This year marks 20 years since the incredible 1997 ARL grand final between Newcastle and Manly. And although the Knights will almost certainly wrap up their 2017 campaign with a third straight wooden spoon, it’s sure to be an emotional Old Boys Day this Sunday at Hunter Stadium as the club celebrates its greatest triumph.
A second-half fight-back, culminating in an unforgettable try in the dying seconds to winger Darren Albert, secured a maiden premiership triumph for the Newcastle Knights – sending the city into party mode and providing a glorious highlight in a trying season fractured by the Super League war. Manly led 16-8 at halftime, but the minor premiers suffered the most heartbreaking defeat imaginable in a grand final for the ages.
Two weeks after playing a finals match of little consequence, Manly and Newcastle reconvened at the SFS for one of the most feverishly anticipated grand finals in recent memory. Front-row rhinos Paul Harragon and Mark Carroll came to blows after just 80 seconds, ‘Spud’ objecting to ‘Chief’s’ heavy-handed treatment of Manly skipper Geoff Toovey. It was the first of several ferocious clashes as Harragon was on the receiving end of several early cautions, while Toovey was knocked senseless during the first half and had his face stood on by Adam MacDougall during the second stanza but courageously played out the match.
Toovey recovered from his 13th-minute knockout to brilliantly set up a try for Craig Innes just 10 minutes later – the Sea Eagles’ second try after John Hopoate opened the scoring. Andrew Johns, whose health dominated the build-up to the match after being hospitalised with a perforated lung, put the Knights on the board with a penalty goal, before Robbie O’Davis scored a sizzling individual try from a scrum win. But Manly veteran Cliff Lyons put fullback Shannon Nevin over two minutes before halftime to set up a vital 16-8 lead.
Another Johns penalty goal was the only score of the first 33 minutes of an enthralling second half. The Sea Eagles missed several gilt-edged chances to extend their advantage outside a converted try, before O’Davis reached out to score under the posts; Johns’ conversion locked up the scores at 16-all. A Matthew Johns field goal attempt with two minutes to go hit the upright as the drama continued to escalate, while Andrew’s strike with 30 seconds remaining was charged down.
The irrepressible Newcastle halfback, visibly hampered by his injury at various stages, then produced one of the great plays in the code’s history. Instead of directing traffic towards another shot at a field goal, Johns darted down a short blindside from dummy-half, and found Albert backing on the inside. The snowy-haired flyer steamed onto Johns’ offload and beat the despairing Manly cover defence to race away and claim his moment in rugby league folklore, dotting down with only seven seconds on the timepiece. It was bedlam at the packed Sydney Football Stadium – the overwhelmingly pro-Knights crowd’s sense of delirium mirrored that of their on-field heroes.
The Knights’ gallant victory ranks as one of the most emotional of all time, snapping an 11-match losing streak against their arch-rivals and snaring an inaugural first grade title in the club’s 10th season under the most dramatic of circumstances.