Grand Final injustice that haunts me
People always say you’ve got to lose a grand final to win one, but with Balmain I discovered that isn’t true. We lost two in a row, in 1988 and ’89.
People also say that you shouldn’t play the game in your head during grand final week. Well in that case, I reckon I must have played both finals a thousand times before I ever ran out.
In ’89, I wrote down eight pages of plays that we were going to use. My brain was in overload and I wanted to prepare for every scenario instead of just playing what was in front of me. That was a mistake. For the most part though, I put us not winning that year down to a whole lot of bad luck.
I was only speaking with Laurie Daley about it the other day. We still can’t believe how the game went down, with his Raiders coming from behind to beat us in extra time of the greatest-ever grand final.
30yrs ago to the day Balmain played Canberra in arguably the greatest GF of all time. What a pleasure to catch up with most of my team mates. Special mention to our coach the "Wok", great to see you looking so well. #NRL #Balmain @WestsTigers @BrydensLawyers #1989Grandfinal pic.twitter.com/PTASyZYbvv
— Garry Jack (@jimmyjack244) September 24, 2019
The game was gone before we knew it
No one expected us to be in the 1988 decider against Canterbury. Most of us had been at the Tigers since ’82, trying to make one, but we’d always come up short. When Warren Ryan came on as coach in ’88, he gave us the polish we needed to make that step up.
Halfway through the season, we were way off the pace but we won nine of our last 11 games to qualify for the fifth-placed playoff. Victories in four sudden-death finals made sure we were there at the Sydney Football Stadium to take on the Bulldogs.
The big thing I learned that day was how fast a grand final can slip away from you.
— Garry Jack (@jimmyjack244) April 23, 2017
We were up 6-4 in the first half when Ellery Hanley was knocked unconscious by Terry Lamb. The referee, Mick Stone, didn’t see it and apparently the touch judges didn’t either.
That one moment changed the game. Ellery was a freak in attack and could score tries better than anyone, so losing him for the rest of the match was massive.
Before we knew it, Canterbury had scored a try or two and we couldn’t pull them back. We lost pace with the game and then it was gone. The most frustrating part is that you could feel it going and we were unable to stop it.
But even though we lost, it still felt like a great achievement because we’d already defied all the odds by just being there.
Losing in ’89 was a different story; that was just pure heartbreak.
Four moments that cost us
Balmain in 1989 was the best club side I ever got to play for. We had skill across the park but more importantly than that, we played for each other. We had mateship and an incredible team spirit.
I wouldn’t say that we were overconfident going into the grand final against Canberra, but we certainly believed in ourselves. We’d never lost to them before, from 12 games since they’d joined the competition.
I’ve only been able to bring myself to re-watch the game once – in 2005 – but I can still remember that it was a hot, sunny day which worked in their favour.
They had a young, fit team full of guys who would go on to play for Australia. Glenn Lazarus, Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde and Steve Walters just to name a few. We were a bit older and more experienced, with quite a few representative players across the park.
In ’89, I wrote down eight pages of plays that we were going to use. My brain was in overload and I wanted to prepare for every scenario instead of just playing what was in front of me.
Even though we didn’t start the game very well we still reached halftime leading 12-2, after Paul Sironen went ‘charging, charging, charging’ on his way to one of the greatest-ever grand final tries.
The second half was a completely different story. I still remember four moments that went against us so clearly.
First, Bruce McGuire was wrongly penalised by Bill Harrigan for using an offside Raiders player as a shepherd. The Raiders scored a try off the back of that one to make it 14-8.
Soon after, I remember we made a play called ‘crash’ that put Micky Neil on the outside of Mal Meninga just a few metres out from the try line. He looked certain to score but Mal somehow clipped him with the arm guard and Micky came up short by about a foot.
On the very next play, we moved the ball from the left-hand side to the right, trying to find Wayne Pearce with Timmy Brasher and James Grant on his outside. All Canberra had there was Laurie Daley. It looked like a sure thing.
Laurie says he still remembers seeing the ball coming across, knowing he was no chance of stopping us. But Junior had a detached retina in his right eye back then, which contributed to him losing sight of the ball as it floated over high above his head. He fumbled the catch for our third bit of bad luck.
Then Benny Elias hit the crossbar off a field goal attempt for the fourth. I’ve got more to say about that that later though.
The decision to take off Blocker Roach was another major turning point, as it meant we lost our drive up the middle of the park. We were looking to defend our lead rather than attack, but that decision to take Blocker off simply gave the Raiders a sniff. All of a sudden, they knew they were in the game.
We spent the last 15 minutes trying to hang on, and we almost made it before Chris O’Sullivan put a bomb up in the final minute, which ended with Chicka Ferguson scoring one of the best tries of his career.
Mal converted and we were into extra time.
The part that hurt the most
With Blocker and Paul Sironen unable to come back on for extra time, things were already spiralling out of control. Then I was hit by more bad luck.
I collected the ball off the kick-off in extra time and at Laurie Daley, dislocating my right pinky finger in the tackle. It was at a right angle to my hand, just below the arm guard that was protecting my broken arm.
I said to the trainer, ‘you need to put this back in’, and he did the best he could, but I wasn’t in the best shape.
The next time the Raiders completed a set, Ricky Stuart sent a kick towards me. With my finger I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to take it with my right hand, so I turned to take the ball with my left. The ball popped straight back out.
Chris O’Sullivan then kicked a field goal off the back of the scrum to put the Raiders ahead for the first time in the match, at 15-14.
With no golden point back in those days we played on, and in the second half of extra time the Raiders finally put the game to bed.
We had the ball 20 or so metres out from our line when Andy Currier tried to grubber kick for himself, turning the ball over. Mal scooped the ball up and passed it inside to Steve Jackson who was charging toward the line.
I tackled him first, hitting him around the hips and sliding down, as a couple of other guys grabbed a hold of him up top. One was on his back; the other was trying to pull him down.
He shook me off and kept pushing forward as two more of our guys tried to stop him, but with his last ounce of strength, Jackson got over the try line. It was a great try but a bloody cruel way to lose a grand final.
Benny Elias … devastated after Balmain's (now Wests Tigers) 1989 grand final loss, when he hit the crossbar with a…
Honestly though, we were done at 15-14. They had all the possession and Ricky Stuart had kicked the shit out of the ball all day. I don’t even know if we got out of our own half in extra time, that’s how much we were on the back foot. Not that we’d been helped by the referees, with the penalty count finishing 8-2 against us.
The thing that hurt the most, was finding out years later that the crossbar was two inches too high!
Canberra were the ones that figured it out. They were building a new training centre and didn’t know the proper dimensions, so they called up the Sydney Football Stadium to find out off them. They built their posts to the same specifications, but a couple of years later they checked a rule book and discovered a discrepancy.
It’s crazy to think that Benny’s kick would have gone over in ’89, if the bar had been the proper height. In another universe, Mal’s conversion at the end of regular time would never have mattered. The match never would have gone to extra time. It would have been us that won, 15-14.