When the field is whittled to four and we’re left with two mouth-watering Prelims, that’s peak Rugby League. Premierships aren’t won that weekend, but it’s not uncommon to witness game of the year. So let’s re-live some of the best Preliminary Finals we’ve seen.
As a rugby league fan for three-plus decades, it is amazing how often great Prelims have captured my imagination and cultivated lasting nostalgia.
Since the Top-Five system was abolished in 1995, we have been blessed with a wealth of monumental match-ups that brought out the best in those competing and created a spectacle that often overshadowed the Grand Final.
So why would this be the case when the Grand Final is the showpiece of our domestic competition?
Perhaps for those players unfamiliar with finals footy, a rare Prelim could be their one opportunity to secure a berth on that last Sunday of the season — so they often deliver their Grand Final performance a week early.
Alternatively and simply, a Prelim may feature two juggernaut clubs with big game players who must produce their best footy to advance.
So let’s reminisce on five of the best Preliminary Finals; that captivated Rugby League audiences around the country.
Best Preliminary Finals of the Top 8 era (since 1995)
5. Bulldogs 32 def. Eels 20 (1998)
Twelve years removed from their epic 1986 Grand Final that bookended a stretch of seven Finals encounters in four seasons; the next instalment of Canterbury and Parramatta’s fierce rivalry was definitely worth the wait.
The Eels were playing just their second finals series since 1986, yet had many believing they could climb the summit once again after defeating the Minor Premier Broncos in the Semi; a victory which secured an early Preliminary Final berth.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were ranked ninth leading into the finals and fortunate to be contesting, courtesy of a ludicrous one-off Top 10 finals system. Once there, they defeated the Dragons and Bears in enemy territory, before mounting a 16-point comeback against the second-ranked Knights to earn an unlikely shot at Grand Final qualification.
Despite the Bulldogs best efforts, the game went to script for the majority of the match with Parramatta’s class on ball and speed out wide opening a seemingly insurmountable 18-2 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
Happy to sit back and defend the advantage, it allowed the Bulldogs to take charge. Craig Polla-Mounter dove over from close range in the 70th minute to ignite the spark, before Rod Silva burst onto an immaculate Robert Relf offload to streak away just minutes later; and the gap was narrowed to six.
When Willie Talau touched-down in the left corner with three minutes remaining, the Dogs were within two and the stage was set for rugby league’s most iconic sideline conversion. Darryl Halligan calmly exorcised his goal-kicking demons that cost North Sydney a Grand Final berth in 1991 with a beautiful drawing strike that straightened between the uprights. The scores were tied, and the match went to extra time.
The momentum from this comeback was too great for the Eels to overturn; the rampaging Doggies outscored them 14-2 over the additional 20-minutes and completed their second 16-point comeback in as many weeks.
The Bulldogs took this momentum into the decider against the Broncos and led 12-10 at halftime, before eventually running out of steam and being spanked to the tune of 38-12. They successfully rebuilt on the run over the next six seasons and claimed the 2004 Premiership with only two survivors from their ‘98 team (three if you include injured captain Steve Price).
The loss for the Eels left emotional scarring they are yet to recover from. Over the next 11 seasons they lost four more Prelims and two Grand Finals. Their Preliminary Final berth this season is their first since that fairytale Grand Final run in 2009.
And please spare a thought for poor Paul Carige. The Eels utility back acquitted himself with merit throughout his 45 games at the club during their successful 1997 and 1998 seasons. However on this fateful afternoon made a number of errors that seriously jeopardised their chances of victory – most notably a reckless kick from deep inside Parramatta territory after the 80-minute siren. The ball made its way to Canterbury’s Polla-Mounter whose attempt at potting a game-winning field goal from 48 metres out sailed under the black dot by mere centimetres. Carige was never spotted in the NRL again.
4. Roosters 26 def. Knights 20 (2000)
The battle of the best six in the game versus the best seven; Freddy Fittler v Joey Johns.
The Roosters signing of Fittler in 1996 signalled a resurgence for the club that produced four consecutive finals campaigns from 1996-99 – including two Preliminary Finals. They entered the Finals in 2000 ranked second; one spot above Newcastle, but were considered underdogs following a heavy defeat to the seventh placed Eels in week one of the post-season.
Joey’s Newcastle, on the other hand, tasted Premiership glory just three years earlier and were well-rested courtesy of a week off, following their comfortable 14-point victory over defending Premiers Melbourne.
The first half belonged to Johns with the reigning dual Dally M Medalist scoring a try and having a hand in two others as Newcastle took a 16-2 lead at the break. Albeit a one-sided scoreline, it was a captivating contest with both sides throwing caution to the wind and moving the footy freely across the park – the Roosters unlucky to have two tries disallowed by the Video Ref due to forward passes (yes, there was a time).
Buoyed by their close calls and motivated by Darren Albert’s try celebration and some choice words from Johns in the tunnel – Fittler returned serve and the Roosters dominated the second half. In a 15-minute burst they scored four long-range tries – featuring a famous Fittler intercept off an attempted Johns cut-out – and stormed to a lead they never relinquished. A late Timana Tahu try gave the Knights hope but it was too little, too late. The image of Johns pelting his mouthguard to the ground in disgust will long live in the memory of those who watched.
The Roosters would lose the Grand Final to the Broncos but would capture their long-awaited 12th Premiership just two years later.
Newcastle, obviously motivated by their gut-wrenching collapse, claimed their second title the very next year in 2001.
Coincidentally, the two sides would meet in every finals series between 2000-2003 with the winner of their battles reaching the Grand Final every year. This trend continued in 2013 when the Roosters thrashed the Knights in the Preliminary Final on-route to title number 13.
