Here’s some of my reasons why the 2018 grand final was the best we’ve seen for some time.
1) The lead up week actually meant something
Most grand final weeks are desperately dull. The papers will try to spin a story about a how sad it is a player is leaving a club, or how one player has intimate connection with the other side because they gave him a free drink bottle 15 years ago, or how some made up injury is life threatening just so we have some ‘will they or won’t they’ intrigue.
Unless you are invested in the team or a player, there is nothing of interest to a non-affiliated fan.
2018 was very different; Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater saw to that. This year, the team lists weren’t just last week’s team plus injury cover, there was actual serious doubt over whether two of the biggest name players would be named, or who their replacements would be.
Team #banbilly and team #technicallynotashoulderchargebecausetheruleiswordedpoorly had a hell of a lot to talk about. Many fans had a very enjoyable time pointing out how wrong the other side was, sometimes even months after the fact, even when their team won a grand final and the judiciary decision ultimately didn’t matter and it actually made the grand final win more impressive.
Then you have judiciary night, and boy did it rate. The NRL’s subreddit traffic was higher for the night of the judiciary hearing than it was for any of the preceding finals.
The Broncos and Dragons have a hell of a lot of fans. The game was great to watch, memorable and in a friendly timeslot. It didn’t touch the sides of what a late Tuesday night non-televised event got. No preceding season had anything like Billy’s judiciary night.
2) Cronk’s left shoulder
Rooster’s club legend Cooper Cronk played 78 minutes of a grand final with a fractured scapula. He made try saving tackles with a fractured scapula. He didn’t miss a tackle despite playing with a fractured scapula. We’re not talking a minor cosmetic facial injury like a fractured cheekbone or broken jaw, this was a fractured scapula. Legend.
3) How well it tied into the rest of the season
A good grand final ties together the best stories of the season, a perfect culmination to season-long stories. No on-field story was as long running or as joyous to watch than Latrell Mitchell owning Will Chambers.
In just the first 25 minutes alone, Latrell had brushed him off to score a try and drilled him into touch to kill Melbourne’s first period of sustained pressure. Latrell had his number all night.
You can’t tell me that when Cameron Smith got all cross after the game, it didn’t bring back memories of the other memorable on-field story of the year.
4) The Cronk gambit
If the gambit had failed, the 2018 grand final would be remembered for an entirely different reason.
Let’s face it, the game in general has been under a lot of criticism of becoming very samey. Every team plays with basically the same formation, and the same plays. Not the 2018 Roosters, and certainly not in the grand final.
After full time, Trent Robinson explained what the Roosters plan B was going to be if Cronk didn’t play, and that it was almost exactly how they played anyway.
Mitchell Aubusson, possibly the fourth least likely player to be named halfback, was named No.7 would actually play as the halfback (in defence at least) in the greatest double bluff the game has ever seen. Luke Keary would play as both halfback and five-eighth.
Joseph Manu and Mitchell would be allowed to play a floating role in attack, effectively picking up the extra opportunities that would normally go to the five-eighth. Cronk ended up playing, which only slightly shifted these plans as his involvement was more ‘on-field coach’ than controlling half.
The effect was marvellous to see as a fan. Centres, who in general have been used less and less as attacking players each year for the last decade, got their chance to shine. Keary got to play both halves positions at once and excelled. Have I mentioned his cut-out pass to Daniel Tupou yet? I’ll weave it into nearly every conversation if I get the chance.
That’s without even mentioning the season-long tactic the Roosters used, that all sides will attempt to copy, shifting away from using their lock as an extra prop in favour of a ballplaying option in Victor Radley, soon to be copied by every side in the comp.
It was inventive, attacking footy, balanced with great defensive footy. A joy to watch.
5) A deserving winner of the Clive Churchill medal
The Churchill medal goes to the most deserving player less than half the time. Even in those years, there is some debate over whether the player actually deserved it.
No such arguments this year, Keary effectively played two position all night and was clearly the best player on the ground. His cut-out pass for Tupou’s try was sublime.
Plus it’s got to make old Rusty a bit bitter and that’s just good for everyone.
6) The Roosters had all the excuses
Here’s a little secret supporters who have seen their side play a grand final won’t tell you. During the week before the grand final, there’s a little part of your brain that secretly works on your list of excuses if you lose.
For example, Brad Fittler had been playing with a busted AC joint and a torn rotator cuff since Round 20 so it’s a wonder we made the grand final at all in 2003.
The list of excuses for the 2018 grand final was enormous for us. Cronk’s injury and Slater’s non-suspension. If it was your team, and either of those things went against you, you’d be pushing that angle harder than Slater’s shoulder pushed Sosaia Feki over the sidelines.
Both of those excuses are a league above the 2014 Bulldogs missing Michael Ennis, or Will Chambers’ inability to pass, and aren’t even rivalled by that time that Michael Crocker killed Brett Stewart in the 2007 decider because at least Manly got a half out of him.
7) The underdogs won
You might think it strange that a game so comprehensibly won by one side is a pick for best decider of the decade but, just like in Origin, dominance by the side that should on paper be inferior actually makes the victory even more impressive.
If New South Wales, the state with more NRL sides, bigger GDP, bigger population, better looking residents, slightly less unhinged political candidates, had have won eight series straight, Origin as a series would have ended so as not to further embarrass those folks who don’t understand that daylight hours don’t increase if you change your clocks.
This is why the 2017 grand final blowout was boring, and the 2018 one wasn’t. Blowouts are only interesting when the side that has everything going for them cops one such as 2008 and 2018.
8) The defining moments of the actual game
A great grand final has to have great grand final moments. Have a look at the memorable moments from 2018; A player sin binned twice, a halfback wearing 23, a man with a broken scapula making try saving tackles, a 30-year-old second rower being a premiership winning No.7.
You virtually never see any of those things happen*, let alone in one game, and yet alone in the decider! That’s without even mentioning the Cronk versus Smith feud which added some spice of its own.
* – Yes, I’m aware a Titans player was sin binned twice in a game in the same year. But check my wording, I said you never see it happening, which technically is the truth. Be honest with yourself – you don’t watch Titans games.
2015 was saved by a close finish, but the rest of the game, especially the second half, was unremarkable.
2008 is the only year that surpasses 2018 in terms of how memorable the game was, thanks to the score, Beaver Menzies’ try, Smith’s suspension, and the hindsight of knowing how much Melbourne had cheated to get there.
But, as it’s outside the ten year window I chose on purpose just to exclude this game; it doesn’t count.
I know I’m going to cop a lot of heat for saying this grand final is better than 2015. While the game itself was a lot closer and it did successfully continue the great rivalries of the year into the grand final, and it did have the memorable moments of Kyle Feldt’s try, extra time, Ben Hunt’s dropped ball, Johnathan Thurston’s missed goal, Thurston’s field goal etc.
It also had the timely and poignant story of it being the first time two indigenous captains faced each other in a grand final, which happened to the backdrop of the other Australian winter sport booing one of their star indigenous players out of the game for having the audacity to do indigenous things while being indigenous.
2015 does nail a lot of the criteria I’ve chosen. But not all of them.
The Clive Churchill medal did not go to the best player on ground and it didn’t have #banbilly, Latrell owning Chambers or the Cronk gambit so for those arbitrary reasons, whose importance I am going to overstate because it suits my desired outcome, I can’t give it to them. I rate 2015 second best in the last decade.