It is hard to think that COVID-19 won’t affect our game forever.
We may not have a 2020 season at all unless we can get the show back on the road by 1 September.
The shape of our game in terms of the players, clubs and administration are all subject to the events yet to come. Some clubs may yet rue missed opportunities, and the worst case scenario may see some clubs bow out of the league without having won a title.
In sport, as in life, you have to take your opportunities when they are presented to you, as you never know when they will come around again. There are losses that keep you up at night as a fan, let alone as a player or coach. Let’s look at some of the sliding doors moment and missed opportunities of the past ten years or so.
2009: The Eels fall at last hurdle
Having not really followed rugby league until 2009, it was the run of the Parrmatta Eels that I found most absorbing and entertaining. To this day I haven’t seen such a dominant stretch of matches by a single player as Jarryd Hayne pulled off at the end of 2009. The Eels were dead and buried that season, but Hayne found a way to propel them into the finals, just scraping in at eighth spot.
After having lost to the Dragons in the last round of the regular season, the Eels would rally for week one of the finals, playing the Dragons again. Playing the minor premiers on their home patch under the old McIntyre finals system was a tough ask for Parramatta. But having defied odds already, they would ambush the Dragons and run away as winners, with Hayne scoring one of the best individual tries you will see to seal it. The Eels would go on to thrash the Titans in Week 2 of the finals before a match-up with the Bulldogs drew a near capacity crowd to ANZ for the preliminary final. A tight affair would see the Eels come out on top, the Storm waiting for them in the grand final.
The Eels couldn’t get things going for much of the contest against the Storm, and with time fading fast they found themselves down by 16. They would rally, two quick tries seeing them bridge the gap to just six with time still on the clock. A contentious penalty would march the Storm downfield and Greg Inglis would slot a field goal to take the game from reach.
The effort and ability to get that far after their season looked so gone was commendable. But having come so far, the Eels couldn’t help but wonder: what if? The most heartbreaking chapter of the tale for them was the revelation six months later that the Storm had been rorting the salary cap systematically for seasons, including 2009. They were stripped of the 2009 title among other achievements but the damage had already been done. The Storm’s legacy was tarnished and the Eels had been robbed of a fair opportunity for their first title since 1986.
2010-11: Tigers pipped at the post
The Tigers were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NRL in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Mainly down to Benji Marshall but well aided by the team around him, another premiership wasn’t out of reach for the joint venture.
The 2010 season saw the Tigers finish third in the competition and draw the Sydney Roosters for Week 1 of the finals series. In one of the more bizarre games and riveting finishes you will see, they played out a 100-minute golden point thriller. With the Tigers up by one and barely enough time for a set left on the clock, the Roosters would win a scrum against the feed. With the siren about to sound, the ball would find its way into the hand of Braith Anasta, who would slot a field goal from a long way out to send the match into extra time. With both sides out on their feet and missing opportunities to ice the game, Shaun Kenny-Dowell would snatch an intercept, run the length and score to win the game for the Roosters.
Despite the length of the match, the Tigers rallied the next week to overcome the Raiders in Canberra. Jarrod Croker would miss an attempt at goal for the Raiders that would have probably seen the match go into extra time again. The preliminary final for the Tigers would see them face the Dragons in front of a big crowd at ANZ Stadium. Like all the Tigers finals fixtures, the game went down to the very last set. Jamie Soward would slot a field goal to put the Dragons up by one, and with time very much a factor the Tigers pressed for the winning try. It wasn’t to be, with the Dragons holding on until the end. With the Dragons easily dispatching the Roosters the following week, it would have been interesting to see how the Tigers fared in the rematch instead, and with redemption on their mind.
The next regular season would be a similarly successful one for the Tigers, finishing in fourth. They would gain some redemption for 2010 by seeing off the Dragons in Week 1 of the finals. The following week they would host the Warriors, who were coming off a bad loss to the Broncos. After seeming comfortable for most of the match, the Tigers would squander the lead to the Warriors, who scored a remarkable try at the death to win by two. With the Warriors going on the make the grand final, it was the Tigers again who would rue an opportunity to contest a premiership.
Ten years on and the Tigers are as far away from a premiership as ever. With two consistent seasons, and Benji Marshall playing at his best the Tigers would look back on that period frustrated that they couldn’t get a close win or two to take them further and give them a shot in the big dance.