3. Roosters 19 def. Cowboys 16 (2004)
This finals’ fray featured two sides on opposite ends of the success spectrum. The Roosters were Minor Premiers and the most dominant side of the early 2000’s; bidding to make their third consecutive Grand Final and fourth in five years.
While the Cowboys were competing in their first finals series and embarking on a Cinderella run that produced wins over the second-placed (and eventual Champion) Bulldogs, before beating big brother Broncos for the first time in their Semi.
A sunny Saturday afternoon played host to an all-consuming classic where a sprawling-stink in the second minute of the game set the tone for a spiteful contest of absorbing end-to-end football.
When retiring legend Brad Fittler broke a 10-all deadlock midway through the second half, it appeared the more-fancied Roosters would kick-on to win. Determined to make their presence felt on the big stage, the Cowboys answered straight back with Josh Hannay producing a miraculous flick-back whilst being forced into touch to send Ty Williams’ over for his second try of the afternoon. Hannay’s ensuing sideline conversion to again level the scores sent a message to the Roosters camp that in order to claim victory, they would need to fight and scrap until the 80th minute.
An intense tussle to gain the ascendancy followed and the Roosters earned a three-point advantage thanks to a late one-pointer and penalty goal. The Cowboys had one final opportunity to steal the game in the final minute, but ultimately fell short with their favourite bomb play that reaped rewards throughout the finals series, plucked from the air by Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello.
The Roosters would lose their second consecutive Grand Final and a rebuild following Fittler’s retirement ensued. They made just two of the next eight finals series before Trent Robinson’s golden run began in 2013.
The Cowboys acquired the services of 2004 Grand Final winner Johnathan Thurston which immediately helped them take the next step to a Grand Final the following season – eventually losing to the Tigers. Despite JT’s brilliance the Cowboys struggled to compile a championship winning team around him before it finally fell into place in 2015.
2. Broncos 37 def. Bulldogs 20 (2006)
Anticipation was high for this clash between NRL heavyweights, but for two of the greatest clubs of the preceding 15 years, it was surprising they had only met in two previous finals fixtures.
In 1995, the Bulldogs defeated Brisbane on their path to another title, before the Broncos returned serve in the 1998 decider; a trend that suggested the winner of this match-up could be crowned champions yet again.
The Broncos’ shock loss to the Dragons at home in week one of the Finals was their seventh straight in Finals and had many fearing that Wayne Bennett’s ‘midas touch’ was lost. A 50-6 thumping over Newcastle helped alleviate these doubts to a degree, but they were still an unknown quantity.
The Bulldogs had no such issues, as they retained the majority of their Premiership side of 2004 and were seemingly primed to go the distance again, after earning a week’s refresher thanks to their trouncing of the Raiders a fortnight earlier.
The Broncos scored first through Shaun Berrigan but were quickly overpowered by a star-studded Dogs pack. Brilliant ball-play from big-men Roy Asotasi and Willie Mason laid on tries to halves Daniel Holdsworth and Brent Sherwin, before Matt Utai scored another to give them a commanding 20-6 lead at the break.
They started the second stanza strongly, before Shaun Berrigan’s second (and legendary) try that began 95 metres downfield rattled the Doggies cage and sparked an unbelievable six-try onslaught. The Bulldogs collapsed and compounded their woes with error upon error while the Broncos picked them apart at will to finish comprehensive winners.
The Broncos duly rode this momentum into the Grand Final where they defeated the Minor Premier Melbourne Storm outfit 15-8. It was their sixth title in 15 seasons and the end of a golden era as the Provan-Summons trophy has eluded them ever since.
Steve Folkes’ Bulldogs were never the same after this defeat – they finished with the wooden spoon two seasons later and his coaching career was done. They had brief periods of success under Kevin Moore and Des Hasler but never regained that Bulldogs identity that brought great success from the 1980’s to early 2000’s.
1. Rabbitohs 32 def. Roosters 22 (2014)
The most famous of foundation rivals had not done battle this late in a season since 1938.
The Rabbitohs finally emerged from decades in the doldrums to once again be a benchmark of the competition. They easily disposed of Manly in week one but would enter this contest with trepidation after losing Prelims in the previous two seasons — if it were to happen again, their Premiership window might pass them by.
The Roosters, in contrast, were Minor Premiers, defending champions and held no such fear, despite a shock one-point loss to the Panthers in week one, followed by a nail-biting victory over the Cowboys by the same margin.
It began exactly as the previous paragraphs might suggest, with the confident Roosters opening a 12-nil lead early with two individual pieces of brilliance from Mitchell Pearce and Anthony Minichiello.
Undeterred, the Bunnies turned to their physicality, the cornerstone of their success under Michael Maguire to flip the game on its head with an incessant barrage of brutality that buckled the might of the Roosters forward pack.
They scored two tries of their own and with the scores locked at twelve, the most telling effort in defence arrived on the stroke of half-time. They withheld a late onslaught on their line, where they might have yielded in the past; it provided the impetus for a second half bust-up.
In NRL game 200, Greg Inglis led the charge after the break with two of South Sydney’s three tries, as they streaked to a 32-12 lead and a famous victory. Two consolation tries to the Roosters added respectability to the scoreline, but did little to undermine the gravity of the Rabbitohs’ performance.
South Sydney progressed to claim their first title in 43 years; their 24-point victory over the Bulldogs fondly remembered for Sam Burgess’ heroic Clive Churchill performance while sporting a broken cheekbone. Besides a lull at the end of Maguires reign, they remain an NRL powerhouse who continue to feature at the business end of the season as their current run of five consecutive Preliminary Finals or better indicates.
The Roosters would lose two more Preliminary Finals in 2015 and 2017, before signing Cooper Cronk and becoming the first club in 26 years to win back-to-back Premierships in 2018 and 2019.