In what is expected to be the final edition of my NRL throwback series, we look back at last year’s grand final, one of the great preliminary final comebacks by the Brisbane Broncos, the Gold Coast Titans’ inaugural match, and a stunning comeback win by the Eels at the foot of the mountains.
To the current state of affairs first, and unless there is a major change, the NRL’s plans to resume the premiership on May 28 remains on track, with fixtures for Rounds 3 and 4 having been released last week.
The competition will resume next Thursday with the clash between the Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels, which is expected to be played at Suncorp Stadium, which is also expected to be used by the North Queensland Cowboys and Gold Coast Titans.
Campbelltown Stadium, Bankwest Stadium and the Central Coast Stadium are the three venues to be used for matches in Sydney, while it remains unknown whether the Melbourne Storm will be permitted to play their home matches at AAMI Park.
It is all but certain that fans will not be permitted to attend matches this year, including the grand final, with an effective vaccine for COVID-19 unlikely for at least another twelve months.
This means that fans could also face being locked out of matches in 2021, and maybe even longer, with the recovery from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic expected to take up to several years.
In the meantime, for the final time (hopefully), sit back and enjoy while we guide you through past match-ups between the would-be Round 11 opponents.
2006 First preliminary final: Broncos 37 defeated Bulldogs 20 at Aussie Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)” by Sandi Thom
First we look back at one of the great preliminary finals since the turn of the century, between the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and Brisbane Broncos at Aussie Stadium.
After injuries had destroyed their 2004 premiership defence in 2005, the Bulldogs hit back with a vengeance in 2006, finishing second on the ladder behind the Melbourne Storm after winning 16 of their 24 regular season matches.
They proceeded to beat the Canberra Raiders in their qualifying final, and as one of the two highest-ranked winners from week one, they automatically advanced to the preliminary final, where they would face the Brisbane Broncos.
The Broncos, who finished third on the ladder with a 14-10 record (including losses to non-finalists the Cowboys (twice), Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers), had to take the long way around after losing to the Dragons 20-4 in their qualifying final at Suncorp Stadium.
They then booked a date with the Bulldogs after thrashing the Newcastle Knights 50-6 in their semi-final at Aussie Stadium.
Wayne Bennett’s side had every reason to be confident that it could advance to the grand final, having beaten the Dogs twice that year, including by 30-0 in Round 24 at Telstra Stadium.
However, they would be in for a first half shock as the Bulldogs raced to a 20-6 lead at halftime, much to the delight of the pro-blue and white crowd which had filled Aussie Stadium.
It is then alleged that Willie Mason sledged several of the Broncos players, including their captain Darren Lockyer, with words to the effect of: “We’ve got these blokes, 40 minutes and we’re in a grand final”.
Willie Mason sets the record straight! ????
— NRL on Nine (@NRLonNine) April 3, 2020
The Broncos emerged from the sheds a completely different side after halftime, scoring 31 unanswered points as they advanced to their sixth grand final, but first since 2000.
Their second half surge started when Justin Hodges, a premiership winner with the Sydney Roosters in 2002, linked with Shaun Berrigan who scored a long-range try that pegged the margin back to 20-12.
Four more tries, as well as a field goal to Lockyer, saw the Broncos prevail 37-20 to book their place in the decider, and leave the Bulldogs and their large legion of fans stunned.
The northerners would go on to beat the Melbourne Storm 15-8 to claim their sixth, and as of 2020 most recent, premiership. What nobody knew at the time was that the Broncos had beaten a team that had been illegally assembled in the big dance.
Mason continues to cop the blame from Bulldogs fans for his sledging of the Broncos players in that match, claiming that it was his actions that cost the Dogs what would’ve been their second grand final berth in three years.
Round 1, 2007: Dragons 20 defeated Titans 18 at Suncorp Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “Lips Of An Angel” by Hinder
The National Rugby League became a 16-team competition with the entry of the Gold Coast Titans in 2007.
This therefore eliminated the need for the league to issue a bye to one team every round, as between 2002 and 2006 inclusive, the league operated with an odd number of teams meaning one team had to miss out on playing every week.
