10 of the Greatest NRL Finals Matches of All Time
The 2017 NRL finals series has served up some of the most memorable playoffs matches in recent memory, but these 10 post-season encounters stand out in the pantheon of unforgettable classics.
10. 1967: Canterbury 12 – St George 11
The unthinkable happened in 1967, the first year of the limited tackle-era – St George’s world record run of 11 premierships was broken by Canterbury in the preliminary final. The Berries, with former Saints hard-man Kevin Ryan in charge as captain-coach, were competing in their first finals series in seven years, and twice came from behind to record one of the great September victories. The Dragons cruised to a 9-0 lead, but were reeled in and trailed 10-9 at halftime. Saints winger Dennis Preston kicked his fourth goal to snatch back the lead in the second half, before a towering penalty goal from Canterbury second-rower George Taylforth put his side in front 12-11 and the Berries desperately hung on to bring a remarkable era to a close.
9. 1984: Canterbury 14 – Balmain 8
Balmain transformed from emerging force to genuine contender in 1985 – finishing the regular season in second place – and defending premiers Canterbury required every scrap of their grit and guile to subdue the Tigers in the major preliminary semi. The Tigers led 6-0 at halftime courtesy of a try to brilliant Brit Garry Schofield, but the Bulldogs squared the ledger shortly after the break with a superb team try finished off by Terry Lamb. The Canterbury pivot nudged his side in front 8-6 with a 51st-minute penalty goal, before Balmain and ex-Canterbury winger Ross Conlon sent the match into extra-time with a calmly-taken penalty in the last minute of regulation time. But neither combatant was able to capitalise on myriad opportunities during a frenetic added period. The match seemed destined for a replay until a sensational long-range try to Andrew Farrar in the dying stages of extra-time sealed the result.
8. 1990: Penrith 30 – Canberra 12
Long-suffering Penrith qualified for its maiden grand final with an extra-time upset of Canberra in the 1990 major semi. Panthers halfback genius Greg Alexander, criticised during his career for failing to step up in big games, combined brilliantly with teenage centre Brad Fittler to score in the first half and kicked a pressure penalty goal near the end of regulation time to send the match into an extra 20 minutes at 12-all. ‘Brandy’ scored a sneaky dummy-half try in extra-time, before Fittler wrapped up a historic Grand Final berth by breaking the tiring Canberra defence to score. Alexander produced one of the best individual performances in finals history – his haul of 22 points (from two tries and seven goals) was the highest personal tally in a post-season match in 26 years.
7. 2014: Sydney Roosters 31 – North Queensland 30
The Roosters enjoyed a dream start to their sudden-death semi against the Cowboys when Mitchell Pearce raced 90 metres to score in just the third minute, and the contest appeared over as Daniel Tupou bagged a double and Michael Jennings and James Maloney crossed to set up a stunning 30-0 lead at a point a minute. But tries to Cowboys back-rowers Ethan Lowe and Gavin Cooper before the break swung the momentum dramatically. Johnathan Thurston scored from close range five minutes after the break, before a an ill-conceived goal-line pass from Anthony Minichiello gifted Robert Lui a try and Matt Scott powered over to incredibly level the scores in the 56th minute. The tries dried up in the final quarter, while the Roosters were the beneficiaries of a contentious penalty after Sonny Bill Williams appeared to lose the ball, allowing Maloney to edge the defending premiers in front with a 76th-minute field goal. The Cowboys looked to have snatched an extraordinary win when Thurston scooted away to score with a minute left, but the barest of knock-ons from Lui in the lead-up saw the video ref shatter their fairytale comeback.
6. 2008: Melbourne 16 – Brisbane 14
Archrivals Melbourne and Brisbane were placed on a high-stakes collision course during the 2008 finals after the minor premier Storm were upset in week one by the eighth-placed Warriors, while the Broncos were under siege following a sexual assault allegation levelled at three of their representative stars. But in front of a bumper Suncorp Stadium crowd, the Broncos showed no signs of their torrid build-up, powering to a 12-0 halftime lead after brilliant team tries to wingers Darius Boyd and Denan Kemp. Tempers frayed when Storm duo Cameron Smith and Jeremy Smith were pinged for an ugly grapple tackle on Sam Thaiday (which eventually saw the captain suspended for the grand final), while Melbourne forward Jeff Lima was sin-binned soon after. Boyd and Ben Hannant were denied match-sealing tries for Brisbane either side of a Billy Slater touchdown, leaving the Broncos clinging to a two-point lead in the dying minutes. But an error by Broncos forward Ashton Sims with 90 seconds on the clock provided the ruthless defending champs with their chance, and Greg Inglis crossed in the corner two plays later to steal a dramatic victory. Devastated Brisbane players lay strewn on the turf as captain Darren Lockyer let out an anguished scream, with the heartbreaking exit doubling as Wayne Bennett’s last match in charge after 21 seasons with the club.
