FAIRYTALE RUNS: NRL’S 10 UNLIKELIEST CHAMPIONS

NRL's unlikely champions

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The NRL premiership is on the verge of returning from a two-month lay-off – a minor miracle in itself after sport worldwide was brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s already a season like no other, throwing up a host of unprecedented challenges and unique circumstances for every club. Some have suggested the 2020 premiers will carry a theoretical asterisk next to their achievement – but this year’s champions will have overcome more obstacles than most of their predecessors to lift the NRL trophy.

Will it be the Warriors – friendless in NRL tips and NRL betting prior to the season’s suspension – whose sacrifices to keep the season alive will be rewarded with a maiden title? Or can the in-form and well-backed Parramatta Eels or Canberra Raiders defy the disruptions to end decades-long premiership famines?

This list of 10 clubs that rallied to win rugby league’s Holy Grail in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds – and against hefty NRL odds – should serve as inspiration to 2020’s 16 contenders.

10. WESTERN SUBURBS: FROM WORST TO FIRST (1934)

Western Suburbs slumped to take home the 1933 wooden spoon after losing their last eight games. The Magpies spiralled following the mid-season departure of five stars to England for the Kangaroo Tour – the biggest representation of any club.

But with brilliant fullback and captain Frank McMillan, champion five-eighth Vic Hey and barnstorming winger Alan Ridley back on deck, Wests won their first 11 games of 1934 before going on to defeat Easts 19–12 in a classic premiership decider.

Wests’ resurgent effort is the only instance in the competition’s history of a team winning the title 12 months after coming last. Punters please note: the ’33 Magpies should in no way, shape or form be used as a justification for backing reigning spooners the Gold Coast Titans to hoist the 2020 NRL trophy – they are on the last line of betting ahead of the restart.

9. BALMAIN: TIGERS’ GREAT GRAND FINAL HEIST (1969)

Balmain’s 11–2 upset of Souths in the 1969 Grand Final has taken on mythical status in the half-century since. The Tigers only booked their place in the decider after a last-second win over Manly, while the Rabbitohs had won the previous two premierships (and would go on to win the next two). But the 3 to 1 outsiders frustrated the Bunnies with go-slow tactics to grind out an incredible boilover.

Balmain’s unlikely victory snapped a 23-year title drought, but the club was destined never to taste the sweet nectar of premiership glory again before its merger with Western Suburbs at the end of 1999.

The biggest NRL Grand Final underdogs to lift the trophy in the past decade were Sydney Roosters, who started as $2.12 outsiders before thrashing Melbourne Storm 21–6.

8. PARRAMATTA: ‘DING, DONG, THE WITCH IS DEAD’ (1981)

The Parramatta Eels were the long-time whipping boys of the Sydney premiership, before emerging as a contender and suffering several heartbreaking near misses during the 1970s.

The Eels were shaping as also-rans at the halfway mark of the 1981 season – their first under illustrious coach Jack Gibson – but lost just one of their remaining games to finish third. After coming from behind to beat Newtown 20–11 in the Grand Final and end the club’s 34-year wait for a maiden title, the laconic Gibson delivered the shortest and most famous of all rugby league acceptance speeches: ‘Ding, dong, the witch is dead.’

Parramatta won the following two Grand Finals – the last club to pull off a three-peat – and triumphed again in 1986, but premiership glory has proved agonisingly elusive since. Many pundits are tipping the truncated NRL 2020 to be the season the Eels end the drought – 34 years after their last title – while punters have backed them into a good position to win the Grand Final.

 

7. MELBOURNE: SOPHOMORE STORM GET UP ON PENALTY TRY (1999)

The hastily assembled Melbourne Storm shocked the rugby league world by finishing third in their maiden NRL campaign in 1998. But that unique achievement paled in comparison to the newcomers’ feat of winning the premiership in just their second season.

Written off after losing their qualifying final to St George Illawarra 34–10, the Storm overcame double-digit deficits in three straight sudden-death matches – including coming from 14–0 down at half-time against the Dragons to snatch one of the most dramatic Grand Final victories of all time with a late penalty try.

Melbourne was the $2.55 underdog heading into the decider. Since then, the Storm have become a symbol of sustained excellence in the modern era, appearing in a further eight Grand Finals for four premierships (although two were stripped for salary cap breaches) – and few would count them out of adding to that tally in 2020. The ultra-consistent Storm are currently the favourite to win the 2020 NRL Grand Final.

6. PENRITH: PANTHERS FROM ROCK BOTTOM TO NRL’S PEAK (2003)

Penrith were lumped with the wooden spoon in 2001, and won just seven games the following season. But the unfancied Panthers’ bunch of unknown youngsters, journeymen and cast-offs surged to the minor premiership in a remarkable 2003 campaign, winning 19 of their last 22 games.

Still rated behind the star-studded Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters in the premiership stakes, the Panthers swept into the Grand Final where, as $2.50 outsiders, they downed the Roosters 18–6 to claim the club’s second title. Scott Sattler’s try-saving cover tackle on Todd Byrne swung the decider and typified Penrith’s spirit.

Subsequent success has eluded the Panthers, but a 2–0 start to 2020 before the season was suspended has put them in a strong position to make another improbable charge with punters backing them into good value in NRL premiership betting.

