Party like it's 1999: How Storm upset Dragons to kick off purple reign

As the touch judge knocked on the dressing room door to signal it was time for the teams to run onto Stadium Australia for Hugh Jackman's performance of the national anthem, stunned Melbourne players watched as captain Glenn Lazarus began crying.

Less than two hours later, it was their St George Illawarra opponents who were in tears as injured Dragons skipper Mark Coyne and co-coaches David Waite and Andrew Farrar tried to console them after one of the most significant and dramatic grand finals of the modern era.

While most people associate the 1999 grand final with the controversial penalty try that handed the Storm a late 20-18 victory, the match was a glimpse into the future.

With the new millennium just months away, debate over the number of Sydney teams was at its peak and the presence in the premiership decider of a side from the AFL heartland of Melbourne, in just their second season, and the NRL's first joint-venture outfit was viewed as a win for expansion.

Sydney was preparing to host the 2000 Olympics and the grand final was played before a world record crowd of 107,999 spectators at the newly constructed Stadium Australia, which on October 6 will host its last premiership decider before being closed for two years to undergo a redevelopment.

On the 20th anniversary of the 20th Century's last grand final, NRL.com has spoken to many of the key players and officials involved in the gripping decider that set the Storm on the path to becoming one of Australia's leading sporting franchises and ensured the success of the merger between St George and Illawarra.

For either club to make the grand final was considered a remarkable feat given the many hurdles they had encountered along the way as Storm founders John Ribot, Chris Johns and Chris Anderson tried to establish a team in Melbourne, while Waite and Farrar had to combine two playing groups.

Among the many twists and turns along the way that have been recounted to NRL.com were:

  • The "sliding doors" moment that almost led to Clive Churchill Medal winner Brett Kimmorley playing for St George Illawarra instead of Melbourne;
  • The pre-season plan for Anthony Mundine and Trent Barrett to alternate between the No.6 and No.7 Dragons jerseys on a weekly basis;
  • The bizarre season of the Storm's Test forward Robbie Kearns, who broke his collarbone in a horse-riding fall in camp with the NSW Origin team in May and managed to fight his way back from that but then missed the decider due to a quad injury. Star five-eighth Scott Hill also missed the grand final after he was struck with a star picket during a visit home to Forster on the NSW north coast;
  • How St George Illawarra used the upcoming Olympic Games as motivation for their inaugural season;
  • Anderson's massive selection decision to drop his son, Ben, after Melbourne's opening finals thumping by the Dragons and call up goal-kicking winger Craig Smith for his only three NRL games of the season in the play-offs;
  • Craig Fitzgibbon only being recalled by St George Illawarra after prop Corey Pearson broke his collarbone in the opening finals triumph and then playing so well in the grand final he was signed by Sydney Roosters four days later;
  • Admissions that some Storm players were "too emotional" before kick-off;
  • Mundine being on a drip in the lead-up to the game;
Anthony Mundine loses the ball over the tryline.
Anthony Mundine loses the ball over the tryline. ©NRL Photos
  • The half-time pact by Tawera Nikau and Stephen Kearney that turned the match in Melbourne's favour after they had trailed 14-0;
  • The bombed 51st-minute Mundine try that still polarises opinions about whether it cost the Dragons the victory;
  • The message from the sideline about St George Illawarra's injury toll that gave Storm players confidence they could power home at the end of the game;
  • Revelations that Kimmorley initially planned to grubber into the in-goal area before kicking high towards the corner for an unmarked Smith in the 76th minute;
  • Video referee Chris Ward's immediate call to award a penalty try after Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough collected Smith high, before being urged to check it three times by other nervous match officials; 
  • Storm five-eighth Matt Geyer's revelation he hadn't practised goal kicking since Smith's promotion to the team three weeks earlier and had forgotten his run-up before converting the penalty try;
  • Kimmorley being invited to "fly" the chartered Storm flight home before a three-day party with supporters and a joint tickertape parade with the North Melbourne Kangaroos.

