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'Bright, shiny but lacking emotion': The inside story of 'ridiculous' Grand Final they want you to forget

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2nd October, 2021
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1961 Reads

Is this first grand final in Brisbane, or the second? Is Wayne Bennett shooting for his eighth premiership or his seventh?

On Monday, my book, Two Tribes, about the split 1997 season, is available to the public as an individual product for the first time.

Pre-orders have been part of a $US45 ‘digital installation’ for exactly a year. Why is October 4 so significant?

It’s the day in 1996 that Justices Lockhart, Von Doussa and Sackville cleared the way for Super League to begin.

There were two grand finals in 1997. Super League may have disappeared in the 1998 but so did the ARL Optus Cup.

We have seven stand-alone teams today from the ‘rebel’ competition and only five from the ‘establishment’.

Of course, it was in the NRL’s interest to align itself with the traditional game and put the asterisk next to the decider run by its half-owner, News Limited – which was happy to stay in the background during the Souths debacle.

This excerpt from the ‘Holy Grail’ chapter recalls the Grand Final many want you to forget.

And so it was the Broncos and the Sharks – the latter still without a premiership since their inception in 1967 – to contest the first and only Super League Australia Grand Final, at Brisbane’s ANZ Stadium.

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The breakaway’s imitation of the Super Bowl – with ticker tape and dinners in the lead-up – was described as “overkill” by Glenn Lazarus in his newspaper column.

Promotions man Paul Kind says: “We did a street parade and I was desperately worried that along the 3km route we’d have nobody – because there was no way of knowing how many people would come. It was incredible. It was thousands and thousands and thousands of people on a Thursday lunchtime.”

Wayne Bennett and Wendell Sailor celebrate a Broncos grand final victory.

Wayne Bennett celebrates with Wendell Sailor after the Broncos’ Super League grand final victory in 1997.

Super League’s decider was on September 20 – eight days before the ARL grand final. Pre-match entertainment was Jon Stevens and Olivia Newton-John performing the hits of Grease.

“That was a coup, I have to say,” says Kind. “She was amazing. She hadn’t done that sort of live performance in Australia for a very long time. She certainly hadn’t performed Grease songs.

“With Jon, who was a great talent, she did ‘You’re The One That I Want’ and she did ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ and everyone had their lighters in the crowd.

“She was a proper star. So that was good, that worked.”

Shane Richardson, leading the Sharks into hostile waters, recalls: “It was ridiculous, They decided that we were going to go and play in Brisbane. That’s alright. They’d probably get a better crowd there because Queensland were onside.

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“But they sent us up for the whole week. We spent a whole week in a hotel in Brisbane preparing for a grand final, including a ticker tape parade.

“So the preparation was highly questionable because you’re away from your families. You’ve got wives trying to break into husbands’ hotel rooms. It was a ridiculous week.

“But then on top of that, the game .… they didn’t think they’d sell it out. Two days, three days before, they decided they were going to sell it out … oh, fantastic …. They f—ing added more seats, these open air seats along the sideline of QEII Stadium. And that’s where they put all our families, because they wanted to sell all the seats in the grandstand.

“And it pissed raining! That’s why I ended up with Danny Lee’s baby on my knee and his wife next to me, Anne Marie, next to John Lang, who’s the coach. That’s how ludicrous it was. We had to get our wives out of the rain. Still to this day I’ve never forgiven (Broncos CEO) Shane Edwards. We’re great mates but I’ve never forgiven him.”

Brisbane beat Cronulla 26-8 in the Super League grand final before 58,912. “I reckon it was a plan for the Broncos just to upset us completely. We were in it at half-time but we ended up getting beaten,” says Richardson.

Cronulla coach John Lang says now: “They were just too good for us. I wasn’t disappointed with the way we played. If you look back at the players they had, whoa, they were a great side.”

Kevin Walters said: “I remember Steve Renouf scoring three tries which was pretty hectic in a grand final.”

Darren Lockyer wrote in his 2011 biography: “I collected my share of the $1 million prize money courtesy of our Super League premiership win and our victory in the World Club Challenge competition, with the 25 members of our first grade squad each taking home an equal share.

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“By the end of the year, I walked away with a pay packet a smidgeon shy of what I was paid a decade later as captain of the club, Queensland and Australia and dual Golden Boot winner.

“I used my earnings from 1997 to purchase my first house – a replica Queenslander in Rockbourne Terrace, Paddington, just a stone’s throw from Red Hill.”

Reflecting on the only grand final held in Brisbane until the Covid crisis of 2021, Kind says: “It had a sense of scale but it had none of the real emotion of the following week.

“It was bright and shiny and successful but it lacked that real emotion of rugby league which came out in spades in the ARL grand final which was not as slick by any means but had substance, that real memorable substance.”

Two Tribes was written over two years and utilised more than 100 new interviews. It will be available on Monday a 2.15pm Sydney time – the 25th anniversary of the Federal Court decisions allowing Super League to kick off – at shop.stevemascord.com.

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