1999 grand final rewind: Penalty try helps Storm beat Dragons

"Bill Harrigan is about to make one of the biggest calls that's ever been made in 100 years of rugby league."

With just three minutes of the 1999 NRL grand final to play, legendary television commentator Ray Warren prefaced a decision from legendary whistle-blower Harrigan, via video referee Chris Ward, that will live forever for fans of the Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons.

Down 14-0 at half-time and seemingly out of the decider, Melbourne clawed their way back to 18-14 down when halfback Brett Kimmorley hoofed a cross-field bomb in the direction of teammate Craig Smith in the dying minutes.

Smith duly gathered the missile only to be clobbered in an instantaneously infamous high shot from Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough, spilling the ball in the instant he was knocked out.

"The most historical grand final ever has had to be decided by, I repeat, the toughest refereeing decision I have seen a referee undergo," Warren said, ratcheting up the unbearable tension for viewers at home as Ward and Harrigan reviewed and re-reviewed the footage.

A penalty try was the only possible outcome. But it was not the end of the drama as Storm goal-kicker Smith was out cold from Ainscough's reactionary left hook around the throat, meaning five-eighth Matt Geyer landed the responsibility of converting the try from in front to seal Melbourne's first premiership in just their second season of existence.

"If you have a look at the footage, the kicking tee nearly goes as far as the ball... it was one of the worst kicks at goal you've ever seen!" Storm captain Glenn Lazarus joked later.

Geyer's conversion capped one of the great NRL grand final comebacks, unless of course you were a Dragons fan trying to comprehend how yet another premiership had slipped away.

It was particularly galling for traditional St George fans in what was the first season of their joint venture with the Illawarra Steelers: the Dragons had lost on their four previous visits to the grand final in 1985, 1992, 1993 and 1996, making their last premiership win in 1979 seem an eternity ago.

Everything seemed to be falling St George Illawarra's way in front of a world record crowd of 107,999 fans at Stadium Australia, including an ill-fated Kimmorely chip-chase that Dragons flyer Nathan Blacklock swooped on at warp speed to race away, untouched, for a 70-metre try just before half-time.

But a bombed try from Dragons five-eighth Anthony Mundine 10 minutes after half-time, after 'The Man' had picked up the scraps of his own grubber kick following a collision between St George Illawarra centre Shaun Timmins and the ever-present Kimmorley, reinvigorated Melbourne.

The Chris Anderson-coached Storm, who had finished the regular season in third place, went on to win the second half 20-4 and became the quickest expansion team to win a premiership, eclipsing Canterbury who won the 1938 title in just their fourth season.

Brett Kimmorley won the Clive Churchill Medal in 1999.
Brett Kimmorley won the Clive Churchill Medal in 1999. ©NRL Photos

Clive Churchill Medal

Melbourne went into the final yet to beat St George Illawarra and having lost to the Dragons 34-10 earlier in the 1999 finals series. The Storm needed a player to take the big show by the collar and at half-time, that man wasn't halfback Brett Kimmorley.

"To that point in my career the feeling I had walking off [at half-time] after chipping the ball to Blacklock was the worst I'd experienced," Kimmorley said of the mid-field chip-chase that the Dragons No.2 turned into a six-pointer to send St George Illawarra to the break 14-0 up.

But Kimmorley, roused by coach Chris Anderson in the sheds, refused to bow. The Storm playmaker went on to marshall Melbourne around Stadium Australia and put up the ultimately decisive bomb that led to the Craig Smith penalty try.

The toughest refereeing decision I have seen a referee undergo

Ray Warren on the penalty try

Unsung hero

The 1999 grand final was Glenn Lazarus' 254th and final NRL appearance – and it was some way to bow out of the top-flight game as he captained Melbourne to glory. The win capped a remarkable achievement for the legendary Kangaroos and NSW prop who won five titles with three separate clubs – the others being Canberra (1989 and 1990) and Brisbane (1992 and 1993) and the Storm.

"This is just unbelievable. I mean, 14-0 down at half-time, it wasn't looking too good mate. But, ahh... this is meant to be," Lazarus said in the immediate aftermath of the 20-18 upset of the Dragons.