2011: Last gasp Broncos win costs them dearly
With Darren Lockyer hanging up the boots at the end of 2011, the stage was set for one last achievement for the champion half. Having easily progressed to the second week of the finals, the Broncos would take on the reigning premiers, the Dragons, for a preliminary finals spot. With the game being a grind for much of the 80 minutes, scores were locked as the full-time siren sounded. The Broncos would rally for Lockyer’s last game at Suncorp, with the man himself kicking the field goal to win the match.
It would come at a cost, though. During the game Lockyer would sustain an injury to his cheekbone as Gerard Beale flew high to take a bomb, catching Lockyer with his knee. While hopeful that he would be able to take his place the following week against the Sea Eagles, Lockyer had played his final game.
The Broncos would dig deep against the Sea Eagles, but it was the class and touch that was lacking. While it was a 12-point win to Manly in the end, it is hard not to think that Lockyer could have made up at least a portion of that difference had he have played. The Broncos have now gone since 2006 since a premiership, a long stint for a proud club rich in success. It is hard not to wonder if they could have got the win on that night with Lockyer, and beaten the Warriors for the premiership the following week.
2014: Panthers fairytale comes to naught
After a pretty sustained build-up the Panthers got 2014 right under Ivan Cleary. They would finish the regular season fourth and face the daunting task of the reigning premiers, the Sydney Roosters, in Week 1 of the finals. In an exciting finish to the contest and with the Panthers trailing by six they would score a last-gasp try and have Jamie Soward kick a sideline conversion to equalise. With just enough regulation time left, Soward would again step up, nailing a field goal to earn the Panthers a week off and a preliminary final.
Two weeks later and the Panthers would play the Bulldogs for a spot in the grand final against the Rabbitohs. Despite the week off, the Panthers would start slow, giving away a 12-point lead early. Twice they would bridge the gap to just six, but it wasn’t to be. On the last play, and with the ball in Soward’s hands, the Bulldogs would come up with it and book their shot in the grand final.
With history beckoning the Rabbitohs, it is hard to see anyone beating them in the 2014 decider. But with the long campaign of the Bulldogs they were meek opposition for them in the end. The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t come as close since, and it is a head-scratcher as to why they sacked the coach that got them there only to bring him back years later. What is certain was the Panthers never went down without a fight that season, and it would have been interesting to see their fortunes in a grand final.
2015: Broncos get as close as you can
Rugby league is a game of inches. Millimetres. Seconds. It defies belief how close a result can be sometimes, the difference between winning or losing. Despite seemingly having things under control for most of the 2015 decider, the Broncos fell in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. With the siren about to sound Michael Morgan came across the field, drew three defenders and got the ball to Kyle Feldt, who scored in the corner to level the game for the Cowboys.
If the Broncos make one tackle, they win that premiership, but instead Johnathan Thurston is handed a kick to win it. He hits the post and the Broncos are gifted a reprieve. Just as quickly as they get it, they squander it, with Ben Hunt fumbling the kick-off and the Cowboys getting a set on their line to win it. Thurston would not miss twice, kicking a field goal and sending the crowd into raptures, with North Queensland winning their maiden premiership.
This would keep players and fans of the Broncos up at night. To come so close and to walk away with nothing it the definition of heartbreak. The Broncos haven’t come close in the five years since, and who knows when that kind of chance will come their way again.
2019: Green Machine fall to the premiers
One of the surprise packets of 2019, it was refreshing to watch the Raiders push all the way into the decider last season. They finally started closing out the close games that had been there undoing in seasons past and got the best out of their entire roster. Josh Papalii, Jack Wighton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad stood out in particular.
They ended the regular season in fourth, and a last gasp win over the Storm would see them earn a week off and a home preliminary final against South Sydney. They would win that too and take on the reigning premiers for the premiership. It was a classic encounter with plenty of fallout off the back of contentious calls. The two Roosters tries came off calls that gave them a substantial leg-up, although they were both technically correct. With the scores locked at 8-8 it was James Tedesco who would score for the Roosters with ten minutes still to play, and that was enough to see the Roosters go back to back.
This season might be cruellest for the Raiders. They finally look to have a team that is capable of pushing for a title, their first since the 1990s. Instead they have to wait and see what the future brings and hope they can keep the squad and staff intact. After coming so close in 2020, their fans should be eager to see what they can do when the band gets back together.
What have I missed? Which close loss or big moment keeps you up at night? Do you think your team has missed there windows at some stage?