To promote the new team, the league scheduled the Titans’ inaugural match to be against the St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium, due to the expectation of a large crowd.
A crowd of over 42,000 turned up for this historic occasion, which marked the return of a Gold Coast-based rugby league team to the big time since the Chargers exited at the end of the 1998 season.
Scores were locked at 6-all at halftime, before the Dragons skipped out to a 20-6 lead in the second half. While the Titans managed to peg back two tries, it wasn’t enough as they fell heartbreakingly short of a win in their debut match, losing 20-18.
Chris Walker, who had been sacked by the Melbourne Storm due to off-field troubles, scored 14 of the Titans’ 18 points with another ex-Storm player, Jake Webster, scoring their only try.
For the Dragons, debutante Richard Williams (two tries) and Keith Lulia scored their three tries, while Wes Naiqama booted four goals.
Round 19, 2005: Rabbitohs 16 defeated Cowboys 14 at Dairy Farmers Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey
When the South Sydney Rabbitohs flew north to face the North Queensland Cowboys in the second half of the 2005 season, not one single rugby league expert gave the Bunnies a chance of toppling the northerners in the tropics of Townsville.
For starters, they hadn’t won a match outside of New South Wales since readmission into the competition in 2002, nor had they beaten the Cowboys anywhere since 1999.
They had also won the wooden spoon in the previous two seasons (2003 and 2004) but were spared it in 2002 when the Bulldogs were stripped of 37 points for mass salary cap breaches.
However, a major turning point came when Ashley Harrison earned selection for Queensland in the third State of Origin match, and was promoted to the captaincy after Bryan Fletcher had been stripped of it owing to a racial incident against the Eels in Round 17.
With many predicting a blowout victory for the Cowboys, the Rabbitohs defied the odds and scored first through Luke Stuart inside the first ten minutes to lead 6-0.
But as was to be expected of the home side, they hit back with the next two tries, through Matt Sing and Justin Smith, before new Souths captain Harrison scored to level the scores at 10-all at halftime.
The slugfest continued after halftime, with both sides only managing a try each: Ty Williams for the Cowboys and John Sutton for the Rabbitohs.
As the match entered its climax, and just as golden point extra time loomed, Brad Watts, who had missed the conversion of Sutton’s try, stepped up to kick a penalty goal to put the Bunnies up 16-14 after Justin Smith was deemed to have raked the ball in a tackle.
The northerners did everything they could in an attempt to steal the match at the death but their desperation resulted in mistakes and the Bunnies were able to escape the tropics with an upset victory.
Eventually, the Rabbitohs finished the year strongly, winning six of their final eight matches (with the only losses being against the Wests Tigers and the Cowboys in rounds 20 and 25, respectively) to finish 13th on the ladder, avoiding the wooden spoon for the first time since 2002.
2011 Second preliminary final: Warriors 20 defeated Storm 12 at AAMI Park
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye feat. Kimbra
After the drama that was the salary cap scandal which saw the club stripped of three minor premierships and two premierships, among other team honours, the Melbourne Storm set out to rebuild its tarnished brand in 2011.
They enjoyed a successful season of resurgence, topping the standings after winning 19 of their 24 matches, though two of those losses came at the back end of the season when the minor premierships was well and truly under lock and key.
The Storm proceeded to beat the Newcastle Knights in their qualifying final, earning themselves a week off and direct passage to the preliminary final, where they would face the New Zealand Warriors, who’d already beaten them at AAMI Park during the regular season.
The Warriors had bounced back from their 40-10 thrashing by the Broncos in their first final to dispose of the Wests Tigers in their semi-final and book a final-four date with the Storm in Melbourne.
After five minutes, the Victorians were first to score, through back-rower Sika Manu, but the Warriors, playing in a preliminary final for the first time since 2003, were clearly not rattled.
Bill Tupou replied for the visitors to level the scores, and with the scores at 12-all, James Maloney would put the Warriors ahead at halftime thanks to a penalty goal.
The second half would be a defensive slog, with neither side able to score until the final five minutes, when Lewis Brown crashed over to put the Warriors ahead 18-12.
