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I am going to jog all your memories back to recall three amazing finals charges that reaped no silverware. All three clubs were written off by the ?experts? but forced the critics to eat humble pie. As a supporter I found all three ?near fairytales? inspiring.
Ellery Hanley Magic ? 1988
The Balmain Tigers had made the finals for four consecutive years (1984-87), but lacked the all round quality to qualify for the grand final. In a bold move late in 1988 with the Tigers struggling to confirm a top five berth, coach Warren Ryan recruited Great Britain superstar Ellery Hanley to play for the Tigers. Hanley added some much needed zip to the centres with his ability to accelerate through gaps. A comfortable play off win over Penrith was followed by a dominant 19-6 elimination semi final win over Manly. Hanley scored important tries in knockout wins over Canberra and Cronulla to inspire his new club to an unlikely Grand Final appearance. To this day Balmain fans still wonder what might have happened had he not been ?taken out? by Canterbury pivot Terry Lamb in the 1988 Grand Final. The Bulldogs won 24-12 but Hanley?s remarkable short run goes down in Rugby League history.
Dragons make grand final against all odds ? 1996
St.George battled indifferent form during the first half of the season. They were in 12th position after 13 rounds, before a late season surge of 10 wins from 11 matches resulted in a 7th placed finish. The Dragons still weren?t rated as one of the main contenders but the next three weeks made everyone sit up and take notice. St.George beat Canberra 16-14 in the 6 v 7 Quarter Final. The match is remembered for the controversial mouse trap move put on by Anthony Mundine and Nathan Brown that resulted in the winning try to Mark Bell.. A 36-16 victory over the Roosters in Week 2 was sweet for St.George, who only a year earlier were being touted as likely merger partners with the Roosters. North Sydney were favourites to play Manly in the 1996 Grand Final but Anthony ?The Man? Mundine had something to say about that. His brilliant 60 metre try broke the Bears back and the Dragons took full advantage to triumph 29-12. Rank outsiders to beat Manly in the Grand Final, the Dragons were still hopeful of an upset until a controversial incident with the score at 8-2 to Manly. Sea Eagles fullback Matthew Ridge appeared to have been tackled by Nathan Brown but he took his own re-start and play continued until Steve Menzies scored. Manly?s powerful forward pack and defensive game were too strong that day. The Dragons lost the Grand Final 20-8.
From mediocrity to miracle workers ? 1998
Canterbury appeared to be heading for oblivion in 1998. An 18-26 loss to lowly Penrith in Round 20 had the Bulldogs facing a seemingly impossible task of even making the top ten. But the Bulldogs responded in a fashion typical of the club?s grit and determination. They won their last four regular season games to finish 9th. After progressing to Week 3 of the finals they produced MIRACLE 1. Taking on a star studded Newcastle Knights lineup, Canterbury fell 16-0 behind. But displaying superior fitness leveled the game at 16 all before fulltime and powered ahead to win 28-16 at the end of extra time. MIRACLE 2 was even more memorable. At 18-2 down to Parramatta in the Preliminary Final, even hard nosed hooker Jason Hetherington bowed his head as elimination stared the Bulldogs in the face. But a superb offload by Darren Britt set up a Rod Silva try. Then two more tries followed in the final five minutes. Champion goalkicker Darryl Halligan overcame immense pressure to kick a conversion from the touchline to send the game into extra time. With the Eels shellshocked, Paul Carige almost gave the game to them seconds before extra time with a bewildering kick to give Craig Polla Mounter a shot at field goal He almost kicked it from 50 metres out too! No matter, Canterbury polished off the Eels in the extra period, winning 32-20. The fairytale looked set to continue against red hot favourites Brisbane, when the Bulldogs led 12-10 at halftime in the Grand Final. It was almost as if they paid the price for the two consecutive extra time matches they had played, as the brilliant Broncos were far too good in the end, winning 38-12.
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