JOHN Sattler was the most courageous, Clive Churchill the greatest, Graeme
Langlands the most dejected, Brett Kenny one of the most brilliant and St
George the most successful.
These few names plucked out of more than 30 years of watching Sydney Rugby
League grand finals typify the drama, the agony and the exhilaration that is
part of the premiership decider.
There is something special about a Rugby League grand final and tomorrow
will be no different.
There will probably be half a dozen stories of what might have happened, if
But tomorrow one team will make that slow walk around the ground to accept
the applause of the crowd, to feel the euphoria the Roman gladiators must have
known after a victory.
These are the modern-day gladiators fitter than their counterparts have ever
They are also armed with the knowledge of every move the opposition is
likely to make, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and just about
every other statistic imaginable.
I have been lucky enough to see all but one grand final since 1949 ... two
years before Mick Cronin was born and 16 years before Paul Langmack and Steve
O'Brien made their entry to the world.
There is something to remember in every grand final.
It may be a pass or one of those Steve Mortimer covering tackles.
Perhaps it is a bone-jarring front-on tackle from Kevin Ryan or John O'Neill
that you can almost feel in the stand.
Or perhaps it is a piece of football magic from such maestros as the
incomparable Clive Churchill, the magnificent Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper, Bob
Fulton or a host of others.
The most brutal grand final I have seen was Manly's 10-7 win over Cronulla
No prisoners were taken that day as the teams hammered each other.
Most players had a 007 licence-to-kill tag and it was testimony to their
toughness that there were survivors.
Knees, elbows, stiff arms, punches and kicks - every possible illegality was
used as the teams battled through 80 action-packed minutes.
Manly's lock that day was Malcolm Reilly.
He looked a little like a choirboy with his smooth and ruddy complexion, but
he was at the other end of the scale on the field.
Reilly had perpetrated a bit of mischief on a Cronulla player in an earlier
match and the club doctor had to patch up the wounded player with 14 stitches
Early in the grand final there was retribution as the Cronulla player
squared accounts and Reilly limped off with a hip and leg injury.
CRONULLA would have won but for the genius of Fulton who scored two tries to
set up a three-point win.
John Sattler's incredible toughness in playing through a grand final with a
double fracture of the jaw has been well documented.
Sattler was hit with a looping right that landed flush on his jaw. It would
have ripped the head off a normal person, but it simply broke Sattler's jaw in
He played on and led his team to a 23-12 victory.
Sattler stood up on the platform after the match and made a superb speech,
then disappeared into Souths' dressing-room.
For 15 minutes reporters were kept out of the room and when we were finally
allowed in Sattler was sitting in the bath, traditionally reserved for the
When I spoke to him I can still see the trickle of blood oozing out of the
corner of his mouth.
His jaw swung like a rusty gate when he spoke and through half-clenched
teeth he asked not to mention anything about the injury because he felt he could
pass a medical examination the next day.
That Sunday, after the grand final, the Australian selectors were announcing
the team to go to England for the World Cup matches and Sattler believed - if
he kept the injury quiet - he could fool the doctor.
That night Sattler was admitted to hospital for an operation to repair the
damage and the Australian team, which went on to win the series, flew off
Also missing from the team was Graeme Langlands who had tried to keep his
broken hand a secret.
Langlands went to the trouble of having the wrong hand x-rayed but he was
sent back to have the job done again and it showed the break.
Langlands probably still has nightmares about the one match he would rather
Saints made the grand final against Eastern Suburbs in 1975 and the scene
was set for what should have been an epic battle.
Langlands had been troubled by a groin muscle injury during the season and,
while it was not bothering him too much before the game, he felt it would be
better if he had a pain-killing needle.
He had the needle, but it hit a nerve and Langlands had trouble controlling
his right leg.
When he tried to kick the ball with his shiny new white boots it was a
little like your grandmother taking a swipe at it.
He could not move freely and he suffered the indignity of being replaced in
the second half.
Langlands, one of the greatest utility players the game has seen, was
humbled by a straying needle. He never wore those white boots again.
Ross Kidd wept as he walked off the field after the 1967 grand final.
Kidd was the Canterbury halfback, a tough and resolute player, but one
indiscretion in feeding the ball cost his team the premiership.
Souths won the match 12-10 with the ensuing penalty.