Maloney’s successful conversion put the Kiwis up 20-12 and they could not be beaten, ensuring they would play in just their second ever grand final the following weekend.
It also denied rugby league fans what would’ve been another grudge grand final between the Storm and Sea Eagles, particularly after the events of the Battle of Brookvale in the penultimate round of the minor premiership. It also would’ve been their third grand final against each other in five years.
The Warriors ultimately lost the grand final 24-10 to the Sea Eagles, but lost no respect in defeat.
Round 14, 2006: Sea Eagles 16 defeated Wests Tigers 12 at Brookvale Oval
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “SOS” by Rihanna
It had been a long time since Brookvale Oval last hosted a Friday night premiership match when the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers went toe-to-toe at the venue halfway through the 2006 season.
The Tigers were the defending premiers, but were struggling to put anything together as injuries and poor form plagued their premiership defence.
Meantime, the Sea Eagles were continuing their resurgence after the failed Northern Eagles merger and were well serviced by halfback Matt Orford, who had arrived on the Northern Beaches prior to the start of the season.
The first half was a dour affair, with the first try not coming until the half-hour mark when Chris Hicks scored for the home side.
However, a try to the Tigers’ Anthony Laffranchi saw the scores locked at 6-all at the main break.
The Tigers then skipped ahead six minutes after halftime when Michael Crockett crossed, and they would hold a 12-6 lead for the majority of the second half.
But the Sea Eagles were not to be denied, with Steve Matai scoring ten minutes from time to reduce the deficit to 12-10. Travis Burns was unsuccessful in his conversion, leaving the home side requiring a miracle if they were to record another victory at home.
Enter Brett Stewart.
The rising fullback rose above Benji Marshall to mark a banana kick from Matt Orford, then crashed over at close range to score the match winning try at the death and send the Manly faithful into a state of delirium.
Burns’ successful conversion gave the Sea Eagles a 16-12 lead, which they would hold to the full-time whistle.
2019 NRL grand final: Roosters 14 defeated Raiders 8 at ANZ Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I
In the normal world, the Roosters and Raiders would’ve been facing off for the first time since last year’s grand final – in Perth.
However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to those hopes, and when the competition resumes, it is likely all matches will be played on the east coast, with the Western Australia and South Australia borders remaining closed to the outside public.
Anyway, let’s recap last year’s grand final, which saw the Roosters attempt to become the first team since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93 to successfully defend a premiership in a unified competition, and the Raiders attempt to end a quarter-of-a-century premiership drought.
The decider proved to be a very controversial affair, with the Chooks’ first try coming via Sam Verrills, minutes after a Luke Keary kick was charged down and then ricocheted off one of their trainers.
A penalty goal to Latrell Mitchell put the Roosters up 8-0, before Jack Wighton opened the Raiders’ account by breaking through the Tricolours’ defence. The successful conversion from Jarrod Croker saw the scoreline read 8-6 in the Chooks’ favour at halftime.
Ten minutes after the resumption of play, retiring halfback Cooper Cronk was sin-binned for a professional foul, leaving Croker to pot over a penalty goal that levelled the scores at 8-all.
The Raiders could not take advantage of the extra man, but just as Cronk’s time in the sheds was about to expire, Jordan Rapana would be denied a try after it was ruled that he had received a forward pass.
Then came the most controversial moment in the match, when the referee appeared to signal six more tackles for the Raiders, only for Jack Wighton to be forced to turn the ball over after he had been tackled.
On the very next play, the Roosters broke out of their own half, with Daniel Tupou sprinting down the eastern wing and then throwing the final pass to James Tedesco who finished off the play with a 20-metre run to the tryline.
Mitchell’s successful conversion saw the Roosters extend their lead to 14-8 and that would prove to be the final scoreline, ensuring the premiership remained at Bondi Junction for another year while the Raiders’ premiership drought extended into a 25th year.
The result meant that three of the Roosters’ last four premierships have now been won on October 6 – 2002, 2013 and now 2019. Now-Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was at the helm for the 2002 title, while the 2013 title was won in Trent Robinson’s first year as Roosters coach.
