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25 in 25: Ranking all the grand finals of the NRL era - cliffhangers, controversy and classics

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11th January, 2023
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We have been treated to some of the most memorable premiership battles over the past 25 years with moments that will be etched in our minds forever. A flick pass, broken jaw, desperate side-line tackle, and a golden point field goal made grown men cry.

The 25th season of the NRL is done and dusted so to commemorate the first quarter-century of this instalment of the premiership, The Roar is looking back at the 25 best players and moments in 25 categories.

If you’ve missed it, this is the latest in our series celebrating 25 years of the NRL – and we have already ranked the best fullbackswingersfive-eighthslockssecond-rowersplayers to never make Origincoachescaptainshalfbacksfront-rowersgoal-kickersrecruitsheaviest hittersrookiesKiwis, Grand Final moments and best biffs of the era.

Now it’s time to check out the best Grand Final games.

The Top 10 – the best of the best

1 Cowboys vs Broncos – 2015
2 Storm vs Dragons – 1999
3 Sharks vs Storm – 2016
4 Bulldogs vs Roosters – 2004
5 Roosters vs Raiders – 2019
6 Panthers vs Rabbitohs – 2021
7 Tigers vs Cowboys – 2005
8 Rabbitohs vs Bulldogs – 2014
9 Panthers vs Roosters – 2003
10 Storm vs Bulldogs – 2012

Was the number one spot ever any doubt? The great Ray Warren called the 2015 grand final his most special career moment, and it’s easy to see why. With little brother trailing big brother 16-12 with seconds on the clock, a miracle pass from Cowboys playmaker Michael Morgan found his winger Kyle Feldt who scored in the corner.

With Johnathan Thurston unable to break the deadlock with his conversion attempt, the game was sent to golden point. A dropped ball from Broncos half Ben Hunt gifted the Cowboys perfect field position, where Thurston kicked his famous winning field goal for a 17-16 win – the first-ever premiership for North Queensland. There is also now another reason it holds a special place in our hearts.

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2015 NRL Grand Final - Broncos v Cowboys

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In the Dragons’ first year as a joint venture club, and the Storm’s second year in the competition, everyone knew this grand final was going to be memorable, but never realised how much. After a see-sawing game, a swinging arm from Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough on Storm opponent Craig Smith while attempting to score a try gave us the first-ever penalty try in a decider, a 20-18 victory to Melbourne and the most graceful cartwheel from Glenn Lazarus.

The Storm were looking for their third grand final win in 18 years, the Sharks their first in 50. In a close and exciting match, Melbourne had a 12-8 lead with 11 minutes to go. Sharks forward Andrew Fifita beat five defenders to barge his way over for one of the most memorable tries in NRL history, with a James Maloney conversion giving his side a 14-12 lead. The Storm threw everything they could at the Sharks, but the boys from the Shire held on for the win – and their fans could finally turn their porch lights off.

Bulldogs captain Steve Price was ruled out of the game with an injury, with Andrew Ryan stepping up. The Roosters were in control of the first half, taking a 13-6 lead to the sheds. A Matt Utai try got the Dogs within one point, and when Hazem El Masri was awarded a try that had the tricolours and the fans screaming for a double movement, they took a three-point lead. With seconds on the clock, Rooster Michael Crocker found himself through a gap, on his way to score, until Ryan made a sensational try-saving tackle, giving the Dogs a 16-13 win and spoiling Fittler’s fairytale retirement. An emotional victory was topped off with a young Ryan calling Price up to accept the trophy, as well as Thurston giving him his premiership ring, as JT only got to play thanks to the captain’s absence.

Oh dear, sorry Canberra fans! After a thrilling 74 minutes, the scores were locked up at 8-all between the Roosters and the Raiders. Some miscommunication between the referees led Raiders five-eighth Jack Wighton to think he had been given six again when he was tackled, but once he stood up he was told to hand the ball over. While the Green Machine were arguing over the call, Luke Keary had taken off, passing to Latrell Mitchell who got the ball away to James Tedesco to score the winning try.