5. 1994: Canterbury 19 – Canberra 18
The feverishly anticipated ’94 major semi clash between minor premiers Canterbury and title favourites Canberra lived up to its heavyweight billing. The Bulldogs scored after just 90 seconds, before the rivals traded tries for the remainder of the half to set up a 14-12 lead in favour of the blue-and-whites. Canterbury held a six-point advantage for most of the second stanza after a Steven Hughes try, but with time ticking into the final 45 seconds, Raiders backrower David Furner busted the line to send interchange forward David Westley under the posts and force extra-time. Both sides struggled to find the decisive score during the frantic added 20 minutes, until Bulldogs winger Jason Williams produced an audacious step to race 50 metres up the sideline on a kick-return. Fellow Kiwi flanker Daryl Halligan slotted the match-winning field goal from close range two plays later with two and a half minutes on the clock, booking a grand final berth for the Bulldogs.
4. 1991: Canberra 34 – Manly 26
Injury-ravaged heavyweights Canberra and Manly produced a modern-day epic in the 1991 minor semi. The Raiders gained the early ascendancy with a try to Gary Belcher and a first half double to backrow workhorse Gary Coyne, but the Sea Eagles – who lost halfback Geoff Toovey to an eye injury in the opening minutes – kept pace through the attacking mastery of Cliff Lyons and Kevin Iro. The defending premiers appeared to have the match wrapped up at 28-14 following Mark Bell’s runaway try and Coyne’s third touchdown, before courageous Manly sliced the deficit to two points with a sensational Owen Cunnigham try and Iro’s second four-pointer. Coyne’s fourth try from a quick tap in the dying minutes sealed the result for Canberra in a match where neither side deserved to go home empty.
3. 1956: Balmain 36 – South Sydney 33
Archrivals Balmain and Souths produced a 13-try classic in the ’56 preliminary final. The game opened up after Rabbitohs prop Jim Richards and Tigers counterpart Jack Moon were sent off late in the first half. Balmain edged ahead 16-15 one minute into the second stanza and skipped to a 12-point lead with a quarter of the match to go, but defending champs Souths refused to give in before coming up just short. Lock Les ‘Chicka’ Cowie scored four tries for the vanquished Rabbitohs – who outscored their opponents seven tries to six – while Tigers centre Kevin Mosman bagged a hat-trick and fullback Keith Barnes finished with a vital nine-goal haul. The match remained the highest-scoring finals encounter in premiership history until 2003.
2. 1998: Canterbury 32 – Parramatta 20
Parramatta seemed destined for its first grand final in 12 years after building an 18-2 lead against a battle-weary Canterbury side in the preliminary final. But the courageous Bulldogs scored three brilliant tries – to Craig Polla-Mounter, Rod Silva and Willie Talau – inside the final 11 minutes and winger Daryl Halligan kicked two sideline conversions to level the scores. A 50-metre field goal attempt by Polla-Mounter scraped under the crossbar as the fulltime siren sounded, but the Canterbury halfback slotted two one-pointers and scored his second try in extra-time to get his side home 32-20 over the shell-shocked Eels, capping the most famous comeback in finals history. The extraordinary turnaround will forever be remembered for Eels winger Paul Carige’s series of brain explosions late in regulation time and throughout the added 20 minutes.
1. 2010: Sydney Roosters 19 – Wests Tigers 15
The 2010 qualifying final between the Roosters and Tigers became the first post-season match to go into golden point, but contained a season’s worth of excitement in regulation time. Tigers backrower Gareth Ellis was denied a try three times by the video referee in the first 10 minutes, but Benji Marshall laid on tries for Lote Tuqiri and Beau Ryan, centre Blake Ayshford scored a 70-metre intercept try and Robbie Farah kicked a field goal to give the third-placed side a 15-2 lead midway through the second half. Dally M medallist Todd Carney created two brilliant tries to cut the deficit to one point, however, and a rare scrum win against the feed inside the final minute saw Braith Anasta kick an incredible after-the-siren field goal after a frantic passing sequence. Roosters centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall won the match in the 99th minute with a long-range intercept try, ending a hectic and at times brutal encounter.