For the most recent generation of Tigers fans, finals footy meant one thing: premiership glory in 2005. Until last night.
At the Sydney Football Stadium, against the Roosters, the ghosts of Balmain finals series past came calling in the most heartbreaking playoff loss in recent memory – in a match was surely every inch as captivating as any ever played in history of The Greatest Game.
Finals matches at the SFS – one time home of rugby league, and in the shadows of the legendary SCG – always generate an atmosphere which is impossible to replicate on the sterile expanses of Homebush Bay.
It all starts with the march up Foveaux Street, as rugby league’s suburban diaspora is funneled from Central Station to Moore Park. On Saturday, it was orange and black, with a smattering of the red, white and blue, and the odd bemused looking Wallabys fan pushing against the grain heading east-to-west towards the rugby union at the Olympic precinct. If you need one defining image of Sydney’s sporting geography, that is it.
Colours on backs, beers in hands; for the league fans on the way to Moore Park, club allegiances divide, but the shared history of the game unites. The crowd has come, like those before it, to be carried away momentarily by the simple pleasure of what in the eyes of its most passionate adherents is the fastest, toughest, greatest game of all.
And, boy, did they ever see a game to carry a crowd away on Saturday night.
For the Wests Tigers, the first half of the match against the Roosters was as rewarding as that first sip of cold beer at the Captain Cook after the walk in the early Spring sun through the aptly named Surrey Hills.
Finally, it seemed, this talented but notoriously patchy team had truly clicked. The playmakers were assured, the outside backs were clinical, and the forwards relentlessly belted their powerful opponents.
They even had the patience to maintain the pressure and steadily pile on the points even after a litany of near misses thanks to some desperate on-line Roosters defence. Never mind 2005; the 2010 Tigers were playing like a whole new breed of champions.
But the Roosters mad scramble in defence showed that while the Sydney boys might have under the pump, they weren’t going to give up. And the constant threat posed by the pace and guile of halves Pearce and Carney suggested that when the pendulum swung, the Roosters’ little men would still be sniffing around waiting to pull out the big play.
And so it came to pass. Despite a lucky intercept try to promising centre Blake Ayshford early in the second period, the Tigers – whose lead was stretched to 15 – 2 thanks to a Farah field goal – started to look vulnerable. The clichéd momentum shift was upon us, rippling perceptibly over field and crowd alike.
The Tigers pack – firmly on the front foot and led superbly by Gibbs, Fulton and Payten in the first half – showed gradual signs of strain as the Roosters sledgehammer kept swinging. Their opponents, reinvigorated, push forward, slowly winning the battle for territory.
After a near miss the set before, Carney chips, cops a lucky bounce, and sets up a try. 15-8.
Minutes later, he hits a hole up the ruck and pops a ball to partner in crime Pearce for a try under the posts. 15-14.
The crowd heaves. The Tigers, so assured in the first 60, show signs of panic. But with their opponents pressing the line in the final minutes, they looked to have the game wrapped up when a huge Simon Dwyer hit Roosters firebrand Warea-Hargreaves.
But for every rugby league fairytale, there is a fair share of nightmares. In future, for Tigers players and fans, these will be dominated by the inexplicable loss of a scrum against the feed with only half a minute left on the clock – and the frantic final seconds which saw Braith Anasta kick an after-the-hooter field goal from 30 metres to tie the scores at 15-all and send the match into extra time.
What followed was perhaps the most amazing period of ‘golden point’ in the history of the NRL. For 20 minutes, the refs put this whistles away, and the teams went at it.
Those who could still stand stood, those who could still run ran, and the rest tried desperately to make up the numbers. It was the Roosters, though, who were clearly on top, with forward and ruck dominance established and the backs punishing a Tigers left edge decimated by the loss of Marshall and Daniella to injury and exposed by the poor decision making of Lote Tuqiri.
But now it was the Tigers turn to be brave. Bryce Gibbs – who has matured over recent seasons from a talented but impetuous liability to an inspirational forward leader – made an amazing charge down and dragged the tired Tigers defensive line along with him, constantly pressuring the Roosters’ kickers.
Both teams blew great chances, sending field goals wide.
Both sets of players stumbled on.
Both sets of fans waited for the inevitable game breaking play – or mistake. And eventually, it came, as Tigers lock Liam Fulton – in the 100th minute of the match – sent an ill-advised wide ball into the waiting arms of Sydney centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who powered 60 metres up and across field for the matchwinning try and an inspirational win.
For Wests Tigers fans, it was the most heartbreaking loss in the history of the joint venture. Balmain boys don’t cry. And Fibros? Forget about it. But last night, the narrowest of losses in the most incredible of games would have been enough to make even a stoic wince.
Eventually, the black, white and gold army which dots Sydney’s inner and south west (and elsewhere besides) will look back with fondness at an all time classic. Those that were there will remember the pulsating crowd and the incredible football. And they might be able to crack a smile.
But not today. Today they’d trade the crowd, and the walk, and all the history and buzz of finals matchday at Moore Park for a win.
Barring a St George Illawarra uber choke against Manly, yesterday’s loss will consign the Tigers to a sudden-death match against a red-hot Canberra – at whose hands the former Balmain lost perhaps the most heartbreaking grand final of all. For another week at least, for Tigers fans, finals memories will be dominated not by thoughts of 2005, but by the ache of 1989 – and, now, 2010.