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The Sydney Morning Herald

COMEBACK KINGS

Author: ROY MASTERS
Date: 28/09/1998
Words: 1013
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 21
The result was expected but no-one would have predicted the ebb and flow of the inaugural NRL grand final. As Brisbane overcame a spirited start from Canterbury, ROY MASTERS saw plenty of promise for expansionists and traditionalists alike.

RUGBY league's endur ing capacity to rise up and strike the pundits and predictors on the nose was evident again yesterday when Brisbane won the first premiership of the National Rugby League, trailing at half-time but scoring all second-half points in a burst of fury and finesse.

In precisely the type of game not even Canterbury expected, Brisbane played the role of comeback kings, triumphing 38-12 after being down 10-12 at the break.

The game represented both a beginning and an ending.

It was the inaugural premiership of the NRL, forged from a union of the Australian Rugby League and Super League, but was an ending in that rugby league will vacate the Sydney Football Stadium for big matches. The grand final next year will be played at the Olympic Stadium at Homebush Bay.

Momentum, the great roaring wave which has seen teams sweep all before them in the semi-finals, was again evident yesterday but certainly not the way it had been predicted.

Brisbane played into Canterbury's hands in the first half, attempting to out-muscle and out-grunt them. There was little of the sleight-of-hand, confident passing which many expected would build a first half for Brisbane against the traditionally slow-starting Canterbury and set up a target for the Bulldogs to chase.

Canterbury matched Brisbane for first-half tries, with Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes later saying: "I thought both their tries were iffy". Folkes was referring to a possible illegal steal of the ball which gave Brisbane possession for a try by Michael Devere, and doubt whether replacement Kevin Campion forced it for the second.

Brisbane claimed the second-half momentum. "Half-time went too long for us," Folkes said.

But the wave was not initiated by an ageing, calculating genius like captain Allan Langer or a forward like Shane Webcke, with his body by Frigidaire and feet by Fred Astaire. It came from a player who was included in the team only because of the suspension of another.

Brisbane lock Tonie Carroll was elevated from the bench to the base of the scrum in place of suspended Peter Ryan and his try two minutes into the second half was the signal for the scoring spree.

Taking a perfectly timed pass from Langer, Carroll burst on to the ball like a sit-down mower churning through weeds. He dinged Canterbury half Corey Hughes out of his way and, having planted the ball for the try, threw it skywards in ecstasy.

The try regained the lead for Brisbane and was the signal for centre Steve Renouf eight minutes later.

Renouf, who has come to enchant fans with his Mr September performances, has been quiet in almost every month of this year. But his burst in the 50th minute, again from a Langer pass, ended in a blind-side try to right winger Wendell Sailor for a 20-12 lead.

The turning point in the match symbolised the fantasy and reality of Canterbury's brave charge throughout the play-offs.

With Brisbane leading 26-12 in the 68th minute and attacking the Canterbury line, Bulldog fullback Rod Silva snatched an intercept and ran 90 metres.

Fans felt an immediate "dogja vu" - expecting a try to reignite the Canterbury campaign which had seen them swamp St George, Norths, Newcastle and Parramatta in the second half.

Twelve Broncos feared likewise, desperately trying to stop six ball-moving Bulldogs.

But at the other end of the field stood referee Bill Harrigan with Brisbane five-eighth Kevin Walters and seven Canterbury players who had heard his whistle for offside against Silva.

Brisbane's Phillip Lee scored one minute later and Canterbury's moment had turned into an off-season.

The penalty against Silva was only the second to Brisbane, the first not coming until the 67th minute, by which time Canterbury had received five.

In the finely balanced game of today, where professionalism has curbed errors and play-the-balls appear to quicken during a game, referees' rulings may well be a major factor in momentum.

Earlier in the day, Canterbury's President's Cup team won the premiership, after they were down 22-nil against Parramatta, then scored the next 26 points.

A similar force was evident on Saturday in the Australian Football League premiership in Melbourne when North Melbourne had the momentum in the first half and, as with Brisbane, the visitors from Adelaide dominated from the opening bounce of the second half.

The Broncos have now won the highest-scoring grand final. And it is the first time they have won a premiership in a year in which Queensland have won the State of Origin series.

Their intense but immensely likable coach, Wayne Bennett, will now aim for a trifecta.

Coach of the Australian team to play New Zealand in two October Tests, he will be supplied with many Bronco players for his campaign to reverse the Kiwis' one-nil lead in the series.

Australia have not lost a Test series to New Zealand since 1952 and, while Bennett likes to claim firsts, a defeat in his debut as an international coach is not a dishonour he seeks.

After the match yesterday, Carroll said: "I just want to have more moments like this." And fullback Darren Lockyer, concussed at full-time in Queensland's win in Origin III at the same ground this year, said: "I felt empty after Origin III but nothing was going to keep me off the field at the end today."

Even Ryan refused to be disappointed, promising more tomorrows when he said of his three-match ban: "That was yesterday. Today is today. While the future belongs to the Broncos, rugby league owes the code's most successful club over the past two decades a huge debt."

The feeling was best summed up by the taciturn Folkes, who said: "We have done rugby league a service.

"We have made Sydney more tight-knit around rugby league. The game is in a better state than it was five weeks ago." PAGES 22-23: More grand final reports; PAGE 32: Photo gallery.

 
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