When September rolls around, do-or-die footy is all we can think about. So let’s re-live some of the best NRL Grand Finals of the modern era.
In 2023, the Rugby League quietly celebrated its 26th year of the NRL era; when we finally waved goodbye to previous iterations ARL, NSWRL and the controversial Super League.
The NRL era is now a hearty chunk of Rugby League’s history and the club competition makes up much of the sport’s modern memories.
The now-26-year period has seen some absolute greats of the game – and even immortals – ply their trade. We’ve previously put together a Best Team of the NRL Era 1-17 lineup and now it’s time to hone in on the best NRL Grand Finals of that same period.
There have been some absolute belters played out, dating back to 1998. So let’s dive in — here are the six best NRL Grand Finals of the NRL era.
Best NRL Grand Finals of the modern era, ranked 6-1
6. Rabbitohs v Bulldogs, 2014
South Sydney Rabbitohs def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 30-6
A Grand Final that deserves to make the list for what it represents to Australian Rugby League and one of its foundation clubs. South Sydney were 43-years removed from their 20th title, 12-years from their re-entry into the competition, and a Premiership force once again under coach Michael Maguire.
They had teased their long-suffering fans with Preliminary Final exits the two previous years, before finally delivering against a spirited Bulldogs side who qualified from sixth position.
Sam Burgess’ broken cheekbone in the opening tackle and Clive Churchill-winning performance will go down in folklore. Greg Inglis’ goanna celebration for their fifth and final try will be replayed eternally. But it was George Burgess’ barnstorming 55th minute try that broke a 6-all deadlock and proved the catalyst for a famous South Sydney victory.
5. Roosters v Sea Eagles, 2013
Sydney Roosters def. Manly Sea Eagles, 26-18
The 2013 decider produced a colossal clash between two star-studded competition heavyweights. Manly were contesting their fourth Grand final in seven years, while big name recruits had catapulted the Roosters to a Minor Premiership under first-year coach Trent Robinson.
After a tight first half tussle, Manly took control with two tries after half-time and an 18-8 lead. This deficit awoke the Roosters’ superstar signings; James Maloney and Sonny-Bill Williams both busted the line to lay the platform for tries, before a centimetre perfect Michael Jennings grubber-chase and spectacular Superman dive secured their third try in 17 minutes.
A 13th title for the Tri-Colours and a win that kick-started Robinson’s reign of success.
4. Sharks v Storm, 2016
Cronulla Sharks def. Melbourne Storm, 14-12
2016 marked the end of the competition’s most infamous Premiership drought. An absorbing battle before a sea of light blue decided by a tenacious Andrew Fifita charge in the 69th minute.
This Cronulla lineup was special, registering a club record 15 consecutive victories throughout the year and their maiden title in 50 attempts. The heartbreak of Grand Final defeats, Preliminary Final fizzers, the ASADA Doping scandal and ensuing 2014 wooden spoon were now a distant memory.
The outpouring of emotion at full-time was only rivalled by the party that followed.
3. Storm v Dragons, 1999
Melbourne Storm def. St George Illawarra Dragons, 20-18
The second NRL season gifted fans a unique Grand Final encounter. The newly merged St George-Illawarra Dragons against the second-year Melbourne Storm. The Dragons were hot favourites with Anthony Mundine in career best form. The Dragons were primed to win the competition from sixth place after dispatching their finals opponents with ease, including the Storm just three weeks earlier.
A spectacular Nathan Blacklock try gave the Dragons a comfortable 14-nil lead, and the script was reading perfectly until a Mundine bombed try completely turned the game.
Melbourne outscored the Dragons 20-4 in the second half, climaxing with a dramatic penalty-try to Craig Smith in the final minutes that most League fans will vividly remember. It sealed a landmark victory for the city of Melbourne, laid the foundations for decades of success, and capped a brilliant career for retiring prop Glenn Lazarus, who won five titles for three different clubs.
2. Penrith v Broncos, 2023
Penrith Panthers def. Brisbane Broncos 26-24
This decider comes closer to topping 2015 than any other. It had it all. Penrith were looking for a 3-peat, something no side in the NRL era had done, while Brisbane were hunting big game redemption to wash their own heartbreak from 2015 away.
It’s on the biggest stages where rugby league’s great players stand up, stand out, and place their name alongside legends in the NRL’s pantheon of legends. Andrew Johns did it in the 1997 Grand Final, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk countless times themselves.
In 2023, it was Nathan Cleary’s turn. Penrith’s halfback put his team on his back when they needed him most, and ensured their historic dreams were realised.
After 55 minutes, when Brisbane 5/8 Ezra Mam crossed for his third try of the night, the party in Brisbane began. Their lead seemed insurmountable, their glory guaranteed. Until Cleary stepped in, snatching victory from their clutches like a mother plucking a naughty child’s toys.
After 62 minutes, he dummied, broke through Brisbane’s left-edge defence and found Moses Leota backing up the inside. 24-10, game on. Two minutes later, he drives a 40/20 into Brisbane’s half and dagger into Brisbane hearts.
With four minutes on the clock and four points needed to level the scores, Cleary’s final act, and his finest yet, sees him collect 10 metres from Brisbane’s line, step inside past a tiring, and defeated, Broncos defence to score the match winner.
Who said he’s not a big game player?
1. Cowboys v Broncos, 2015
North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 17-16
A clear winner with daylight second, the closing stages of the first all-Queensland Grand Final are that of rugby league immortality.
Moments etched in time. The Cowboys’ miraculous score-levelling try on full time. The Johnathan Thurston missed sideline conversion. The unfortunate Ben Hunt drop. And the Thurston Golden Point field goal.
What resulted in JT’s crowning moment and the Cowboys’ first premiership in their 20-year history could’ve ended so differently if Brisbane made just one more tackle. The headlines would’ve told stories of Wayne Bennett’s triumphant Broncos return and the glory days coming back to Red Hill. Instead, it was a defeat the playing group never recovered from, resulting in Hunt’s departure two years later and Bennett’s sacking the following season.
Best NRLW Grand Finals ever?
We’ve also done this exercise on the Women’s side of the rugby league equation, albeit a much shorter history of deciders to sort through. Check it out here.