Chapter 1: The start of the Storm - Simply Super 

'I had to stay with the ‘S' brand'

The Melbourne Storm was born out of the Super League peace deal at the end of the 1997 season and their roster comprised largely of players from defunct clubs Perth Reds and Hunter Mariners, plus journeymen from other sides – but they almost missed out on Brett Kimmorley.

The star halfback was one of six Mariners players to join the Storm but after a proposed merger between the Newcastle-based club and the ARL-controlled Gold Coast Chargers collapsed Kimmorley was set to play for Illawarra in 1998.

After returning from England with the Australian Super League team at the end of the 1997 season, Kimmorley met Illawarra stars Trent Barrett, Paul McGregor and Rod Wishart and agreed to join the Steelers but was told he was still contracted to NewsCorp.

Even then, Super League powerbrokers attempted to direct Kimmorley to Canterbury and it was only after signing a blank piece of paper for Melbourne CEO Chris Johns that he was able to reunite with Mariners halves partner Scott Hill at the Storm.

"Hunter folded and I didn't have a club so I signed a four-year deal with the Illawarra Steelers to play with Trent Barrett," Kimmorley said.

"Then all of a sudden I was told that even though the competition was coming back together there were ARL contracts and Super League contracts so, because I was with the Hunter Mariners, I had to stay with the ‘S' brand.

"I had a meeting in Sydney with Michael O'Connor and Ian Frykberg and I was told to go to Canterbury for one year because they were a Super League club. There was some sort of agreement that meant that Scott Hill and myself couldn't go to the same club.

"I signed a blank piece of paper after flying to Melbourne one day and Chris Johns said ‘just leave it with me and we will get it sorted'. It turned out to be the best move of my career."

With Johns, executive chairman John Ribot and captain Glenn Lazarus coming from Brisbane and Chris Anderson having won premierships as a player and coach at Canterbury, the Storm culture was built around those two clubs.

"Both those cultures know how to win," Anderson said.

New Zealand forward Tawera Nikau was recruited from Cronulla and Papua New Guinea winger Marcus Bai came from the Gold Coast Chargers, while the Storm inherited the likes of Rodney Howe, Kearns and Geyer from Perth.

The Storm attracted a strong following in Melbourne from their first sold-out home match and turned Olympic Park into “The Graveyard” for visiting teams.

After making the finals in their first season, the recruitment of Stephen Kearney in 1999 helped turn the Storm into genuine premiership contenders.

"We never knew how successful it was going to be," Kimmorley said. "Chris Anderson coached a style of footy I wanted to play and I went down there for an opportunity.

"Chris played the flat and fast style that was created from rugby union, it was a style I liked and I had ultimate trust in him.

"It was the only club I played at where you knew everyone's name in the office, you felt like you were a club more than a football team and we were successful from day one. We all carry tattoos across our bodies from that period."

Full Match Replay: Storm v Dragons - Grand Final, 1999

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Chapter 2: The first joint venture - Enter the Dragons 

'Put me at No.6 or don't worry'

Bringing the 12 Steelers and 13 St George players together was always going to be the biggest task for Waite and Farrar, but it was made more difficult by the fact Anthony Mundine and Trent Barrett wanted the No.6 jersey.

"At that professional level there are egos involved," Mundine said. "I wanted to be five-eighth and he wanted to be five-eighth so in the pre-season they were talking about me wearing No.7 one week, him wearing No.7 the next week and we would swap it again the week after.

"But I wasn't going to give it up so I said if you truly think he is better than me I don't mind, I will play in the reserves and I will work my way up. It is all good. You either put me at No.6 or don't worry about putting me nowhere.

"That's when they realised that I wasn't going to budge so I ended up being the No.6 first and I kept it."

Waite said the way he and Farrar resolved "the biggest issue in the team" was by positioning the two playmakers either side of the ruck in what was considered a revolutionary move 20 years ago.

"They both became first receivers and they both became second receivers," Waite said.

"People don't think twice about it these days but the talk went on for weeks before people actually worked out what we did to satisfy them.

