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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 22/09/1991
Words: 931
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 2
There was something distinctly incongruous about Canberra players providing the images of defeat.

The sight of them slumped on the half-way at the finish, then in the dressing-room later, rekindled memories of Bjorn Borg at the end of the 1981 Wimbledon final shuffling to the net towards John McEnroe, who had ended the Swede's five-year Wimbledon reign.

Borg had triumphed so often, recovered from so many seemingly hopeless situations, he had assumed a veneer of impregnability.

Canberra, who had won seven matches in a row and were powering towards a third successive premiership, had quietly taken on something similar.

Seeing Mal Meninga as a loser was like watching Mike Tyson flopping about on the canvas, courtesy of James Douglas: it momentarily baffled the senses.

Somehow, expecting Penrith to win was not the same as expecting Canberra to lose, or at least it did not prepare the senses for the subsequent imagery.

In the dressing room afterwards, second-rower Gary Coyne sat in the same spot he had occupied after the semi-final against Manly, in which he had scored four tries.

For once, the Prime Minister was being photographed with beaten sportsmen.

The match had started typically enough. Canberra began slowly and trailed 6-0 after five minutes. They had been there before.

Then followed the inevitable resurgence, led by the usual contributors-Meninga, Gary Belcher, Ricky Stuart, Brad Clyde, who deserved the Clive Churchill Medal despite its being awarded to a losing player.

Six points ahead at half-time, and probably a 10-point better team. Whoever won yesterday, the result would have seemed obvious in hindsight.

Leading 12-6 at the break, the "Raiders scenario" of too much class and superior players looked the correct one.

Penrith captain Greg Alexander would say later: "At half-time, we had our heads down. We'd been outplayed."

Twenty minutes into the second half, the tone had changed completely, and yet Canberra seemed destined for victory. Penrith replacement Brad Izzard had beaten the defence, but Laurie Daley managed to strip the ball. Pacy full-back Greg Barwick was between tacklers and on his way, but Meninga managed miraculously to upend him. Mark Geyer had blown his cool and was in the sin-bin.

Penrith were beginning to looked jinxed.

However, Daley said: "When you hold a side out for 12 tackles, that's a good effort. When they get 24 tackles, you know something's got to crack."

Daley (hamstring) seldom challenged the defence with his footwork, and Stuart (groin) could not kick for distance. Coach Tim Sheens recalled that Stuart's spiralling pinpoint punts won last year's grand final.

There was a worrying moment just before the presentations, when announcer Tim Webster called the Raiders up to the podium for a third time, and still they did not come. It must have been an acoustics problem, for finally Meninga moved forward, his teammates followed, and the captain delivered a gracious speech.

Afterwards, league booses Ken Arthurson and John Quayle were among the first outsiders admitted to the Canberra sanctum.

The salary cap controversy, the injuries, the sudden-death charge ... all made the Canberra achievement more worthy, but ultimately the "Panthers scenario" (too fresh, too consistent, too balanced) was the valid one.

The players denied they had tired in the second half, though the coach said, with a smile, that he'd have been a shade pessimistic had there been extra time.

Meninga said: "It was just weight of possession and territory. It's pretty hard to score tries from your own quarter all the time."

The losing room was quiet and bereft of gaiety, but the players were less crestfallen, outwardly at least, than say the North Sydney boys last week.

Stuart was crying, but he was an exception.

Sheens touched on this when he said: "There's no great sense of remorse here. It's not as if anyone played badly.

"I believe that over the past weeks, Canberra have produced, and caused other teams to produce, some of the best football we've seen."

Prop Glenn Lazarus added: "None of us walked off thinking we could have done more."

As the players watched Penrith's on-field celebrations, their coach gathered them in a circle to address them.

"I just thanked them and told them they had nothing to be ashamed of,"Sheens said.

"It had been another memorable grand final. This time they'd come second, but they certainly hadn't come last."

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