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1966 grand final rewind: Eras end as Dragons win 11th straight

As part of a series of fresh looks at the grand finals of yesteryear, NRL.com revisits the end of eras that was the 1966 decider.

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.

The 1966 NSWRL premiership season was the last played under the unlimited tackle rule before four-tackle sets were introduced the following year (six-tackle sets began in 1971).

It was also the last of St George's incredible 11-year premiership-winning streak, with the Dragons' team packed with stars like fullback Graeme Langlands, lock Johnny Raper, halfback Billy Smith and winger Johnny King. Reg Gasnier, who would join Langlands and Raper as one of the first Immortals, had been ruled out for the season with a knee injury in April.

Their grand final opponents Balmain boasted their own impressive streak that year, winning 11 games on the trot on the back of star recruit Arthur Beetson in his first NSWRL season after switching from Redcliffe.

(The third notable streak that year? The Roosters' winless run, which actually stretched for 29 games from round 12, 1965 to round 7, 1967. In 1966 they finished last on zero points.)

While the Dragons chased down the Tigers to claim the minor premiership, they had been beaten twice by Balmain in the regular season so the grand final result was no forgone conclusion.

Tigers captain Keith Barnes – the Australian Test fullback and a brilliant goal-kicker – got his side off to the right start with the first of two penalty goals but the premiers didn't take long to strike back, Billy Smith performing a slick runaround move with Brian Clay before sending centre Bruce Pollard across for the game's first try.

English second-rower Dick Huddart was the next to score, running 30 metres to the line after a dart out of dummy-half from captain-coach Ian Walsh – who had replaced future Immortal Norm Provan in the role at the start of the season.

The game was well out of reach when Johnny Raper beat three defenders and offloaded to unmarked prop Kevin Ryan early in the second half.

Balmain's effort to slow down the contest and nullify the Dragons' attack led to a string of second-half penalties, with Langlands finishing the match with seven goals as his team triumphed 23-4.

Not only did St George secure their 11th straight premiership, but it was also the seventh time in that streak that they had kept their grand final opponents tryless.

Full Match Replay: Dragons v Tigers - Grand Final, 1966

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Play of the day

The final game of the unlimited tackle era often looked like a different sport to modern rugby league, with ball-runners with limited space crashing into five-metre defensive lines. But the opening try of the match came from a play any current halfback would be proud of.

Billy Smith, a future Hall of Famer who was also Australia's best player in their 1996 series win over Great Britain, takes the ball at first receiver and darts to the left, popping a short ball to Clay and wrapping around to take the return pass. He then bursts between two defenders, draws the fullback and unleashes Pollard to score a perfectly-worked try down the left.

Dragons halfback Billy Smith in the 1966 NSWRL grand final.
Dragons halfback Billy Smith in the 1966 NSWRL grand final. ©NRL Photos

Best player

The Clive Churchill Medal wouldn't be awarded for another two decades but when the Medal was awarded retrospectively for this match it went to Raper, a key part of the Dragons' unbreakable defence who put his team on the attack for their first try and created their third.

With an angled run, a sharp left-foot sidestep, and a fend, Raper beat two defenders and created a yarning gap for Kevin Ryan's try, a display of the kind of spontaneous brilliance that made him one of the game's first Immortals in 1981.

The quote

"It was playing for the Dragons ... that's what made you feel invincible." – Johnny Raper on the club's 11-year run of dominance, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 2011.

The what-if moment

If the Tigers were to win they needed the match to be a low-scoring grind. They had defeated Manly 8-5 in the preliminary final a week earlier following a 10-2 loss to the Dragons in the semi-finals, and didn't have the attacking prowess to match the star-studded St George side.

But the chance of an arm-wrestle of a match was dashed when the Dragons ran in their second try during the first half, with Kangaroos hooker Ian Walsh breaking clear and sending Huddart clear to extend their lead to 14-4 before half-time.

Unsung hero

The Immortals and Hall of Famers from this Dragons team will always get the deserved plaudits but the win was also a fitting farewell for try-scorer Ryan, one of four players to leave the team after 1966 (along with Monty Porter, Eddie Lumsden and Robin Gourley).

Ryan had played four games four NSW and two for Australia, also representing the country in rugby union and would go onto a successful post-football career as a lawyer, a politician representing the seat of Hurstville for eight years, a commentator for ABC radio, and the president of the Rugby League Players Association.

The following year

The significant rule change in 1967, with teams permitted four tackles per set before a scrum would be held, didn't slow down St George's dominance during the regular season with the Dragons finishing as minor premiers for the sixth consecutive season.

But this time they were toppled a week out from the grand final, beaten by a single point by the Bulldogs who would lose the decider 12-10 to Souths. Balmain meanwhile finished in sixth place, two spots outside the finals.