33-year-old prop Martin Bella.
In six years of various incarnations of top flight rugby league on the Gold Coast the Seagulls/Giants/Chargers had never once featured in finals football and despite seven of 12 teams qualifying in 1997 the Chargers weren't expected to be one of them.
"We had no superstars. It was a split comp with ARL and Super League but I think we were still favoured to come last that year," recalls prop Damian Driscoll, now CEO of Intrust Super Cup club the Burleigh Bears.
"We just had a good bunch of mates. We were pretty close actually and I'm still good mates with a lot of the boys from that side."
The Titans have brought in players from across the globe and a range of different leagues to defy the expectations of almost everyone in rugby league to be in seventh position six games out from the finals.
The ladder-leading Sharks shape as a daunting assignment at Cbus Super Stadium on Monday night but like the Chargers of 1997 the Titans are showing little fear of reputation.
A Manly team laden with representative players had to score twice in the last few minutes to earn a draw in cyclonic conditions at Brookvale in Round 10 and when they came to Carrara in Round 21 the locals were in need of a victory to keep their finals hopes alive.
"We had to beat Manly in the second last round to stay in contention and Manly were obviously unbackable favourites that year to win the comp," remembers Scott Sattler, who played all 24 games for the Chargers that year.
"We played them at Carrara Stadium and it was a sell-out crowd of about 16,000 people and there was a huge atmosphere for the night.
"We ended up beating them quite convincingly and that night was pretty memorable actually for the club."
But the real drama was still to come.
A win against Illawarra in the final round would have secured Gold Coast a maiden finals appearance but a 24-8 loss in Wollongong on the Saturday put their fate in the hands of arch rivals the South Queensland Crushers.
Having won only three games all season the Crushers played Western Suburbs at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday and as an anxious group of Chargers players hoped for a miracle, the rest of the world was in a state of shock at the passing of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.
"I remember it because Lady Di died the same day. It was one of the days that go down in history," Driscoll tells NRL.com.
"I was in the back of Martin Bella's van expecting to go on a Mad Monday drink and then they've sent the score through.
"The local grand finals were down at Seagulls then and we were going for a drive down there and then all of a sudden we were getting ready for a semi-final the week after."
Adds Sattler: "I remember sitting on the bed at home trying to get a score in the footy and they kept saying that Lady Di had broken her arm in a car accident but all I wanted to know was the footy score. And then an hour later they said that Lady Di had passed away and all of a sudden the rugby league became a little bit irrelevant.
"When we found out the Crushers had won the phone calls started and we had to be down at Carrara Stadium that night to discuss the week ahead.
"I remember getting out of the car and looking at Jamie Goddard and raising my eyebrows, as if to say, 'Can you believe it?' It was all a bit surreal.
"And then we arrived to training on the Monday and it really still hadn't kicked in that we were going to play in a final.
"We saw how excited everyone was on the Gold Coast and it hit us that it was a pretty important year for the club.
"Everyone says that it was half a competition because of Super League but it was the competition the Gold Coast needed. We'd had such a bad history so to make the finals that year was exactly what the Gold Coast needed to instil its confidence back in rugby league."
Gold Coast's first finals appearance was a rematch with their Round 22 conquerors the Steelers at Parramatta Stadium and they again stunned the rugby league world, a team of no-names knocking off an Illawarra side boasting the likes of Trent Barrett, Paul McGregor, Shaun Timmins, Brett Rodwell and Brad Mackay.
"That game against Illawarra was a cracker," says Jamie Goddard, who played all three Origin games for Queensland that year.
"No one expected us to win and to go down there and play at Parramatta Stadium and get a win was enormous. We were up against everything and the following week we were pretty unlucky against the Roosters.
"It was an opportunity that came in front of us and we took it to Illawarra which was fantastic.
"It wasn't so much about proving people wrong but proving to yourself that you can compete and win games. The way our coach Phil Economidis got us together and the way we stuck together was that belief that we could do it. It was a really enjoyable time.
"We had fun and even now that core group of guys I still regard as my best mates. We still catch up for a beer and a laugh and it might be 20 years ago but every time we catch up it's like it was yesterday."
Once again there has been a six-year wait to see a Gold Coast team play finals football and like in 1997 with Coach of the Year Phil Economidis, Titans coach Neil Henry has been able to bring the best out in a playing group no one rated.
It's a playing group united and like in 1997 one that is breathing new life into rugby league on the Gold Coast.