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The greatest grand finalists of the 1980s

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Roar Guru
27th October, 2021

This is the fourth article in a series where I’ll name who I think were the best players to play in a grand final in each decade, focusing this time on the 1980s.

The criterion I have used are:

•The player must have actually played in at least one grand final, or grand final replay, in the decade in question
•A player is only considered for selection in one decade, even if he played in grand finals in more than one decade
•The player’s form in the decade is taken into account.

Sixteen teams played in the competition in the 1980s, with Canberra and Illawarra joining the competition in 1982, and then followed by Brisbane and the Gold Coast-Tweed Giants in 1988.

Eight teams played in a grand final at some point, with Canterbury-Bankstown and Parramatta sharing the decade’s honours with four premierships each.

In the 1980s:
•Canterbury won four premierships and were runners-up once
•Parramatta won four premierships and were runners-up once
•Manly won one premiership and were runners-up twice.
•Canberra won one premiership and were runners-up once
•Balmain were runners-up twice
•St George, Eastern Suburbs and Newtown were each runners-up once.


Penrith, Western Suburbs, North Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Cronulla and Illawarra all failed to reach a grand final.

There were some wonderful players running around in the ’80s, and the players left out of this list are some of the best ever. Anyway, here’s my pick of the best of the best who made it to the biggest game of the year. All references to grand finals played relate only to this decade.

Fullback: Gary Belcher (Canberra)
A superb fullback who played in two grand finals, winning one and losing the other, and starred for both Australia and Queensland in the late ’80s. Dale Shearer from Manly, Paul Taylor from Parramatta and Canterbury’s Michael Potter were all contenders.

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Wings: Eric Grothe (Parramatta) and John Ferguson (Newtown and Canberra)
Grothe had no equal as a winger in the 1980s and played in five grand finals, winning all but one. Ferguson, who was as quick and elusive as they come, played in a losing decider for Newtown in 1981 and scored a try in Canberra’s win in 1989 at the age of 35.

Centres: Mal Meninga (Canberra) and Mick Cronin (Parramatta)
Two legends of the game and prolific point scorers take these positions in front of Noel Cleal, Chris Close, Chris Mortimer, Steve Ella and Laurie Daley.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Mal Meninga (Photo by Getty Images)

Mal Meninga is a rugby league Immortal who played in two grand finals, winning one, while Cronin is one of the greatest Parramatta players of all time, and played in five grand finals, winning four.

Five-eighth: Brett Kenny (Parramatta)
Kenny edges out some quality competition for this role in the shape of Daley, Terry Lamb and Cliff Lyons. Kenny played five grand finals, losing one, and picked up six grand finals tries along the way.

Halfback: Peter Sterling (Parramatta)
Once again, a quality field, but Sterling with four grand final wins from five starts takes the role from Steve Mortimer, Gary Freeman, Phil Blake, Ricky Stuart and Tom Raudonikis.

Lock forward: Ray Price (Parramatta). Just to complete the all-Parramatta scrum base, Ray Price wins the lock forward role ahead of Balmain’s Wayne Pearce and Paul Langmack from Canterbury-Bankstown.

Second row: Paul Vautin (Manly-Warringah) and Steve Folkes (Canterbury-Bankstown)
You won’t find harder working back rowers than these two. Paul Vautin played in three grand finals for one win and two losses, while Steve Folkes played in five and won four.


Front row: Peter Kelly and Peter Tunks (both from Canterbury-Bankstown)
These two hombres were the most feared and successful front row partnership of the 1980s. Peter Tunks played in four grand finals, winning three, while Peter Kelly played in three and lost once. Geoff Gerard from Manly, Parramatta’s Geoff Bugden and Ron Hilditch were contenders.

Hooker: Steve Edge (Parramatta)
It’s hard to go past Edge, who captained Parramatta to four grand finals, winning three. Ray Brown from Manly and Benny Elias from Balmain wouldn’t look out of place, either.

Steve Mortimer (Canterbury-Bankstown)
A mercurial player who appeared in five grand finals, winning four. He has to be in the side somewhere!

John Muggleton (Parramatta)
An excellent back rower who played in four GFs, losing one.

David Gillespie (Canterbury-Bankstown)
One of the game’s hard men who played in two winning grand finals.

Brent Todd (Canberra)
A rock hard front rower who played in two grand finals, winning one.