1997 was the year that rugby league in Australia split into two.
On one side was the 12-team ARL competition, made up of the teams that stayed loyal to the traditional competition, including eventual grand finalists Manly and Newcastle.
On the other side stood the ten-team rebel Super League competition, made up of eight teams who split from the ARL, including grand finalists Brisbane and Cronulla, and two new teams in the Hunter Mariners and the Adelaide Rams.
It’s history now that Newcastle defeated Manly 22-16 in the ARL competition thanks to a try by Darren Albert with just seconds to spare, while Brisbane’s Steve Renouf put on a masterclass for the Broncos to take the Super League title from Cronulla by 26 points to eight.
By the time the grand finals had been decided in late September that year negotiations were well advanced to re-unify the competition once again, and in that light it was suggested that a Super Bowl match between the winners of each competition be played to decide who was the best team in Australia that year.
Unfortunately that never eventuated, so we can only wonder.
To help decide the issue, albeit now a quarter of a century late, let’s compare the two teams that played in the grand finals to determine which one was the most dominant, and which team was most likely to win the 1997 Australian fantasy Super Bowl.
Note that the verdict names who I believe is the dominant player, and the +1 or +2 rating refers to their level of dominance: +1 for dominant, and +2 for very dominant.
1. Darren Lockyer (SL) versus Robbie O’Davis (ARL)
By the end of the 1997 season, O’Davis was at the top of his game and had played 125 first grade games, seven Origins for Queensland and five Tests for Australia. He won the Clive Churchill medal in the 1997 grand final.
Lockyer had far less experience at this point of his career, with 51 first grade games, two games for Queensland and four Test matches, but he was closing in on O’Davis.
Verdict: Robbie O’Davis (ARL) +1
2. Michael De Vere (SL) versus Darren Albert (ARL)
De Vere was in his rookie season but showing good promise, and the grand final was just his 13th game in the top grade and he had seven tries to his name.
Albert was in his second season with Newcastle, had firmly established himself as a first grader, showing great pace and positional sense, and had played a total of 26 first grade games for the club, including every game in 1997. He had scored a total of 21 tries including that match winner in the grand final.
Verdict: Darren Albert (ARL) +1
3. Steve Renouf (SL) versus Adam MacDougall (ARL)
Renouf was at the peak of his powers and one of the best centres the game had seen for some time.
He had notched up 116 tries in nearly 150 games for the Broncos, had scored ten tries for Australia in nine Tests, and was a Queensland regular with ten games to his name. He scored three tries in the grand final and won the man of the match award.
MacDougall was inexperienced with just 11 games for the Knights and 16 first grade games overall, with more than half of them as a winger. His best football was still ahead of him.
Verdict: Steve Renouf (SL) +2
4. Anthony Mundine (SL) versus Owen Craigie (ARL)
Mundine was an established first grader with over 70 first grade games and more than 30 tries to his credit but was much better known as a five-eighth than a centre.
Owen Craigie at 19 years of age was a rare talent, had played 38 first grade games and scored 13 tries.
Verdict: Anthony Mundine (SL) +1
5. Wendell Sailor (SL) versus Mark Hughes (ARL)
Sailor was in his fifth season of first grade in 1997 and had scored 50 tries in 86 games.
One of the most dangerous wingers in the game, he’d had seven games for Australia and was a regular in the Queensland side with six starts since making his Origin debut in 1996.
In his first season in the top grade Hughes was still a 17-game rookie, often playing off the bench, and had scored four tries.
Verdict: Wendell Sailor (SL) +2
6. Kevin Walters (SL) versus Matthew Johns (ARL)
At 30 years of age, Kevin Walters was in his 11th season in the top grade and had done it all, playing over 220 first grade games.
While no longer in the Australian team, he had the experience of 11 Test matches as well as 18 games for Queensland, and had a unique combination with Allan Langer.
Matthew Johns had played over 100 games in his six-year career and was one half of a great halves pairing with brother Andrew Johns. He’d also played seven Tests for Australia, primarily off the bench, and two Origins for NSW.
Verdict: Kevin Walters (SL) +1
7. Allan Langer (SL) versus Andrew Johns (ARL)
1997 was 31-year-old Langer’s tenth season, during which the Broncos’ captain had notched up over 200 games. He had also played 30 games for Queensland and 23 Test matches for his country and was the heart and soul of the Broncos.