The first NRL grand final to be played in Queensland thanks to Covid. After losing the previous year to the Storm, the Panthers were back to make amends. A nail-biting battle with a Stephen Crichton intercept try in the 67th minute that will be shown on highlight reels for years to come proved to be the match-winner, despite a late try to the Rabbitoh Alex Johnston keeping their hopes alive. Adam Reynolds couldn’t convert and missed a chance at a possible two-point field goal before full-time, with the Panthers holding on for a thrilling 14-12 win.

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2005 was the year of the Tiger, with the joint venture taking out their first-ever premiership with a 30-16 win over the Cowboys. But despite that claim in the record books, the game will always be remembered for one of the greatest moments in grand final history – the Benji Marshall flick pass. Kids – and adults – to this day still try to replicate it.

The Rabbitohs headed into the 2014 grand final looking for their first premiership in 43 years, and were going to do all they could to get it. The determination was shown early, when captain Sam Burgess suffered a broken cheekbone in the first hit-up and went on to play the game of his life. The Bunnies went on to win 30-6, with their inspirational leader deservedly taking home the Clive Churchill medal.

In the 2003 battle of East vs West, the Roosters were outright favourites to win. But in atrocious conditions, the Panthers were determined to beat the odds. Against the clubs’ former favourite son in Freddy, the men from the mountains put on a tough and gritty performance to upset the tricolours 18-6. Much like the earlier mentioned Benji flick pass, this game produced a grand final moment still talked about today, a must-see-to-be-believed try-saving tackle up the sideline by Panther’s forward Scott Sattler on Roosters flyer Todd Byrne.

The Storm’s 14-4 win over the Bulldogs in 2012 is the lowest-scoring grand final in the NRL era with only one successful conversion from a possible six. It’s also one of the premiership victories that the Strom were allowed to hold on to, as well as being remembered for Billy Slater’s claim that Canterbury enforcer James Graham got a bit peckish and took a nibble on the Storm fullback’s ear.

The best of the rest

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11 Roosters vs Storm – 2018
12 Broncos vs Storm – 2006
13 Strom vs Eels – 2009
14 Dragons vs Roosters – 2010
15 Roosters vs Sea Eagles – 2013
16 Roosters vs Warriors – 2002
17 Sea Eagles vs Storm – 2008
18 Knights vs Eels – 2001
19 Panthers vs Eels – 2022
20 Storm vs Panthers – 2020

Melbourne were looking to go back to back and send club great Slater out on top. But it wasn’t meant to be, with the Roosters downing the Storm 21-6. It was an emotionally charged game for both sides – from being Slater’s final game, with many believing he was extremely lucky to retire in a grand final after avoiding suspension for a shoulder charge the week before, to former Storm half Cronk facing his old club along with herculean effort he displayed to lead his side to victory after playing 78 minutes with a fractured scapula.

It was a case of master vs apprentice as Wayne Bennett faced off with his former understudy Craig Bellamy for the first time in a grand final. But in the end, a master class from Darren Lockyer and a game-ending injury to Cameron Smith, saw Bennett’s men get the job done with a 15-8 victory.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Brisbane Broncos Coach Wayne Bennett and Melbourne Storm Coach Craig Bellamy talk to each other during the NRL Captains Grand Final Breakfast at the Westin Hotel September 28, 2006 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Despite a late comeback from the Eels, Melbourne’s fourth grand final appearance in a row saw the men in purple take out a 23-16 win, breaking the hearts of Parramatta fans who were still looking for their first premiership since 1986. Fun fact – Jarryd turned up to the game with two left boots, and needed a police escort to collect his right one before kick-off. Feel free to make jokes inside your head.

“Guys, when are we going to start playing like St George Illawarra?” After trailing 8-2 at halftime, it took just 11 words from mastercoach Wayne Bennett to spur on his men for a massive comeback. The team lifted with some brilliance from Clive Churchill medal winner Darius Boyd along with Jamie Soward for a 32-8 win, the first premiership for the merged club.