These days the differential scrum penalty rule would have put the match into
THAT YEAR signalled the finish of the incredible St George era which began
in 1956 and wound up in the final at the SCG in 1967.
Volumes could be written about those great St George teams - Gasnier, Raper,
Langlands, Smith, Provan, King, Lumsden, Ryan, Walsh and so many more.
Nothing will ever equal their performance in winning 11 successive
premierships and it took a change of rule, from unlimited tackle to four-tackle,
to remove their crown.
St George were involved in so many great matches, but probably their
proudest feat was in 1959 when they went through to take the premiership
There were the titanic grand finals against Wests. The 1963 victory by 8-3
in the wet and the previous year's 9-6 triumph.
The 1963 grand final was played in slush and ended with Norm Provan, the
man-mountain St George second-rower and captain, and tiny Arthur Summons, the
Wests halfback and captain, walking off with their arms draped over each other's
Herald photographer John O'Gready, who has taken some of the greatest shots
in the game, caught this moment for posterity.
O'Gready's great picture, which won a world award, has been transformed into
the Winfield Cup, the symbol of Rugby League supremacy in Sydney.
Provan has had many memorable moments in a great career, but one which will
never escape him is the 1965 grand final before a ground record crowd of 78,056.
There were vivid scenes that day as brave spectators climbed on to the roof
of the old Brewongle Stand to get a view of the match.
I will never forget these noble people standing up as the band played God
Save The Queen.
I keep looking towards the hill area to see if one gentleman, who attempted
to crawl along the fence towards what is now the Doug Walters Stand, is still
caught up in the strands of barbed wire.
ST GEORGE, in an unforgettable day, pushed aside the challenge of the
up-and-coming young South Sydney team to score a 12-8 win.
While the scores may have appeared close, Saints, through the power of the
rock-hard Kevin Ryan, gained control early and never relaxed.
Few players have had a greater influence on the premiership than Clive
Churchill, the greatest fullback in the history of the game and arguably the
finest player the world has seen.
Churchill was a genius, a skilled attacking player who could set up a try
with incredible ease.
This was never more apparent than in the 1951 grand final against Manly.
Churchill, fresh from a mauling by the remarkable French team, reminded
everyone that he was Clive Churchill ... the best.
Poor Manly felt the full brunt of his brilliance. He set the backs moving,
he tackled like the little terrier he was, he probed and he found gaps to get
Souths on the move.
Backing him that day was Bernie Purcell, the second-rower who was a
specialist in blind-side play, and lock Len Cowie, still rated by many as the
finest positional lock the game has seen.
SOUTHS are a team to capture the imagination of the public, but never more
than their performance in 1955 when the team overcame a disastrous first round.
Souths went on to win 11 matches in succession to capture the premiership
12-11 against Newtown.
Newtown appeared to have the grand final won when they led 11-7 with six
minutes to go, but Jack Rayner toed a ball ahead and Col Donohoe chased and
recovered to score.
The crowd of more than 50,000 hushed as Purcell ran in to take the kick and
he sent it spiralling between the posts to climax another incredible chapter in
Rugby League grand final history.
Churchill would have been a star whether it was four-tackle football,
six-tackle or unlimited.
I have no doubt he would be one of the highest-paid players of today.
Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling would have been right at home in the
Kenny is a match-winner with his brilliant acceleration, as he proved when
Parramatta put together successive premierships in 1981, 1982 and 1983.
All the drama is not confined to the 50s or 60s. There was the 1,000-1
chance when, in successive years, there was a draw after extra time and the
grand final replayed.
Parramatta and St George battled to a 9-9 scoreline after extra time for the
first draw in 1977.
The replay was a week later and St George coach Harry Bath, incensed at some
incidents in the first grand final, told his players to rip in.
Saints won the replay 22-0 and a year later Manly, after a horrendous run
through the semi-finals, including a second replay, showed incredible courage to
blot Cronulla out of the replay to win their fourth premiership.
In recent times we have had the marvellous talents of Kenny, Sterling, Steve
Mortimer, Ray Price, Mick Cronin and so many others to marvel at.
After tomorrow, perhaps another chapter can be added to the history of the
grand finals or maybe there will be another couple of players who are good
enough to take their chances and grab the spotlight.