The year was 1997, the Super League War that had torn rugby league asunder for 3 years was finally coming to an end, as the ARL and News Limited announced the formation of the National Rugby League on September 23, with play to begin in 1998…
In the meantime, there was still one last game to play in the 1997 Optus Australian Rugby League season, as Bob Fulton’s almighty Manly team, featuring the likes of Geoff Toovey, Terry Hill, Cliff Lyons and Mark ‘Spudd’ Carroll, were set to appear in their third consecutive Grand Final in pursuit of back-to-back premierships, and on the opposing end was Malcolm Reilly’s Newcastle Knights, led by Paul ‘The Chief’ Harrogan, Andrew Johns and Robbie O’Davis, playing in their maiden First Grade Grand Final after 10 seasons, despite having the handicap of Matthew Johns in the halves.
With the town of Newcastle still reeling after BHP announced it was closing down that year, the Knights finished 2nd behind Manly and had a wild ride to the Grand Final, trailing Parramatta 18-0 in Week 1 of the finals before coming back to win 28-20, but they were then crunched 27-12 by Manly in the Qualifying Final:
The Knights then took on North Sydney in a rain-soaked Preliminary Final, and despite Darren Albert’s all-time try saving tackle on Matt Seers, the Knights were staring down the barrel as the Bears tied the scores 12-12 in the last 6 minutes, only for superboot Jason Taylor to shank a conversion he’d make 93 times out of 100, Matty Johns kicked the go-ahead field goal with 2 minutes remaining, and the Knights scooped on a loose ball to score with no time remaining, winning 17-12 and confirming they would get a rematch against the Silvertails.
Of course, the Sea Eagles would start the game as clear favourites, considering they had won the last 3 minor premierships, they were the defending premiers, their defence was one of the best in modern history, the Knights hadn’t defeated them since 1992 (One of those losses included the 1995 Preliminary Final), and had been crunched by the aforementioned score of 27-12 only a fortnight prior.
Instead, what the public got was one of the greatest Grand Finals in history, and a game that helped set Australian rugby league back on the right path after years of schisms.
Luckily for us, the NRL uploaded the entire game on to YouTube as part of the Classic Matches series, so you can enjoy the entire Channel 9 broadcast!
Watching that again reminds me of several things:
Chief Harrogan and Spudd Carroll fair dinkum trying to kill each other and everyone around them with some of those runs at their opposing lines.
Geoff Toovey getting smashed in the opening minute by The Chief and staying on the field, then slipping and getting KO’ed by Adam MacDougall in the 13th minute, stumbling as he tried getting back, and somehow still coming back onto the ground 5 minutes later, then getting stomped in the face by Mad Dog in the 45th minute… Obviously we’ve become a tiny bit smarter about head knocks in the 25 years since.
Manly playing with 11 men for a couple of minutes as Daniel Gartner and Craig Field went down in the 1st Half and somehow not giving up any points in that time.
Manly leading 16-8 at Half-Time and not scoring again.
Then we go to the Sea Eagles having several chances to put the game away in the final 20 minutes, among them…
Nik Kosef getting decapitated by The Chief in the 63rd minute to give Shannon Nevin a shot at goal 32 metres out into a swirling breeze to make it 18-10, only to hook it and miss to the left.
Darren Albert’s pass to no-one in the 69th minute on his own goal-line that could’ve easily ended in a Sea Eagles try from the dropout, at which point Peter Sterling commented on Channel 9 that he couldn’t see Newcastle holding the Sea Eagles in the ensuing set of 6, but instead the Sea Eagles turned it over on Tackle 2 and let the Knights off the hook.
Having several sets that ended on the Knights’ goal-line, only to be turned away by desperate Novocastrian defence.
And finally, the final blow was Cliffy Lyons missing the drop goal from 10 metres out dead in front, which would’ve made it 17-10 with 7 minutes to go..
Manly would never regain momentum, because a minute after the miss, Newcastle went straight into Manly territory, and Andrew Johns fed in Robbie O’Davis to reach out and score his second try under the posts to make it 16-16, setting up the events of the final minutes.
After several minutes of build-up, Matty Johns got Newcastle’s first crack at a field goal in the 78th minute and hit a beauty off the boot from 20 metres out into the breeze, only for the ball to slam into the right upright and fall into the arms of Cliffy Lyons – Manly wouldn’t get close enough to have another crack at a field goal, in what was their final set of the game.
That meant the Knights would get one last set with 70 seconds remaining, in which they worked it down to 25 metres out for the 5th and last.
Andrew Johns would get a shot at the field goal from 30 metres out, but his kick was charged down and ricocheted perfectly into the waiting arms of Mark Hughes to give the Knights another set with 20 seconds left.
Darren Albert plays the ball, Andrew Johns goes for a dummy-half run down the narrow blind-side, draws in a couple of players, creating a gap the size of the Queen Mary in the Manly defensive line, Joey spots Albert charging in to his left, and Albert runs straight through the gap to score with 7 seconds remaining, and utter pandemonium ensues as everyone in red & blue realised that the fairytale Knights had toppled the Silvertails and actually won the Grand Final.
Albert’s try marked Newcastle’s first and only lead of the game… they led for a total of 7 seconds, but the final score until the end of time would read:
Newcastle Knights 22
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles 16
Knights fullback Robbie O’Davis won the Clive Churchill Medal for his 2 tries, while a half-pissed Matthew Johns on Channel 7’s Sunrise the next morning (With Andrew shouting in the background) provided the comment that would define the day for the Knights….
IT WAS BETTER THAN LEGO!
One of the best games of rugby league ever seen, and it came at a point in history when the game needed a spark.
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