Last Sunday evening, the NRL Grand Final played out at Stadium Australia with the Sydney Roosters edging out the Canberra Raiders. This is the twentieth successive decider held at the venue, which has hosted the tilt every year since being built in 1999. 82,922 fans were in attendance, including a sea of green from the nation’s capital. The boys from Bondi became the first club to defend an NRL premiership in 26 years, while this also marked the Raider’s return to the finale after a quarter-century. The latter was the currently ‘the longest grand final drought in the league’.
Retiring halfback Cooper Cronk played in his ninth Grand Final. He made history as the first combatant to contest three successive finales since the Paramatta Eels of 81-83. Cronk became the second most-capped NRL player ever, having amassed 372 first grade matches. This is second only to his former teammate, Cameron Smith, who stands as the only man (so far) to have hit 400 career tussles. Cronk is the stuff of legends, how he played in last year’s championship despite a broken scapula. He has earned the right to be in the conversation as a potential league immortal. He was likewise sent off in fairy-tale fashion, something that eluded his long-time running mate, Smith.
The build-up to the chip was dramatic. The Roosters overpowered the mighty Storm, outplaying them before a partisan crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground. While I did not follow the Raiders, they must be the real deal to have upended powerhouse Melbourne, in Melbourne, during opening week of the Finals. Winning in Mel will never come easy; they have so much history and firepower. Any crew who beats them at AAMI Park is worthy of commendation.
The chip was also not only about the players, but the coaches and referees as well. Two great tacticians gave us a master class in coaching during these Finals. Ricky Stuart won three premierships as a player with the Raiders, before bringing his talents to the Harbour City. There, as a young mentor, he made the Finals thrice, winning in his first try. Since then, fifteen years would pass before his return to the decider. Meanwhile, this represents the third Grand Final for Trent Robinson after seven years with the Roosters. He has a perfect slate so far.
Match in review
The match unfolded quickly, with Sam Verills notching a try after the 7th minute. Latrell Mitchell then booted the conversion. Latrell was shaky, going only 3-5. Perhaps the pressure of the moment had gotten to him. Regardless, he converted another one, and the Rooster led 8-zip early on. Late in the first half, Raiders five-eight, Jack Wighton, scored a try. Trusty and reliable Jarryd Croker netted the goal, cutting the deficit to 2. 8-6 was the score at the break.
The early second half was notable for Cronk’s stint at the sin bin. This occurred at the 49th minute, after his professional foul against Josh Papalli. The commentators slammed the decision, mainly since Cronk easily gave up twenty kilos to the latter. ‘What was he supposed to do?’ However, even with the Roosters down to 12 men, the Raiders were unable to capitalise. This was pretty much the story of the entire match, with the Raiders gaining more chances but failing to deliver. They were in their opponents’ 20 far more than Sydney. They withered in the moment of truth, when their season was on the line. Croker’s kick evened it out during Cronk’s down time. However, that was as far as they got, as they did not score again. Their inability to exploit was not due to ineptitude; the Chooks should also be given credit for a suffocating defence, a hallmark of Robinson’s squads.
The overturned six again call was what defined this grand finale. This involved the Raiders being robbed after the lead referee vetoed his assistant’s judgment. They were so close to the line that they could almost touch it. With another six more shots at target, the trophy was theirs to lose. Instead, they were crestfallen and became bystanders as Teddy raced down the field to score in the 73rd minute. Game over!
There was one final controversy to end the season. Hulking Jared from the Roosters was behind the podium, expecting to be announced as the Churchill medallist for being best on ground. Alas, Canberra five-eight Jack Wighton got the nod instead. Awkies. There were only three judges for the Churchill: Mal Meninga, Darren Lockyer, and Phil Gould. Jared must have been ahead or equal among contenders at the time. The mix-up was reportedly with Lockyer. Regardless, this marks one of the rare times that the ultimate man of the match was awarded to a player from a losing side. Six years ago was the last time, with Daley Evans securing the medal. This was an incredible comback for Wighton, who was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence last year. He has found a home as a hooker, probably the best in the game right now.
Roosters reign supreme
What a night, what a year. Hard to believe that the first match took place in mid-March. After twenty-four rounds, four weeks of Finals footy, countless tries, a handful of golden points, and three memorable State of Origin rubbers, there can only be one team standing. In spite of the controversy, the injuries and the adversity, the Sydney Roosters are your 2019 NRL Premiers.