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1987 grand final rewind: Cliffy carves up Canberra in last ever SCG decider

As part of a series of fresh looks at the grand finals of yesteryear, NRL.com revisits the 1987 showdown between Manly and Canberra, the final curtain call for the historic Sydney Cricket Ground before the premiership decider shifted to the SFS.

NRL.com has gone into the vault to find footage of the grand finals from the pre-NRL era dating back to 1966 and will be showcasing these games, including a full replay, match highlights and great moments from these memorable encounters.

On a sweltering September afternoon the fitness and commitment of every Manly and Canberra player would be tested to the limit as they chased league's ultimate prize.

In just their sixth season in the competition, the Green Machine had finished the home and away rounds in third spot.

They went down to the Roosters 25-16 in week one of the finals but recovered to belt Souths 46-12 in the semi-final and then progressed to the decider by avenging the loss to Easts with a 32-24 preliminary final victory over Arthur Beetson's men.

After bolting away with the minor premiership, Manly beat Easts 10-6 in the major semi-final to earn a week off and they headed into the last ever grand final at the SCG as red hot favourites.

Match Highlights: Sea Eagles v Raiders

Manly boasted a powerhouse pack led by skipper Paul Vautin, rugged Englishman Kevin Ward and hardman Ron 'Rambo' Gibbs and a backline brimming with attacking threats including Cliff Lyons, Michael O'Connor and Dale Shearer.

Coached by the dynamic duo of Don Furner and a young Wayne Bennett, the Raiders had given the city of Canberra plenty to cheer about as Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Dean Lance and cult hero Sam Backo led an emotional charge all the way to the decider.

The first half was dominated by Manly as Lyons weaved his magic to set up numerous tryscoring opportunities and Des Hasler also proved a handful.

Back-rower Noel Cleal was at his hard-charging best but for all their dominance the Sea Eagles could muster just one try in the opening stanza, Lyons leaving Chris O'Sullivan in his wake in the 27th minute and O'Connor converting for 6-0.

The second half started disastrously for Canberra when they allowed the kick-off to roll deep into the in-goal and Belcher ran behind one of his own players as he attempted to get back into the fiield of play. Referee Mick Stone blew a penalty for obstruction and O'Connor landed the shot from in front to make it 8-0.

The Raiders got on the board courtesy of a penalty goal after a high tackle by Phil Daley on Peter Jackson before O'Connor's second penalty success restored Manly's eight-point lead.

Shearer then set up a try for O'Connor with a cross-field kick and the Sea Eagles had their fifth premiership all but sewn up.

O'Sullivan took an inside pass from Ivan Henjak to score with 11 minutes to play to give the Raiders a sniff but in the end the class and composure of Bob Fulton's Manly side won the day as they grabbed a little piece of history by winning the last grand final at the game's spiritual home.

Full Match Replay: Sea Eagles v Raiders - Grand Final, 1987

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Play of the day

You could take your pick of about six or seven pieces of Lyons magic but the vision of Dale Shearer to put in a kick to the right wing to set up Michael O'Connor's match-sealing try was simply sensational.

The Manly fullback took the ball one pass off the ruck and looked up to see that the Canberra defence was at sixes and sevens so he put boot to ball in the direction of O'Connor and winger David Ronson.

The only Raiders players anywhere near the bouncing ball were hooker Gary Coyne and replacement Kevin Walters but by the time they reacted it was all too late and O'Connor had pounced for his 11th try of the season.

Cliffy carves up Canberra

Best Player

Cliff Lyons owns a special place in Manly folklore and he added to it this day by becoming the club's first Clive Churchill Medal winner with a mesmerising display.

Lyons was virtually untouchable in the first half, leaving Canberra defenders clutching at thin air as he orchestrated Manly's attack.

The five-eighth was rewarded with the game's opening try approaching the half-hour mark and the magic show continued after the break as he ensured the Sea Eagles kept a gallant Canberra at arm's length.

Honourable mention goes to Pommy prop Kevin Ward, who flew back from Castleford for the match and defied the heat to produce a superb performance. Ward's last game for Manly had been six weeks earlier in round 24 and the conditions were unlike anything he would have experienced previously but he dug deep to lay a platform for Lyons and co. to weave their magic. 

Manly captain Paul Vautin is chaired off after the '87 grand final.
Manly captain Paul Vautin is chaired off after the '87 grand final. ©NRL Photos

The Quote

“Being on the winning end made all the sacrifices, injuries and hard work worth it. It wasn’t about the money then. What made it was not only that we were showmen for rugby league - it was a reward for all our families and supporters.” - Manly hardman Ron Gibbs reflecting on the big day some 20 years later in Dubbo's Daily Liberal newspaper.

The what-if moment

If the Raiders were to mount a serious challenge their best chance may have come had Manly prop Phil Daley been sin binned for his high shot on Peter Jackson early in the second half.

The score at that stage was 8-0 and the resulting penalty goal made it 8-2 but referee Mick Stone chose not to put Daley in the bin.

A one-man advantage in the energy-sapping conditions would have given Canberra the chance to mount serious pressure and potentially change the course of the match.

"I thought he caught him in the neck ... he's very, very lucky that he's not spending time in the sin bin," said former Bulldogs premiership winner Graeme Hughes in commentary. 

O'Connor collects a Shearer kick

Unsung hero

Mal Meninga showed plenty of courage to take the field with his left arm heavily padded after breaking it twice during the season.

In round 10 at Seiffert Oval he shattered it when he collided with the goal post and when he returned in round 20 against Penrith he broke the arm again.

He returned again for the preliminary final win over the Roosters and then gave his all for 60 minutes in the decider for fatigue took its toll and he was replaced by Kevin Walters. Not before he had pulled off a classic cover tackle on Manly's Kiwi centre Darrell Williams when a try seemed imminent.

In just his second season in the big time, Big Mal had displayed the sort of resilience and character that would become his trademark and eventually earn him Immortal status.

O'Sullivan runs a straight line

The following year

Manly won 15 of their 22 games in 1988 to finish fourth but were bundled out in a knockout semi by the Balmain Tigers.

Canberra also won 15 games to snare third spot but they were sent packing from the play-offs in straight sets by Canterbury and Balmain. Their time would come just 12 months later when they beat the Tigers in the epic '89 decider.

 

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