Play of the day

It could be argued that Chris Anderson's half-time speech was the most inspirational moment for Melbourne even if the Kimmorley-bomb, Ainscough-head high, Smith/Harrigan-penalty try was the defining moment for the Storm. But the hit Smith put on Anthony Mundine before half-time to deny the Storm five-eighth a try, coupled with a weaving run from Geyer to set up an out-stretched Tony Martin for Melbourne's first try after half-time, were critical moments.

Anthony Mundine drops the ball over the line.
Anthony Mundine drops the ball over the line. ©NRL Photos

The 'what if' moment

To this day, St George Illawarra fans insist the pass from Matt Geyer to send centre Tony Martin over for Melbourne's opening try in the 54th minute was forward, even if just a smidgeon. But Anthony Mundine's decision to go on his own after regathering his own grubber kick, with Dragons second-rower Darren Treacy unmarked outside him, was pivotal.

Had Mundine not fumbled over the line in the hit of Storm winger Craig Smith, or indeed had he passed to Treacy, it would have been 18-2 with a kick to come and most probably curtains for Melborne.

"The defining moment was certainly Mundine not scoring that try or not passing to his support runners," Brett Kimmorley told Nine Sport. "That probably puts the game out of reach."

Cue one of the most dramatic finishes to an NRL decider yet.

Tawera Nikau leads a celebratory haka.
Tawera Nikau leads a celebratory haka. ©NRL Photos

The quote

"Once Craig Smith catches the football you think it's going to be a try but then he has his head taken off and it's 'Did he score, did he not score?' and to have to wait for that decision was an agonisingly long time," Kimmorley recalled.

"It may have been five seconds but it felt like five minutes at least."

Recollections of a champion

"It was more relief for me," Storm halfback Kimmorley said of the full-time siren sounding.

"The first half had some bad feelings for me. It was my kick that (Nathan) Blacklock ran the length of the field on the back of... so you go into the sheds at half-time absolutely shattered thinking you've won them the game."

Scores had the Storm down 14-0 at the break.

"The first half is still something I haven't watched to this day. Chris (Anderson) our coach told us to relax in the second half and allow ourselves to play some football, which we did. We slowly worked our way back into the contest with a few big tackles early and then a try."

Kimmorley said the Craig Smith penalty-try was talked about a lot but in his eyes it was absolutely fair. That brought scores level at 18-18. Mark Geyer then kicked the penalty right in front.

"On the field it seemed to take an eternity that decision but in my mind there certainly was no doubt about it."

The following year the Storm reached the qualifying final again to make it three years in a row – or since their inception in 1998.

"We had a very successful three years. For me it was great to be amongst such a group of footballers. Winning the premiership was the highlight of my career," Kimmorley said.

Glenn Lazarus takes on the Dragons.
Glenn Lazarus takes on the Dragons. ©NRL Photos

Recollections of a runner-up

"Any time you lose a grand final it's a bad memory," Newcastle coach Nathan Brown, who lined up at hooker for the Dragons, told NRL.com.

"But along the way there are plenty of good memories. The road to it was really exciting. We obviously had a good year to get there so that's an achievement. But winning a grand final is the ultimate and unfortunately on that day it didn't unfold well for us."

Brown has one standout memory that still brings a smile to his face. "Nathan Blacklock scoring that try," he said of the 65-metre dash to score between the posts, after scooping up a Brett Kimmorley kick.

A new millennium

Melbourne went on to thump Super League champions St Helens 44-6 at JJB Stadium in Wigan in the 2000 World Club Challenge with Robbie Ross and Scott Hill each bagging a brace of tries. Kimmorley was man of the match.

The Storm finished the NRL minor premiership in sixth place with a 14 win, one draw, 11 loss record and were eliminated in the qualifying finals by the Newcastle, 30-16.

In an interesting footnote, Craig Smith refused a contract for 2000 and never played footy again.

St George Illawarra, meanwhile, missed out on the top eight by two points, finishing the regular season with a 12 win-14 loss record.