You go from being enemies one year and then within the space of a few months you have got to be teammates.

Andrew Farrar

"They were both outstanding players but when you develop a team you look at the resources that best suit the team in a certain way. Anthony and Trent were pretty happy and I saw them this year sit down together and laugh their heads off about the situation."

Barrett said: "I didn't mind playing halfback. I played on the right and Choc played on the left. He was a good fellow and we got on really well. We had a lot of talent in that team. We had a super side. I think we would have been double the salary cap when we came together but we had an exemption for 12 months to try and fit under the cap."

St George and Illawarra had decided to form the NRL's first joint venture at the end of the 1998 season to ensure their survival in a reduced 14-team competition from 2000.

Waite, who had been in charge of St George, had a relationship with Farrar after coaching him at schoolboy level and suggested he and the Illawarra mentor work together, while Mark Coyne (Dragons) and Paul McGregor (Steelers) were appointed co-captains.

"You go from being enemies one year and then within the space of a few months you have got to be teammates," Farrar said. "It was a pretty unique situation and there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work done before a ball was kicked at the start of the season."

So talented was the squad that Test winger Rod Wishart did not make the 17-man line-up for the opening-round loss to the Eels at Stadium Australia.

"I still remember the first day at training, there was a bit of 'us and them'," Barrett said. "It was a funny old year because there were a lot of different personalities to try and fit into one team and it did take a while.

"It wasn't just on the field but off the field as well because there were two different cultures and backgrounds. Even Andrew and Waitey were polar opposites in personality."

Among the ideas Waite and Farrar introduced to bond the group was rowing from Wollongong to Port Kembla.

"That was the goal of the pre-season," Waite said. "It was insane, I remember Nathan Blacklock was scared of sharks. We did some quite radical things like that but the three coaches, Max Ninness, Andrew and myself, had a lot of fun with a quality group of players."

Chapter 3: The Storm's build-up - Final tweaks

'Huge call not to play his own son'

Glenn Lazarus, the only player to win premierships with three clubs after leading the Storm to victory in his farewell match, still tells the story at corporate speaking engagements of Craig Smith's perseverance in 1999.

After playing 17 matches for Melbourne in 1998, Smith did not get a call-up from coach Chris Anderson until the second week of the '99 finals following the Storm's 34-10 loss to St George Illawarra at Olympic Park.

The selection of Smith was an even bigger bombshell because Anderson dropped his son Ben to make way for the goal-kicking winger, with Geyer moving to five-eighth.

"It was a huge call for Chris not to play his own son," Geyer said. "We played the Dragons in the first week of the finals at home and they beat us convincingly so Chris made some changes after that and he pushed me into five-eighth because I had played there as a kid – but never in grade.

"I was also the goalkicker who was doing an average job so the solution was to bring in a goalkicker."

For each of the previous 26 weeks, Smith had trained with his teammates in Melbourne before flying to Brisbane on the weekend to play for the Storm's feeder team, Norths Devils.

"He did that all year and if at any stage he said ‘I can't be bothered doing this any more' no one would have begrudged him but he hung in there and he got himself an opportunity," Lazarus said.

"I really admire him for that. When he came in, he played really well and kicked us to the grand final and earned a premiership ring. It is a really good story and one I have used many times in corporate speaking about never giving up. Craig Smith is someone I single out as being a special player or person."

The Storm finished third in the regular season on 36 points and after losing to the sixth-placed Dragons had to overcome Canterbury and Parramatta to qualify for the grand final.

They won both games by two points, defeating the Bulldogs 24-22 and triumphing 18-16 against the Eels.

"Craig Smith hadn't played all season and each week he ended up kicking the goals that got us to the grand final," New Zealand second-rower Stephen Kearney said. "He was kicking them from the sideline and everywhere."

However, it was unlikely Smith would have got his chance if star five-eighth Hill hadn't injured his shoulder and then spent four weeks in intensive care after being struck on the head by a star picket outside a nightclub during a visit home to Forster.

