This is the fourth article in a series naming each club’s best team of loyal stalwarts. Not necessarily just one-club players, but those who turned out for the club over a long period and helped build its success and culture.
Finals fever gets to everyone – even rugby league’s head coaches. If you’re strong enough, you can make a decision for your team. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.
In the last couple of weeks, we have seen some intriguing strategic decisions from the game’s bosses.
Ivan Cleary’s Penrith Panthers played their strongest squad in the final premiership round while Parramatta rested a long list of stars. Since then, Eels coach Brad Arthur has moved Isaiah Papali’i to a bench middle and famously left Ryan Matterson out of his 17 last weekend.
The second-rower is back in Parramatta’s starting squad this week.
Sydney Roosters and Trent Robinson have left youngster Sam Walker on the bench again for week two of the finals.
Wayne Bennett was brave enough to replace the suspended Latrell Mitchell with rookie Blake Taaffe.
On the Gold Coast, Justin Holbrook dropped Ash Taylor on the eve of the finals for Tyrone Peachey.
Here’s some of the best, worst and oddest finals team selections and substitutions of the modern era.
1998: Grand Final, Michael De Vere starts for Michael Hancock
Club legend Hancock started in 25 matches of Brisbane’s 1998 campaign but missed the preliminary final against Sydney City at QEII Stadium. Wayne Bennett named Hancock back on the wing for the grand final against the Bulldogs but was dropped to the bench in favour of De Vere who grabbed a try in the Broncos’ second-half romp.
2018: Grand Final, Roosters go all in on Cronk
Here’s a pressure selection that paid off with the ultimate prize. The Roosters thought they wouldn’t have their halfback Cooper Cronk for the grand final against his old club, Melbourne. His shoulder injury so serious, it was revealed by teammates after their triumph that the little pivot played against the Storm at ANZ Stadium with a broken scapula.
The Storm couldn’t really get to him during the 80 minutes and steered his side to a famous victory. During the week, rookie Sean O’Sullivan was marked as the man to step up and replace Cronk with Mitch Aubusson officially named at 7. Coach Trent Robinson went with the embattled Cronk. A selection that could have backfired but worked out in the best way possible for the Tricolours.
As Roosters captain Boyd Cordner celebrated the 21-6 win, he revealed to Channel Nine cameras just how serious it all was.
“It will come out a bit later that Cooper actually broke his scapula and that will go down in history,” Cordner said.
“Just having Cooper there, him at 30 percent, we want him on the field.
“We knew Coops was touch and go and he pulled through. He was touch and go all the way up until game-time and we had to make up a game plan where we protected him as much as possible and we executed that.”
2004: Semi-Final, Bennett drops Tallis to the bench in last NRL game
Brisbane headed to Townsville for an elimination semi-final against North Queensland in Gorden Tallis’ final season in the NRL. The Broncos captain was also returning to his hometown in front of family and friends.
This was a historic night on many counts but for some crazy reason, Wayne Bennett dropped Tallis to the pine to start the game. In 160 matches for the Broncos, the ‘Raging Bull’ had started on the bench just twice. The third occasion would be his last appearance for his beloved club as they went down to the Cowboys 10-0.
Bennett and Tallis no longer see eye to eye and this moment has long been considered a major contributor to their ‘feud’.
“I think — and you can ask Gordy this one — that’s where it started and it hasn’t ended,” said Steve Renouf in 2016.
“The thing with Gordy, he’ll call (out) anyone. He just happens to call (out) Wayne on a lot of his calls. He doesn’t always agree. That’s OK. Everyone’s got their opinion.
“Gordy’s just a bit more outspoken about some of the decisions Wayne makes.
“To be honest, these two have had an ongoing feud since Gordy left the club. They need to kiss and make up.”
2008: Grand Final, Bellamy throws kid to the wolves
When Cameron Smith was suspended and ruled out of the 2008 grand final, Craig Bellamy had a few options. He eventually went with a straight swap for the unheralded Russell Aitken who’d only managed 16 NRL games in six seasons to that point.
The Storm were punished across the field and eventually embarrassed 40-0 by a rampant Manly-Warringah. Aitken wouldn’t be sighted in the NRL again.
Later, Aitken spoke about grand final day and running out onto ANZ Stadium in front of 80,000 fans.
“I just remember walking out and during the national anthem, looking at my family and getting emotional,” Aitken said.
“They blew us off the park on the second half and I just tackled, tackled and tackled.”
2001: Grand Final, Brian Smith pulls Drew just when Eels need him most
The Parramatta Eels conquered all in front of them in 2001 and were hot premiership-favourites coming into the grand final against the Newcastle Knights.
Smith’s starting rake, Dally M Hooker of the Year Brad Drew was a on a blinding run of form and an integral cog in the Eels machine. Like clockwork throughout ’01, Smith substituted Drew for replacement dummy half PJ Marsh after about 20 minutes.
But the grand final wasn’t going to plan with Andrew Johns, Steve Simpson and Ben Kennedy running riot in the opening stages. Would Smith leave Drew out there to help turn the tide? Marsh replaced Drew on 27 minutes and wasn’t seen against until the 66th minute when he set a up a try for Jamie Lyon. The premiership was well and truly gone by then.
2003: Grand Final Day, Colin Ward
This isn’t really anyone’s fault, but you have to feel sorry for grizzled old prop Colin Ward. With the Penrith Panthers rolling into the ’03 grand final in both the NRL and reserve grade, Ward must have felt pretty good about getting some gametime at Homebush.
Unfortunately for him, coach John Lang wanted to keep a fresh 18th man in case of any injuries in warm-up, meaning he missed out on playing in the NRL grand final and reserve grade.
But then there was a lovely touch from the coach.
The retiring Ward had to sign a $1 contract to travel to the United Kingdom with his Panthers teammates to play in the World Club Challenge.
“It’s just a bonus for me to finish in a game like this, but if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly,” Ward said ahead of the trip to England.
“I’ve trained all through the summer for one game.
“It was a very tough thing to take [missing the NRL grand final].
“I’d been playing for 14 years and played in two losing grand finals, so it was hard in what I knew was my last year to watch the team I’d played for when they were struggling to win the big prize.”
A nice thank-you from coach to player.
1989: Grand Final, ‘Wok’ subs out Roach and Sironen
Raiders fans will tell you they were always going to win the 1989 grand final. Others will argue that everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Balmain Tigers.
With the game in the balance, Warren Ryan replaced his star forwards Steve Roach and Paul Sironen. The famous images of the pair sitting on the sidelines as the Raiders clinched the grand final are still ingrained in all Balmain supporters’ minds.
Ryan defended the move in 1996 in the ‘Masters of the Game’ book.
“He was slow coming back into the line and the Canberra little men were running from dummy half and just carving us up,” he said of Roach. “I had a fresh bloke in Kevin Hardwick on the bench and he was a workaholic tackler.”