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While it was the Roosters who took home the glory after their 26-18 win over the Sea Eagles in 2013, giving coach Trent Robinson a premiership win in his first year as head coach, this game will be remembered for Daly Cherry Evans taking home the Clive Churchill medal as a player from the losing side.

This was a crazy one. After leading the comp, the Bulldogs were stripped of all of their competition points, leaving the Warriors to take out the minor premiership. Then we had Billy Idol desperately wanting ‘some power’, unable to put on his pre-match performance. After leading 8-2 at halftime, the Warriors headed to the sheds to hear one of the most ‘ridiculous’ speeches ever from coach Daniel Anderson according to Kevin Campion, for the Roosters to then steamroll their way to a 30-8 win.

Hooley Dooley! When the Storm and Sea Eagles booked back-to-back grand finals, Manly wanted to make sure they came out on top this time. And didn’t they ever! An eight tries to zip whitewash saw them make amends for the previous year, with a record-breaking 40-0 thumping of the Storm.

After a brilliant 2001 season, Parramatta booked their spot in the 2001 grand final with many assuming it would be an easy win for them over their opponents Newcastle. Nobody told the Knights this, and they stormed out to a 24-0 halftime lead. The stunned Eels fought back in the second half, but the damage had already been done, with the Knights holding on for a huge 30-24 upset. This became the highest-scoring grand final in the NRL era.

After a dramatic win against the Cowboys in the preliminary final, the Eels thought their 36-year drought was finally coming to an end. But the domination of the Panthers continued, and after booking their third grand final appearance in a row, Penrith took out back-to-back titles with a 28-12 victory.

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Following on from an unprecedented season thanks to Covid, you would expect nothing less than an edge-of-your-seat match for the decider. With just 37000 fans in the stands, the Storm were awarded a penalty try and blew out to a 26-0. In a second-half comeback, the Panthers got the green light for an obvious no-try, two Storm players were sent to the sin bin, but Melbourne held on for a 26-20 win.

The final five

21 Broncos vs Roosters – 2000
22 Storm vs Cowboys – 2017
23 Broncos vs Bulldogs – 1998
24 Sea Eagles vs Warriors – 2011
25 Storm vs Sea Eagles – 2007

The 2000 grand final was a bit of a bore. It saw the Broncos make it three premierships in four years (even if people don’t count the 1997 Superleague grand final, it still happened) with a 14-6 over the Roosters. Broncos coach Wayne Bennett replied to the critics of the three-try match with a simple “Entertaining the fans was not our priority”.

The Cowboys surprised everyone by making it into the grand final missing Thurston and Matt Scott, but it was a tall ask to go all the way without them. A Clive-Churchill winning performance from fullback Slater – becoming the only player to ever win two – laid the foundation for a convincing 34-12 win for Melbourne, after the loss to the Sharks the year before.

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Brisbane followed on their premiership success against the Sharks during the 1997 Superleague/ARL split, to take out the title against the Dogs in the once again united competition now known as the NRL. Trailing 12-10 at the break, the Broncos scored 28 unanswered second-half points to take out the title 38-12, the last-ever grand final to be played at the Sydney Football Stadium.

In their second grand final appearance, New Zealand were hoping to get it right this time. With the Sea Eagles leading 18-2 with 18 minutes on the clock, the Warriors did their best to stage a comeback. Clawing back to 18-10 with two quick tries, a desperate DCE scurried back in goal to deny them a third, with a Jamie Lyon four-pointer soon after sealing the premiership for Manly.

After losing the previous year’s decider to the Broncos, the Storm were out to make amends in 2008. They did so with a solid 34-8 win over the Sea Eagles – which we all know was later stripped from the record books for salary cap breaches. Greg Inglis became the youngest-ever Clive Churchill winner at just 20, a title that he was allowed to retain.

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