Chapter 4: The Dragons' build-up - Red V red hot

'It didn't feel like we were going to win a game'

Trent Barrett's most vivid memory of grand final day was the sight of the saddle-shaped roof of Stadium Australia as the team bus drove towards the 110,000 seat stadium from St George Leagues Club.

"Coming up King George's Road you could see the stadium in the distance because it was new then and there wasn't much else around it so it really stood out," Barrett recalled.

The Dragons had helped to open the stadium in their first match against Parramatta before a then world record crowd of 104,583 and finishing the season at the Olympic venue was the theme of their inaugural premiership campaign.

"We'd made a big thing of the Olympic stadium as a goal because we had to build a team and you've got to give the players a focus," Waite said.

"The soccer World Cup finished that year and we used the song from that [Ricky Martin's La Copa De La Vida], with our Olympic stadium. We didn't show much football, it was more about being able to play at the Olympic stadium, all the people who were going to be there and all that stuff."

St George Illawarra finished the season sixth on 34 points, well behind competition pacesetters Cronulla (40) and Parramatta (38).

The Dragons started the year slowly and lost three of their opening four matches, with the club's first triumph coming in Canberra in round three after Wayne Bartrim converted from out wide to give the merged entity a 16-14 win.

"There was more pressure in that game than there was in the grand final because it didn't feel like we were going to win a game," Waite said. "That was the turning point."

Storm winger Craig Smith.
Storm winger Craig Smith. ©NRL Photos

St George Illawarra beat the Storm 28-16 in round 13 at Melbourne's Olympic Park and the following weekend they climbed for the first time into the top eight, where they remained for the rest of the season.

In the opening week of the finals, the Dragons again travelled to Melbourne and this time thumped the Storm 34-10, with Nathan Blacklock scoring a hat-trick.

"We beat the Roosters [28-18] the following week and then we beat Cronulla [24-8]," Barrett said. "That was a good win, we were down against Cronulla and Choc tore them to pieces in the second half to score three tries and get us in the grand final."

Dragons winger Nathan Blacklock celebrates his spectacular try in the first half.
Dragons winger Nathan Blacklock celebrates his spectacular try in the first half. ©NRL Photos

But in the week leading up to the premiership decider Mundine was ill and there were concerns about whether he would be fit to play after being unable to attend the official NRL grand final breakfast on Thursday morning.

"Three days after the Cronulla semi-final I was on a drip and I had [Dragons chief medico] Dr Martin Raftery looking after me," Mundine said. "I was sick all that week. I actually had tonsillitis and I was in doubt to play the grand final.

"No one knew. I didn't go to the grand final breakfast because I was still trying to recover and at the time I was 50-50 about playing. I decided in my mind that I wanted to play no matter what but I was probably running at about 60 percent by the time of the game."

Chapter 5: The first half - One-way traffic

'The captain was crying'

Melbourne coach Chris Anderson blames his side's poor first-half performance on an emotional pre-match build-up.

It was a remarkable feat to make a grand final in just their second year and the Storm players were determined to send out their captain Glenn Lazarus with a sixth premiership after he previously enjoyed success with Canberra in 1989 and 1990 and Brisbane in 1992, 1993 and 1997.

"We got too emotional before the game and we lost our way in the first half," Anderson said.

"It was a big deal being the second year as a group to be in a grand final and playing before a full house at that stadium with the Olympics coming up was a big buzz so we got a bit emotional. You can't afford to do that at this level of sport."

A nervous Kimmorley recounted the manic final minutes before kick-off when Lazarus broke down in tears as he addressed his teammates pre-game for the final time.

"The two-minute bell has just gone, the coach has spoken to us and he has gone out of the room, and Glenn Lazarus, who has won five premierships at two clubs and is playing his last game, starts talking about how important grand finals are and not to blow it," Kimmorley said.

"Then literally some tears come out of his eyes and he starts crying as the ref taps on the door and says, 'OK Storm, out you come'.

"I think that led a little bit to how bad we started the game because we were kids on the big stage for the first time and the captain was crying. It was a massive shock to us."

