Check out the Top 10 most bizarre games of the NRL era, featuring ferocious brawls, refereeing meltdowns, outrageous foul play, wild weather and a ref knockout.
10. Manly v Melbourne, 2011 – The Battle of Brookvale
After featuring in back-to-back grand finals opposite one another in 2007-08, the Storm and Sea Eagles harboured arguably the fiercest and most bitter rivalry in the NRL, and the heavyweights produced arguably the most explosive match of the NRL era in the penultimate round. Test forwards Adam Blair (Melbourne) and Glenn Stewart (Manly) were despatched for ten minutes after a melee, and were subsequently sent off after engaging in a wild punch-up on their way to the sin-bin. Blair’s season (and his career with the Storm) ended with a five-match suspension, while Stewart returned for Manly’s Grand Final triumph after the judiciary sidelined him for three weeks. Four more players from each side pleaded guilty after being cited for their respective roles in the brawling. Although it was lost amidst the drama, the Sea Eagles carved out an impressive 18-4 in the match dubbed ‘Donnybrookvale,’ the home side’s seventh win in ten matches against Melbourne at Brookvale Oval.
9. Canberra v St George Illawarra, 2002 – Raiders Seek Restitution after Fulltime Farce
The round nine encounter between St. George Illawarra and Canberra at WIN Stadium in 2002 produced one of the most extraordinary finishes in premiership history. The Dragons fought back from a 21-8 halftime deficit to trail by just one point, before their hooker Mark Riddell was sent off for a high tackle in the 77th minute. The 12-man Saints continued to press for the win, however, and Brent Kite was held up over the line in the dying seconds. Referee Steven Clark called time off with the clock showing zero seconds, and awarded the Dragons a differential penalty from the scrum, ruling Raiders halfback Brett Finch was offside in charging down opposing No.7 Willie Peters’ field goal attempt. Unable to kick for goal from a differential penalty, the Dragons took a tap and Peters landed a one-pointer to draw the game 21-all. Canberra’s coach Matthew Elliott and his players were livid with the outcome, while Raiders chief executive Simon Hawkins sought to have the result overturned – a demand that was unsurprisingly laughed off by NRL counterpart David Gallop.
8. South Sydney v Brisbane, 2011 – Waterlogged NRL footy in Perth
Torrential rain and blustery conditions plagued the Perth-hosted 2011 match between the Rabbitohs and Brisbane, with nib Stadium resembling a giant paddling pool. Souths were able to adjust slightly better, however, pulling off a 16-12 upset. The highlight of the night was undoubtedly a Chris Sandow grubber that pulled up in a puddle in the Broncos’ in-goal, allowing Rhys Wesser to pounce for a vital try.
7. Auckland v Balmain, 1999 – Simpkins manhandled by Kiwi internationals
Arguably the most controversial match of the 1999 NRL season resulted in three Auckland players receiving a total of nine weeks suspension after the Warriors’ 17-8 loss to Balmain. Auckland led 8-4 at halftime at Leichhardrt Oval, but was helpless to stop the Tigers piling on 13 unanswered points after the break. After Balmain pivot Ben Duckworth slotted a crucial field goal, Warriors captain Matthew Ridge and fellow New Zealand Test player Nigel Vagana rushed at referee Paul Simpkins, arguing that the ball had been touched in-flight. Unfortunately, the fired-up Warriors were not aware the rule had been changed during the off-season, instead grabbing Simpkins to launch their protest. Ridge and Vagana were suspended for three weeks apiece for placing their hands on a referee, while Kiwi and Samoan Test lock Tony Tuimavave joined them on the sidelines after being cited for a reckless high tackle.
6. Wests Tigers v North Queensland, 2001 – Hopoate’s fickle finger
Rugby League achieved unprecedented worldwide attention (and received a savage blow to its credibility) when Wests Tigers hothead John Hopoate was revealed to have inserted his finger into the anuses of several North Queensland opponents during a 2001 NRL fixture. Even more bizarrely, Hopoate unleashed the sordid tactic – which was designed to unsettle his rivals – when he was the ball-carrier. ‘Hoppa’ already boasted a lengthy rap sheet, but this indecent act plumbed new depths, so to speak, and he was sacked by the Tigers after copping a 12-week contrary conduct suspension from the judiciary, while the code became an easy punch-line for several weeks. Hopoate was thrown a lifeline by Manly, where his career was halted via a long ban for violent play.
5. Brisbane v South Sydney, 2009 – ‘Tunza’ pain for pole-axed ref
Opposition ball-runners shuddered when Brisbane hitman Tonie ‘Tunza’ Carroll came out of retirement midway through the 2009 season to bolster the out-of-sorts Broncos, but it was referee Tony De La Heras that would come to regret his return most of all. Officiating in a round 19 clash between Brisbane and South Sydney, De La Heras found himself in the path of runaway Rabbitohs centre Jamie Simpson and was knocked off his feet. A second later Carroll arrived in pursuit of Simpson, and his knee collided with the temple of the fallen whistle-blower. De La Heras was knocked unconscious and left the field on a medicab, but returned to NRL duty three weeks later.
