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