Balmain Tigers v Canberra Raiders, SFS, 1989: widely regarded as the greatest Australian rugby league grand final. It had everything: history, controversy, game-changing plays and a spectacular finish.
Balmain entered as heavy favourites. They’d rebounded from the ’88 loss to Canterbury, finished third and beat Penrith (2nd) and Souths (1st) to waltz into the grand final. Canberra did well to make it that far. Finishing fourth, they beat Cronulla, Penrith and Souths in three straight sudden-death games. Surely Balmain would break their 20-year premiership drought while Canberra would be honourable losers after such a long journey.
The first half went to script: an early penalty goal from Andy Currier was followed by tries to James Grant and Paul Sironen. The Raiders were unlucky to trail 12-2 at halftime. Grant scored after Canberra lost the ball close to their line while Raiders fullback Gary Belcher got a horror bounce from a clearing kick, leading to Sironen’s try.
Belcher redeemed himself, scoring early in the second half to close the margin to 12-8.
The game became an arm wrestle as the Tigers tried to put Canberra away.
Michael Neil almost scored for the Tigers, halted by a desperate ankle tap from Mal Meninga five metres from the tryline. The play typified Big Mal’s courage, coming back from a broken arm. This was followed by a bombed try to Tim Brasher.
Balmain coach Warren Ryan’s decision to replace star forwards Steve Roach and Sironen was a turning point. These were the days when interchanged players stayed off. With fifteen minutes left and Balmain leading 14-8 (a Currier penalty goal extending Balmain’s advantage), the decision suggested the Tigers had done enough to win and Canberra didn’t have another try in them.
Ben Elias could have justified Ryan’s move with a field goal, but it hit the crossbar.
With 90 seconds left, the Raiders engineered a try from pure desperation. Camped on Balmain’s line, five-eighth Chris O’Sullivan bombed cross field. Laurie Daley won the contest for the ball, threw it to Chicka Ferguson who scored. Meninga kicked his third goal to enter extra time.
After Garry Jack knocked on, O’ Sullivan kicked a field goal to put Canberra 15-14 up.
Reserve forward Steve Jackson scored a try from a Balmain error and Canberra had won 19-14.
Canberra became the first NSWRL premiers from outside Sydney. With the Raiders and Brisbane Broncos dominating the nineties, the NSWRL would grow from the traditional suburban Sydney competition to the Australian Rugby League, Super League and the current National Rugby League.
Sadly for Balmain, this was their last chance at glory. They made the finals again in 1990 after beating Newcastle in a playoff for fifth, but lost to Manly in the elimination final. With Warren Ryan replaced by controversial former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, the Tigers never recovered, “winning” the wooden spoon in 1994 and briefly changing their name to Sydney Tigers before reverting to Balmain. They merged with the Western Suburbs Magpies in 1999, debuting in 2000 as the Wests Tigers. At least Balmain fans could celebrate the 2005 premiership.
The ’89 premiership started the Raiders’ “Green Machine” era. They won everything bar the meat tray in 1990, narrowly missed the hat-trick in 1991 and recovered from salary cap drama to win again in 1994.
The 1989 decider has been commemorated since 2008, with the 1989 League Legends Cup contested between Canberra and the Wests Tigers.