5. CRONULLA: SHARKS TURN OFF THE PORCH LIGHT (2016)

Jack Gibson quipped during the 1980s: ‘Waiting for Cronulla to win the premiership is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt.’

But the Sharks appeased their long-suffering fans when, in their 50th season – and just a couple of years removed from the harrowing ASADA saga – they buried the ghosts of lost opportunities past by winning the 2016 Grand Final.

Rated a $15 title chance pre-season, the Sharks pieced together a 16-match unbeaten streak but limped into the finals with four losses from their last five games. They rallied with play-offs upsets of the Raiders and Cowboys, however, before edging the Storm 14–12 as $2.05 underdogs in a gripping Grand Final.

‘Turn your porch lights off because we’re coming home with the trophy,’ captain Paul Gallen told Sharks fans post-match.

Just four members of that Grand Final squad remain at the club as Cronulla eye up premiership number two – which was paying a whopping figure at the time of writing in NRL 2020 betting.

4. CANBERRA: RAIDERS’ RUN COMPLETE IN EPIC GRAND FINAL (1989)

The comeback from 12–2 down at half-time. Mal Meninga’s ankle tap on Mick Neil. Benny Elias’s field goal attempt thudding into the crossbar. ‘Chicka’ Ferguson’s hot-stepping try to lock the game up with 90 seconds remaining on the clock. Unheralded forward Steve Jackson’s superhuman extra-time try to seal the win.

Canberra’s 19–14 win over favourites Balmain in the greatest Grand Final of them all in 1989 teemed with moments destined to become ingrained in rugby league folklore. But the epic battle that saw the Raiders clinch their first premiership overshadowed the team’s remarkable tightrope walk just to get to the decider.

The Green Machine had to win their last five games – including a final-round comeback against St George – just to scrape into the play-offs, before disposing of Cronulla, Penrith, Souths and Balmain to become the first club to win the Grand Final from fourth under the five-team finals format.

The triumph marked the beginning of Canberra’s golden era, where they garnered three titles in six seasons. After coming oh so close last year, the Raiders are looking good to win their first premiership in 26 years when NRL 2020 recommences.

3. SOUTH SYDNEY: THE ‘MIRACLE OF ’55’ (1955)

Premiers in four of the previous five seasons, South Sydney sat just one win ahead of last place with eight rounds of the 1955 season remaining. But the Rabbitohs stormed to another title courtesy of a staggering 11-match winning streak laced with comebacks and nailbiting finishes.

The most memorable moment of their charge – and one of the great moments in premiership history – came in the penultimate round, when ‘The Little Master’ Clive Churchill defied a broken arm and landed a sideline conversion on the bell to sink Manly. Souths battled without Churchill but snuck into the finals, pulled off more nerve-shredding sudden-death victories throughout the play-offs and, ultimately, put together a 12–11 defeat of Newtown in the Grand Final.

The Rabbitohs’ run has been immortalised as the ‘Miracle of ‘55’ – not to be confused with Peter V’landys’s miracle of 2020 in getting the NRL back up and running amid the pandemic.

2. CANTERBURY: STRIFE-TORN BULLDOGS LIFT LAST WINFIELD CUP (1995)

No team was hit harder than the Canterbury Bulldogs when the Super League war ripped the game in half midway through 1995. High-profile stars Jim Dymock, Dean Pay, Jason Smith and Jarrod McCracken reneged on deals with the rebel organisation to sign with the ARL establishment – putting them in conflict with their Super League–aligned club – while critics put a line through the 1993–94 minor premiers’ title hopes after a 42–0 loss to Newcastle.

But the blue-and-whites bound together, winning seven of their last nine games to finish sixth ahead of the inaugural eight-team finals series. After tipping St George out in a narrow qualifying final, the Bulldogs thumped heavyweights Brisbane and Canberra – as 8.5 and 9.5-point underdogs respectively – before stunning red-hot favourites Manly, who had lost just twice all year, 17–4 in one of the great Grand Final upsets.

No other team has won the premiership from outside the top four since, although nine sides have reached the NRL Grand Final after finishing between fifth to eighth during that time.

1. WESTS: TIGERS BENJI AND CO BLITZ RIVALS (2005)

The Wests Tigers joint venture’s first five seasons were remembered for little more than John Hopoate’s errant finger, recreational drug scandals and underwhelming results. Heading into 2005, the Tigers boasted just two players with State of Origin experience.

Fortunately, wily coach Tim Sheens hatched a style of play that his effervescent young playmakers and small but mobile pack unleashed to perfection, turning the structure-heavy NRL on its head.

On the second-last line of NRL premiership betting at $81 pre-season and $3.25 just to make the top eight, the Tigers rode an eight-match winning streak to fourth position before tearing through the finals and beating the North Queensland Cowboys 30–16 in the Grand Final.

The Tigers are very much in the outsider bracket again in NRL 2020 betting to win the Grand Final.

Remarkably, the pin-up boy of that ’05 conquest, Benji Marshall, remains the Tigers’ linchpin 15 years later as the club looks to sneak up on its rivals again in a fractured 2020 NRL season.

 

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