The mercurial Andrew Johns was 23 and the Knights’ talisman. He had already played 76 games for the Knights, six games for Australia and seven for his state. His career was well and truly on the rise.
Verdict: Too close to call – a draw.
8. Brad Thorn (SL) versus Tony Butterfield (ARL)
Thorn was a tough customer and the 22-year-old was in his fourth season with Brisbane in 1997 with 59 games under his belt. He’d also appeared in five Test matches for Australia and six games for Queensland.
The 31-year-old Butterfield was a club legend and equally as tough as his opponent, with over 190 games in his first grade career up to 1997, including over 180 for Newcastle.
Verdict: Brad Thorn (SL) +1
9. Andrew Gee (SL) versus Billy Peden (ARL)
Gee was a Broncos stalwart with 165 games on the clock together with his 12 games for Queensland. The grand final was only his third at hooker as part of a cunning Wayne Bennett plan.
Peden was a grafting performer who had played just 63 first grade games for the Knights, primarily off the bench, and had played even less games at hooker than Andrew Gee.
Verdict: Andrew Gee (SL) +1
10. Shane Webcke (SL) versus Paul Harragon (ARL)
Webcke was just at the beginning of his career in 1997 with just 34 first grade games for Brisbane together with one game for Australia and three for Queensland.
Newcastle captain Harragon was a battle-hardened campaigner, with 149 first grade games for the Knights, 16 Test appearances and 18 games for NSW.
Verdict: Paul Harragon (ARL) +2
11. Gorden Tallis (SL) versus Wayne Richards (ARL)
In his fourth full season, Tallis had over 70 first grade games to his name and was well-entrenched in the Broncos back row and beginning to establish himself as one of the best emerging forwards in the game.
He also had three Tests for Australia and five appearances for Queensland to his name.
Wayne Richards was just a steady performer for the Knights and also had over 70 top grade games under the belt, many of them off the bench.
Verdict: Gorden Tallis (SL) +2
12. Peter Ryan (SL) versus Adam Muir (ARL)
Ryan was a very experienced back rower and one of the best defenders in the game. By 1997 he’d played over 110 first grade games for Brisbane and three games for Queensland.
Muir was the complete package as a back rower and one of the best forwards in the game in 1997. He was in his fifth season with the Knights, had represented Australia on three occasions and had played nine games for NSW.
Verdict: Adam Muir (ARL) +2
13. Darren Smith (SL) versus Marc Glanville (ARL)
Smith was a seasoned performer and one of the best and most versatile players in the game. He’d played over 150 first grade games, four Tests and ten games for Queensland.
Glanville was a seasoned campaigner with nearly 200 games to his name but was coming to the end of his career in 1997.
Verdict: Darren Smith (SL) +1
I’m rating the bench as a whole due to their different role and the fact that it’s harder to judge individual match-ups.
The Brisbane Super League bench of Tonie Carroll, John Plath, Michael Hancock and Ben Walker had over 350 first grade games, 14 Tests and 18 state games between them, with winger Michael Hancock having most of the representative experience.
The Newcastle bench of Scott Conley, Troy Fletcher, Lee Jackson and Steve Crowe had played 139 first grade games in the NRL, while Lee Jackson had considerable experience in England and had played 23 Tests. Conley, Fletcher and Crowe could best be described as depth players.
Verdict: Brisbane bench (SL) +1
By 1997, Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett (SL) already had an extensive 20-odd year coaching career, winning a premiership in the BRL, and coaching Queensland in four interstate series.
He was in his tenth year as coach of the Broncos and the 1997 Super League victory was his third premiership with the club.
Newcastle (ARL) coach Mal Reilly had 18 years coaching experience in England before joining Newcastle in 1995, winning a Challenge Cup with Castleford.
He had also coached Great Britain and England in 43 Tests with a 70 per cent win record.
Verdict: Malcolm Reilly (ARL) +1
And the winner is?
Based on my dodgy scoring system the Broncos’ Super League side finish with 12 advantage points compared to Newcastle’s seven.
If the 1997 Super Bowl had been played, the Broncos would have been clear winners.