With an unlikely victor, a fairytale send off, and more drama and controversy than a ten episode Netflix series, the last premiership decider of the 20th century reads almost like a far-fetched Hollywood movie. Such an improbable tale it is entirely apt that the Melbourne Storm produced the greatest second half comeback in Grand Final history under the leadership of a man named Lazarus.
Perhaps the Hollywood influence on the game shouldn’t be that surprising, given the choice of singer for the National Anthem on this particular afternoon. You might know of the nervous, young performer tasked with the responsibility of delivering Advance Australia Fair pre-game. It was Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman.
With the players from both teams and a world record Rugby League crowd of 107,999 all standing and silent, attention turned to our boy Hugh. In a performance much better than his and Nicole Kidman’s in the movie Australia, he completed his task with aplomb and everyone settled in for what became a most unforgettable match.
The first Grand Final to be played at the Olympic Stadium saw the second year old Melbourne Storm tackle St George Illawarra, in the first year of their joint venture, for the Summons-Provan Trophy. After losing three of their last five home and away games, the Dragons had been electrifying in September. Dominating performances saw them defeat the teams that finished the regular season first, third and fourth en route to the decider. Melbourne, after finishing third, had qualified for the Grand Final only after utilising their double chance in nail biting victories over Canterbury and Parramatta.
For St George, favourites after their Qualifying Final demolition of the Storm, the match presented an opportunity to exorcise the demons of Grand Finals past. The Dragons having tasted the bitter taste of Grand Final defeat five times since they last claimed the crown in 1979. For the Storm, a group of players thrown together in a Rugby League outpost, victory was an opportunity to stamp their footprint on the fabric of Melbourne and to send their legendary skipper Glenn Lazarus into retirement in the grandest way possible.
The Dragons had the better of the games earliest exchanges and their defence held firm against the Storm’s attacking raids. This meant an electrifying kick return try from Nathan Blacklock in the shadows of half-time seemed a killer blow. At 14-0 the players entered the dressing sheds for their oranges and coach’s debrief – only the greatest second half turn-around in Grand Final history could stop St George getting their hands on the trophy.
Despite the situation, the Storm were far from disheartened, coach Chris Anderson maintaining a sense of calm and insisting that apart from the bounce of the ball, they were right in the contest. With their confidence reinforced and a few subtle tweaks to their approach, Melbourne returned to the fray hell bent on bridging the gap.
This determination looked for nought when, 10 minutes into the second stanza, Anthony Mundine crashed over the line after regathering his own kick. All eyes turned to the big screen as the Video Referee was tasked with the responsibility of deciding whether the Saints talisman, and future World Super-Middleweight Boxing Champ, had extended the Dragons lead. Not for the last time on this day Craig Smith’s involvement in a video adjudication would pain Dragons fans. On this occasion his last ditch attempted tackle had sprung the ball from Mundine’s grasp as he reached out to ground it.
Having slipped the hangman’s noose, Melbourne compounded Mundine’s error with a try to Tony Martin only three minutes later. In the blink of an eye, like their captain’s biblical namesake, the Storm were now back from the dead. The Dragons through their skipper Paul McGregor, answered immediately but if they thought they’d quietened the challenge, the Storm had other ideas. In the punctuation mark to an electric 10 minutes, Ben Roarty scored for the Storm to again bring the difference back to a converted try. A further penalty converted by Craig Smith brought the margin to four points and a grand stand finish was on the cards.
The Dragons clinging grimly to their 18-14 advantage but with the momentum on their side a message relayed from the coach galvanised the Storm for their push at glory. Glenn Lazarus explained to the Storm website earlier this year “A message came out with about 20 minutes to go that they (the Dragons) were busted up and they’ve pretty much got nobody left on the bench,” Lazarus said. “For me personally, I felt we just need to continually apply pressure, steer the football and not turn it over, because defence will always tire you out quicker than having the footy. We kicked up a gear after that message was sent out and we played really good footy for that last 20 minutes or so.”
Storm Halfback Brett Kimmorley, in a virtuoso performance, directed his team and their attack with clinical precision. Relentlessly Melbourne attacked the resolute St George Illawarra line. With each thwarted attack the ticking clock became a stronger Dragons ally as they threw all they had at defending their hard fought but slender advantage.
Then after 76 gripping minutes of action, came the moment that will live forever in Grand Final folklore. In the in-goal area, Craig Smith rose high to meet an attacking cross field kick from Kimmorley. With the ball safely captured Smith looked certain to score out wide, until a flying Jamie Ainscough intervened. With a manoeuvre more reminiscent of the WWE than the NRL, Ainscough collared the Storm winger high and in the air. The scoring attempt seemed dashed with the immediately dazed Smith losing control of the ball.
Referee Bill Harrigan, officiating in his sixth of a record ten Grand Finals and not afraid of controversy, was quick to act sending the matter to the Video Referee for assessment. The question – would Smith have scored without Ainscough’s illegal tackle? Although the answer has been debated often throughout the intervening years, the video referee gave Harrigan the only possible answer – yes.
Harrigan awarded the Penalty Try to the prostrate Smith and scores were now locked with a kick to come. As the four pointer was a Penalty Try the conversion would take place from dead in front. An easier shot perhaps than if Smith had scored unimpeded but as he was the Storm’s kicker, who would take the conversion attempt?
Melbourne’s young pivot Matt Geyer stepped up to take the attempt at the lead, with the weight of the season on his young shoulders he struck the ball like it too. “If you have a look at the footage the kicking tee nearly goes as far as the ball, it was one of the worst kicks at goal you’ve ever seen!” Lazarus said. Importantly though for Rugby League south of the Murray, the strike still found its way between the big sticks and Melbourne had a lead and a few minutes later a premiership.
In 80 glorious, unforgettable minutes the codes’ most inhospitable outpost had claimed the games ultimate prize. The games’ largest ever crowd bore witness to the largest half-time comeback, ultimately completed with one of Rugby League’s bravest refereeing calls. The 1999 NRL Grand Final, yet another example of the truth in the adage, that truth is stranger than fiction.