If that is anything to go by, then Roosters fans can mark down the year 2024 for a probable premiership, as that is the next year the grand final is scheduled to fall on October 6.
Cronk bowed out of rugby league in the best possible fashion, winning a premiership medal in each of his final three seasons in the NRL, the last two with the Roosters.
And despite being on the losing side, Jack Wighton won the Clive Churchill Medal as the best-on-ground, marking the first time since 2013 that a player on the losing side won the medal (coincidentally, on that occasion it was also against the Roosters).
2001 first preliminary final: Knights 18 defeated Sharks 10 at Aussie Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “Can We Fix It?” by Bob the Builder
There was one more hurdle for the Newcastle Knights to overcome in their bid to reach the 2001 grand final, and it came in the form of facing the Cronulla Sharks, whose fullback Preston Campbell won the Dally M Medal by one point over Knights captain Andrew Johns.
Both the Knights and Sharks had enjoyed an impressive 2001 season, both finishing in the top four and both showing why they were worthy premiership contenders throughout the year.
Despite winning their first final against reigning premiers the Broncos, the Sharks had to play again in the second week of the finals because the Eels and Knights, both of whom finished higher on the ladder, both won their respective qualifying finals to earn the week off.
On their end, the Knights thrashed the previous year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Roosters, by 40-6 and advanced straight to week three after the second-placed Bulldogs lost their qualifying final against the Dragons by 23-22 at Giants Stadium.
After beating the Broncos, the Sharks then thrashed the Dogs 54-10 to book a date with the Knights, with both sides aiming to reach their second grand final in five years (the Knights had won the 1997 ARL decider, while the Sharks lost the Super League grand final that same year).
The Sharks led 10-6 at halftime, but failed to score in the second half as the Knights scored two unanswered tries to be the first team into the grand final, which they would later win by upsetting the highly-favoured Parramatta Eels 30-24.
Round 19, 2010: Eels 34 defeated Panthers 28 at CUA Stadium
Number one song on ARIA Charts: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg
A capacity crowd was on hand to witness the battle of Sydney’s west when the Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels squared off at the foot of the mountains.
After several years in the wilderness, the Panthers had rocketed back up the ladder in 2010, while the Eels were struggling in the bottom half of the ladder, only nine months after they played off in a grand final.
The mountain men possessed the NRL’s best attack in 2010, and it was easy to see why when they scooted to a 22-0 lead after just 20 minutes, and the locals appeared to be in for an enjoyable night.
But the Eels, anchored by the previous year’s Dally M Medallist Jarryd Hayne, started to work their way back into the match, setting up tries for Fuifui Moimoi and Jonathan Wright to reduce the halftime score to 22-10.
Wright crossed for his second try not long after the resumption of play, and when Hayne threaded a kick for Krisnan Inu to score, the scoreline suddenly read 24-22, leaving the locals stunned.
Hayne then did it all himself, fielding a kick from Panthers halfback Luke Walsh to score under the posts and give the blue-and-golds the lead, 30-22.
But the Panthers were not to be outdone yet, with Wade Graham pegging back a try to make it 30-28, however Justin Horo would win the game for the Eels at the death with an intercept try to give the visitors a stunning 34-28 victory.
By season’s end, the Panthers finished second with the NRL’s most potent attack, being the only side to score over 600 points, yet bowed out of September in straight sets, while the Eels missed the finals and later sacked coach Daniel Anderson after just two seasons at the helm.
That was my final series of matches “From the Vault”, during which we have been digging through the archives to revisit past NRL matches while the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next weekend, barring any further hiccups, we will finally see a return to live rugby league action, though fans will continue to be banned from attending matches owing to strict social distancing regulations banning non-essential mass gatherings of over 500 people.
Thursday, May 28
Broncos vs Eels at Suncorp Stadium (TBC)
Friday, May 29
Cowboys vs Titans
Roosters vs Rabbitohs
Saturday, May 30
Warriors vs Dragons
Sharks vs Wests Tigers
Storm vs Raiders
Sunday, May 31
Panthers vs Knights
Sea Eagles vs Bulldogs