1998 grand final rewind: Broncos power destroys Bulldogs

On the day of the 1998 NRL grand final, Arthur Beetson mused out loud whether any of the Canterbury players about to feature in the decider would make the Brisbane Broncos side.

That was no knock on the Bulldogs. It was a telling reflection of how powerful an outfit the Broncos were.

The attacking strike of Darren Lockyer, Steve Renouf, Wendell Sailor, Kevin Walters and Allan Langer in the backline was one thing.

The menace, size and explosiveness of a starting pack which included Shane Webcke, Brad Thorn, Andrew Gee, Tonie Carroll and Gorden Tallis was another. A young Petero Civoniceva was on the bench, such was the quality of coach Wayne Bennett's men.

The Broncos, on their way to being the most successful team of the 1990s, were up against no mugs. The Bulldogs, as a club, were big game specialists playing their ninth grand final in 20 years, but had also finished ninth in the regular season.

Unbackable favourites, the Broncos had finished minor premiers in what was a top 10 finals format.

The Broncos had won the 1997 Super League title but Webcke and his teammates believed, in one sense, that they had "only won half a thing". With the game played under the NRL banner for the first time, proving they were the best team of the reunified competition was a driving force for the Broncos.

The Bulldogs had other ideas and led 12-10 at half-time after the two sides went try for try in the opening stanza. Mick De Vere scored an opportunist try and Kevin Campion finished a sweeping right to left movement for Brisbane. 

Broncos back-rower Brad Thorn celebrates.
Broncos back-rower Brad Thorn celebrates. ©NRL Photos

Tony Grimaldi barged over for Canterbury's first and Steve Price set up Willie Talau for the second as an upset appeared possible.

Webcke sat in the dressing shed at half-time convinced the Broncos were about to cut loose.

"There was a power to that Broncos side and a gear that other teams didn't necessarily have," he told NRL.com.

"That was a tight first half between two seemingly evenly matched sides but when we hit the 'go' button it just happened.

"When you have Gordie Tallis and Tonie Carroll, those explosive runners, backed up by good go-forward men who would just keep running ... and throw in our halves and our centres ... how could you not have an extra gear? It was a wonderful thing to be part of."

It was in the sheds at half-time that suspended forward Peter Ryan approached lock forward Tonie Carroll and gave him an ultimatum.

Brisbane winger Wendell Sailor.
Brisbane winger Wendell Sailor. ©NRL Photos

Ryan was already upset at missing the game but also not impressed with Carroll's first-half performance, a harsh assessment.

Ryan pointed out the sharp scissors of trainer Tony Spencer, known as "Springer", and famously told Carroll that "if you don't go out there and play like the man you can be in the second half I will come on the field and stab you with Springer's scissors".

Carroll rocketed out in the second half and, like he was shot out of a cannon, bullocked his way over inside two minutes.

"Tunza's try after half-time turned the game," Webcke said.

The floodgates opened from there on. Renouf sliced through on a 40m run and Sailor scored. Tallis monstered his way over from dummy half, hooker Phillip Lee scored on debut and Darren Smith finished another Carroll incision and the Broncos made it four grand finals from four attempts with a 38-12 victory.

Sydney Football Stadium was a sea of colour.
Sydney Football Stadium was a sea of colour. ©NRL Photos

Play of the day

The Broncos defensive set directly after half-time set the tone for the second half. The forwards bashed their counterparts and Rod Silva played the ball just outside his 20m line on tackle five after he was rag-dolled by Tallis.

Brisbane started their attacking set from outside the 40m line and Carroll scored soon afterwards. Canterbury never got back into it.

"They came out of the blocks in that second half and pinned us down our own end and that could have been the telling factor," Canterbury hooker Jason Hetherington said.

Best player

Tallis and Carroll both had enormous second halves and their Broncos teammates were expecting one or the other to receive the Clive Churchill Medal.

"Tonie Carroll was close to our best but Gordie deserved the Clive Churchill," centre Steve Renouf told NRL.com.

"He was intimidating that day and led us as only he can, especially in that second half. There is a touch of madness about Gordie when he gets that crazed look in his eyes and he had it that afternoon.

"You saw his intent with the way he scored his try and his tackles, but he had a lot of mates."

The quote

Broncos five-eighth Kevin Walters summed it up when he spoke to Channel Nine after the win: "There was a fair bit of pressure involved but we tend to handle that pretty well because we are always under the microscope," Walters said.

"We've got a lot of good players but teamwork wins grand finals. Canterbury got through to the grand final by doing that and we took a leaf out of their book."

Allan Langer and then Prime Minister John Howard after the match.
Allan Langer and then Prime Minister John Howard after the match. ©NRL Photos

The what-if moment

For the Bulldogs to get to the grand final was a testament to their class and guts. They'd won four knockout semi-finals in a row, but two of them were 100-minute extra time classics.

"The weeks leading into it were the telling factor for us. It might have been different if we hadn’t played those extra minutes," hooker Hetherington said.

"We were conditioned to those longer games because of the work Billy Johnstone had put us through, but the brilliance and experience of the Broncos told in the end."

Unsung hero

Webcke's front-row partner Andrew Gee was a warrior for the Broncos cause and a vital cog in ways that only his teammates in the inner sanctum understood.

"He probably doesn't get the kudos that a lot of blokes do but Andrew Gee is one of the great barometers of Broncos sides," Webcke said.

"When he was on, we were on, and he was on that day. GG, alongside Allan Langer, was one of the greatest competitors I have ever seen. He would not quit.

Tonie Carroll and Steve Renouf after the victory.
Tonie Carroll and Steve Renouf after the victory. ©NRL Photos

"GG played an incredibly important role in that match, and particularly in the preparation for myself and the young players in that team.

"He made sure we knew what we were heading into and how special it was to prove to ourselves that 1997 wasn't a fluke and that we were the side we wanted to be. He made us feel that was a really important reason to play well."

Recollections of a champion

Shane Webcke (Broncos prop)

"I was part of four premiership winning sides and that was the best," Webcke said.

"There was a confidence about us. You look at the people that were in that team … it was the perfect storm.

"We had Alf, arguably at the height of his powers, and Gordie at the height of his. A combination of circumstances put us all there together and I was fortunate to have lobbed at that club at the right time with the right players.

"If you couldn't be good at that club in that era you weren't going to be good anywhere.

"That year we pretty much stayed together. I played every single game that year, and so did Allan Langer. Usually when you have a team that has clicked that well you've got a team that has had a good year injury wise.

"I remember hitting the finals feeling we were unbreakable."

Shane Webcke takes a hit-up for the Broncos.
Shane Webcke takes a hit-up for the Broncos. ©NRL Photos

Recollections of a runner-up

Jason Hetherington (Bulldogs hooker)

"Leading into the grand final no-one had given us a chance in any finals game, starting with St George and right through to Newcastle in a 100-minute game and then again the next week against Parramatta when we came back from 18-2 with 10 minutes to go to take it into extra time," he said.

"Then we came up against the class of the Brisbane Broncos but still led them at half-time.

"The way we performed in that finals series said a lot about the mental toughness and closeness we had as a side, and Billy Johnstone can take a lot of credit for it.

"We were brave, and the effort was great, but the brilliance and experience of the Broncos told in the end."

The following year

Both sides returned to the finals. The Broncos finished eighth and were beaten 42-20 by minor premiers Cronulla in the first week of the finals.

The Bulldogs won 15 and drew one of their 24 matches to finish fifth. After scoring a 12-8 win over the Sydney Roosters in the first week of the finals, their season ended with a 24-22 loss to eventual premiers Melbourne the following weekend.