4. Sydney Roosters v Newcastle, 2002 – Premiership defence ends in madcap semi
The Sydney Roosters extinguished the under-strength Newcastle Knights’ 2002 finals campaign in an extraordinary sudden-death semi-final, where having possession of the ball proved to be a disadvantage. The Knights, missing brilliant captain Andrew Johns through a back injury, scored first through inspirational backrower Ben Kennedy, before makeshift winger Julian Bailey coughed up a Brad Fittler bomb for Roosters forward Chad Robinson to score for a 6-all halftime scoreline. The video referee needed six replays to disallow a four-pointer to Roosters centre Todd Byrne 14 minutes into the second half. Two minutes later, Knights five-eighth Sean Rudder made a bust from a scrum win near halfway and was tryline-bound, but Anthony Minichiello pulled him down just two metres out. Roosters backrower Craig Fitzgibbon plucked an intercept two plays later and ran 90 metres to crash over for a try in the tackle of Newcastle centre Matt Gidley; the video referee had six looks at the replay to determine if Fitzgibbon was onside, before bringing up ‘Ref’s Call’ and Sean Hampstead pointed to the spot.
The contentious try opened the floodgates. Fittler kicked deep on the last tackle and Bailey’s pedestrian approach was seized upon by opposing winger Brett Mullins, who toed ahead. Mullins was taken out by Knights fullback Kurt Gidley in what would have been a penalty try situation, but Byrne made a bird of it by diving on the ball to score. Down 14-6 in the 65th minute and hot on attack, the Knights threw a loose pass and Minichiello scooped it up to race 80 metres for the match-sealing try. Two minutes later, Newcastle winger Anthony Quinn fired a dummy-half pass over the head of Bailey and Mullins pounced to score. But the Knights wanted a piece of the unorthodox try spree as their season quickly slipped away; centre Timana Tahu intercepted a Minichiello pass and ran 70 metres for a try. Byrne (from an intercept) and Minichiello (from a deflection off a Knights’ player’s hand) completed doubles inside the last five minutes. A gruelling 6-all stalemate after 58 minutes had unravelled into a 38-12 victory to the Sydney Roosters – the last seven tries of the match coming directly from opposition mistakes, while Mullins and Tahu required video referee approval for their tries after almost bungling them over the line unopposed. The Roosters went on to defeat the Warriors in the Grand Final two weeks later.
3. Newcastle v Parramatta, 2002 – Harrigan’s sin-bin meltdown
Newcastle accounted for Parramatta 28-14 midway through 2002 in a replay of the previous year’s Grand Final, with referee Bill Harrigan hammering the Eels 7-3 in the penalty count. The fiery clash – which featured an all-in brawl, Parramatta captain Nathan Cayless being cautioned for dissent and Eels centre David Vaealiki copping a five-week striking suspension – set the scene for an explosive rematch just three weeks later in Newcastle, with Harrigan again manning the whistle. After warning Parramatta’s players for repeatedly holding down in the ruck during the first half, Harrigan dispatched Michael Buettner to the sin-bin 15 minutes into the second stanza. Backrower Nathan Hindmarsh followed three minutes later, and the hapless Eels were reduced to ten men for a short time after five-eighth Adam Dykes was also marched. The Knights rallied from a four-point deficit to lead 20-18 during this period, and Buettner made his second trip to the sin-bin for abusing a touch judge when his opposing centre Mark Hughes scored the match-sealing try in the 74th minute. Harrigan was stood down for round 18 of the NRL for his controversial display, but he returned a week later and eventually controlled the 2002 Grand Final.
2. St George Illawarra v Parramatta, 2006 – Crazy finish caps field goal shootout
St. George and Parramatta produced quite possibly the most bizarre match of the modern era at Oki Jubilee Oval in 2006. The match was played in atrocious conditions and the score remained at 0-0 for 70 minutes. Eels five-eighth John Morris broke the impasse with a field goal ten minutes from fulltime, creating the first 1-0 scoreline since North Sydney halfback Clayton Friend opened the scoring with a one-pointer against Newcastle in 1989, before the Bears went down 14-1. Morris’ field goal triggered a frenetic finish to the contest. Ben Hornby kicked back-to-back field goals for the Dragons in the final five minutes, and at 2-1 the match was headed for the lowest-scoring result in a premiership match since the scoreless draw between Newtown and Canterbury 24 years earlier. But in the dying seconds Parramatta had a scrum feed near their own tryline, and Eels halfback Jeremy Smith stopped after feeding the scrum when he heard referee Sean Hampstead’s whistle. But Hampstead was signalling time on, and Saints centre Matt Cooper scooped up the loose ball for the match-sealing try. A frustrated Smith shoved Hampstead in the back, later receiving a four-week suspension for contrary conduct, adding a confounding post-script to a truly bizarre night. The final score: St. George Illawarra 8 Parramatta 1.
1. Canberra v Wests Tigers, 2000 – Snow falls in the capital
The only Australian premiership match to be played in the snow occurred in 2000, with Canberra hosting the Wests Tigers. Inclement weather and plummeting temperatures resulted in a blanket of snow for the Bruce Stadium surface by the time the first grade fixture kicked off, setting the scene for one of the most unique first grade matches ever staged. In conditions more commonly sighted in the frosty north of England, the Raiders won a see-sawing clash 24-22, but the score hardly seemed important while players attempted to keep frostbite at bay. A resilient 7,000-strong crowd turned out to see the match which sealed Canberra’s reputation as one of the NRL’s least desirable road trips.