The 1999 NRL grand final was one of the great games of rugby league.
The Melbourne Storm, a team in just their second year of existence, were on their knees. The Storm were 14-0 down against the newly merged entity St George Illawarra in front of 107,999 enthralled people.
The game had everything – Nathan Blacklock scored one of the best tries you’ll ever see – Paul McGregor put the Dragons on his back and carried them as far as he could, Glenn Lazarus and Tawera Nikau worked themselves into the ground to drag the Storm back into the contest and Anthony Mundine was one pass away from winning the game.
The decisive moment was referee Bill Harrigan awarding a late, late penalty try to Melbourne after winger Craig Smith got knocked cold by St George’s Jamie Ainscough. It turned out to be the game winner.
It was phenomenal game, one for the ages and the Storm will celebrate 20 years since that incredible achievement this weekend.
Also this weekend, Des Hasler’s Manly Sea Eagles travel to Melbourne’s bubble dome for the latest chapter in a bitter rivalry born from mutual dislike, premiership battles and close contests along the journey.
Melbourne will be wearing a special jersey carrying the names of players from 1999 and on Friday there’s a ‘legends lunch’ where players from the team will join with Storm members and fans to reminisce about the good times.
That sounds great, doesn’t it? There’s just one thing to add.
Alongside the 1999 celebrations, the Storm are also celebrating ten years since the 2009 grand final, a victory later proven to have been enabled by the biggest, most systematic and deliberate cheating of the salary cap in rugby league history.
The 2009 players will be at the legends lunch, their names will be on the special jersey. For just $169.95 (or $149.95 for the women’s cut) you too can celebrate the anniversary of one of the NRL’s biggest scandals.
We shouldn’t blame the Storm for trying this on. They’ve done it before in 2017 when they celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their scrubbed 2007 premiership.
It’s understandable why the coaches and players feel entitled to celebrate. They did the heavy lifting, the training and made the physical and mental effort to play through an NRL season and win the whole thing. And after all, Craig Bellamy and the players were never proven to be involved in any wrongdoing.
Players involved in the 2007 and 2009 grand final wins still call themselves premiership winners, and the club happily posts breezy ‘Where are they now?’ pieces on their website without one mention of the giant asterisk stuck to that 2006-2009 period where they played in four consecutive grand finals.
A lot of Storm fans still think the club was stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships because of a vendetta from then NRL CEO David Gallop, who apparently wanted to cut the Storm down to size. They’re wilfully blind to the actual crimes perpetrated by their own club. They’re going to buy a lot of those $169.95 jumpers.
Getting flexible with the salary cap is hardly new in rugby league. Pretty much every club has been punished to varying degrees over the last decade or so. But the scale of deception and the cynical calculation that went into Melbourne’s two sets of books was something that hadn’t been seen.
The NRL doesn’t usually mess around when it comes to salary cap punishment. Melbourne copped the worst of them all because their breach was the biggest, and they won the comp while they were cheating.
So it’s amazing that the NRL would allow this celebration to happen. If they didn’t sign off on it, they at least should have stepped in to stop it.
Who is responsible for letting this slide? When did it become ok for a club to sell merchandise and turn a profit on the back of proven salary cap cheating? It’s weak leadership at best.
There’s a lot to admire about how the Storm have gone about their business on and off the field since the 2010 sanctions. There’s no doubt that their focus was sharpened and they now run one of the best operations in the league, possibly in Australian sport.
Celebrating the 2009 grand final at the same time as the 1999 achievement not only cheapens the memory of a proud club’s first premiership, it raises a middle finger high to the face of the game’s leaders and to the face of all rugby league fans who want a level playing field.
The Storm won’t care about any of that though – because they won*.