20-year Memories: 1999 Grand Final
A total of 107,999 people, the biggest crowd in history for a rugby league game, filled Stadium Australia to its brink for the 1999 NRL decider between Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons.
As with any grand final there seemed to be a storyline around every corner.
Storm had stunned the experts to reach the grand final in just their second season in existence while captain Glenn Lazarus was preparing for his 254th and final NRL game, drawing the curtain on a decorated career.
The Dragons, who were writing a fairytale story themselves, had come from a sixth-placed finish to now be within touching distance of their first premiership in 20 years.
Storm went into the game yet to beat the Dragons since entering the competition and were still reeling from the 34-10 qualifying final defeat at the hands of the Red V in Melbourne.
However it was not the big crowd or an international TV audience that would shake the players’ nerves, but rather a sponsor’s logo as the Storm captain recalls.
“For the grand final, whoever sponsored the competition, they would put their logo on the jersey,” Glenn Lazarus said.
“I remember some of the young blokes looking at that patch and I think it was at that time that they realised what they were going into. This little patch seemed to effect some of the players I think.”
“There were a lot of players in our team that had never experienced a grand final before.”
Whether it was the patch or something else, Storm’s start to the game was far from ideal.
Craig Fitzbibbon crossed under the posts and when Nathan Blacklock raced away for a 70 metre try soon after the Dragons were preparing the champagne with a 14-0 halftime lead.
The scoreline may have looked bleak at that point but the men in purple were far from disheartened.
“In the first half we played just as well as them,” Lazarus said.
“I thought we were playing with just as much effort but the way we were playing wasn’t working.”
Now if this was a Hollywood movie, it would have been the ideal time for someone in the Storm sheds to stand up and deliver their best Al Pacino impersonation.
However this was reality and in reality it is the cooler heads that prevail. There was no fire and brimstone speech in the Melbourne dressing rooms that day, instead they made a simple, cool and calculated adjustment.
“We actually changed the game plan a bit going into the second half,” Lazarus said.
“We chanced our hand earlier in the tackle count which had a really important effect on the game for us.”
For Lazarus the game’s turning point would arrive five minutes after the restart, and it came courtesy of a man by the name of Anthony Mundine.
The Dragons five-eighth collected the ball just metres out, with the Storm defence well stretched and the game-sealing try right there for the taking.
“All he had to do was pass it to Blacklock and he would have scored which would’ve put them 18-20 points in front at the time but he didn’t,” Lazarus recalls.
“Craig Smith managed to get his knee between the ball and the try line and Mundine knocked it on!”
Handed a lifeline, Storm’s belief begin to grow.
Tony Martin put Melbourne on the board in the 54th minute before the Dragons came up with the instant reply through Paul McGregor. However two minutes later a clever Storm move out of dummy half was finished by Ben Roarty and the was deficit soon cut to just four points.
It was then, with the game reaching its tipping point, that a message came down from the Storm coaches box which would prove the difference.
“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 qucker 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.”
Melbourne continued to surge forward but St George Illawarra clung onto their 18-14 lead.
That resistance remained until the 76th minute, when a moment arrived that would forever take its place in rugby league folklore.
Realising there was space down the right side, Brett Kimmorley placed a perfectly weighted kick into the waiting arms of Craig Smith.
Smith collected the ball but before he could ground it was collected high by his opposing winger Jamie Ainscough. That was then that Lazarus immediately sprang into action.
“I went straight up to the referee and wanted to know what was going on,” Lazarus said.
“I got close to him because Bill Harrigan talks to the video ref quite a bit and I could hear him say that he thought it was a penalty try.
“Nathan Brown (Dragons captain and current Knights coach) was in his ear and I was there. I can remember thinking that even if we don’t get this try and it is just a penalty, I think we will still get this try.
“But then I heard him say ‘Am I okay to award the penalty try?’ Then I got very excited!”
Harrigan made his decision and the scores were locked at 18-18 with a kick to come in front of the posts.
However there was the minor matter that Storm’s kicker had just been knocked into tomorrow as a result of his try-scoring effort. That left emerging playmaker Matt Geyer with the responsibility.
“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.
But history will show it was still worth two points and that was all Storm needed to secure their maiden premiership triumph in just their second ever season.
For Lazarus this was grand final win number five, having previously climbed the mountain with the Broncos (twice) and Raiders (twice).
But it was this overcast day in 1999 which still holds a special place in the now Australian senator’s heart.
“It was an overwhelming sense of disbelief, we had only been in the comp two years and in both of those two years we were touted as the wooden spooners, nobody gave us any hope of doing anything,” Lazarus said.
“Obviously it was my last game, it was a really special moment because a lot of these players came from all points of the country.”
“We all came together and in two years to win the grand final was very special.”
Melbourne Storm 20
Tries: Tony Martin, Ben Roarty, Craig Smith (penalty)
Goals: Craig Smith 3, Matt Geyer
St George Illawarra Dragons 18
Tries: Nathan Blacklock, Craig Fitzgibbon, Paul McGregor
Goals: Wayne Bartrim 2, Craig Fitzgibbon