North Queensland’s stunning upset of defending premier Cronulla on Sunday proved once again that anything is possible at finals time. It was the first time an eighth-placed team has rolled the fifth-placed side in eight seasons the current finals format has been utilised. So how far can the courageous Cowboys go?
Monday Memories celebrates the now-defunct Balmain Tigers’ incredible charge from a fifth-place playoff to reach the NSWRL premiership grand final in 1988, which ranks as one of the greatest achievements of the five-team finals series era.
The Tigers prevailed in must-win clashes in the final two rounds against fellow contenders Penrith and Brisbane to qualify for a play-off against the Panthers. The black-and-golds thumped the weary Panthers 28-8 in a spiteful clash at Parramatta Stadium that had significant ramifications for the club’s unlikely title quest – Test prop Steve Roach was sent off for an ugly tackle on Chris Mortimer and subsequently suspended for four weeks.
Showing no signs of the fatigue incurred from three gruelling matches in eight days, the Tigers disposed of defending premiers Manly 19-6 in the minor preliminary semi-final, with brilliant English import Ellery Hanley scoring two tries.
Hanley was crucial to the Tigers’ defeat of Canberra a week later as they teetered along the finals tightrope. Trailing 6-2 at halftime, the Tigers completed a defensive shutout of the dangerous Raiders in the second half and hit the front through a brilliant Hanley try out wide. Kiwi halfback Gary Freeman sealed the 14-6 victory with a try two minutes from fulltime.
The Balmain wave then barrelled minor premiers Cronulla in the Preliminary Final. The Tigers led 3-2 in a try-less opening 70 minutes, before Hanley yet again proved the match-winner by finishing off a superb movement, booking a Grand Final berth with a 9-2 victory.
Balmain’s remarkable charge had captured the rugby league public’s imagination, but a fairytale grand final win was not in the script. Hanley was knocked out the first half of the decider by a controversial Terry Lamb tackle. Despite Balmain hooker Ben Elias scoring the opening try, the Bulldogs outlasted the Tigers 24-12.