St George Illawarra suffered an early setback when Kiwi Test prop Craig Smith came to the sideline in the 12th minute after splitting his tongue and was replaced by back-rower Fitzgibbon.

Remarkably, Smith managed to return for another 27 minutes and finished with the most run metres (194) by a Dragons player.

"He bit his tongue, it must have been when they tackled him, and it was like he had a snake's tongue. It was in two pieces," Farrar said. "That was probably the bravest thing I have ever seen for him to go back on. I think they put about 30 stitches just in his tongue after the game."

Fitzgibbon scored on virtually his first touch after winning the race for a perfectly placed Mundine grubber kick between the Storm posts to claim the opening try in the 14th minute.

After producing a try-saving cover tackle on Melbourne centre Tony Martin, who used to paint his headgear before each match, Fitzgibbon extended the Dragons' lead to 8-0 with a 25th-minute penalty goal.

"He probably would have got the Clive Churchill Medal if we had won," Barrett said.

With St George Illawarra fullback Luke Patten forced from the field in the 27th minute, Blacklock shifted from the wing and made an almost immediate impact when he gathered a Kimmorley chip kick at full tilt and ran 70 metres to score.

"He caught the kick and hit that hole between two players and ran the length. I was just cheering him on," Mundine said.

The late, great Lance Thompson tries to get past the Melbourne defence.
The late, great Lance Thompson tries to get past the Melbourne defence. ©NRL Photos

"Our confidence was sky high, we had good attack all over the park and we knew we had X-factors in the team like myself, Blacklock, [Jamie] Ainscough, Patten and guys who can pretty much cause damage across the backline, as well as some good forwards."

Fitzgibbon said: "Nathan Blacklock's try was unforgettable and some of the out of the box stuff that he and Choc came up with in games was remarkable. Whenever you see a Dragons highlights reel there is always those guys doing backflips and setting up or scoring tries, which are pretty special to watch".

The Dragons led 14-0 at half-time and their dominance was demonstrated by the first-half statistics, with Melbourne hooker Richard Swain making 21 tackles and lock Paul Marquet 20, while Kearney and Howe each made 10 hit-ups.

In contrast, St George Illawarra's highest tackler was Bartrim with 13, followed by second-rowers Darren Treacy (12) and Lance Thompson (11). Smith made 13 first half hit-ups.

The Melbourne Storm celebrate their astounding 1999 premiership success.
The Melbourne Storm celebrate their astounding 1999 premiership success. ©NRL Photos

"The thing that was encouraging for us was that we weren't playing too bad," Lazarus said.

"Their tries came from a little grubber kick and Nathan Blacklock taking the odds to the ball bouncing into his hands, which it did, but it could have bounced completely the other way and we would have scored.

"At half-time we regrouped, changed a few things and went out in the second half and played footy. We weren't very adventurous in the first half."

Chapter 6: The forward pact - Kiwis get physical

'T grabbed me and said let's go for it'

As the exhausted Storm players were walking off the field at half-time, lock Tawera Nikau pulled fellow Kiwi Kearney aside.

"I just had a chat to Stephen as we were going up the tunnel and said ‘we have got 40 minutes, let's get out there and rip in'," Nikau said.

"In the second half our defence changed the game for us and we got a bit of momentum.

Kearney said: "T grabbed me and said ‘let's go after it'. If you look at the start of the second half, it was quite intentional what we were trying to do out there.

"He was preaching about us going out there and leading the charge and he inspired the group in terms of how he played in the second half."

We pumped them in the first semi in Melbourne and leading 14-0 at half-time I thought we were home.

Anthony Mundine

Anderson also challenged Kearney to stop playing like a front-rower.

"He was having a crack at me but it was a message to all of us in the forward group," Kearney said.

Geyer said: "Opes [Anderson] never panicked and you were always in the game with him. He wanted us to go and take the game by the scruff of the neck. It was a big thing that we had to score the first points in the second half. We couldn't go much more down than 14-0 or we would really be in trouble."

Significantly, the Storm also changed their defensive structure.

"We completely changed our game plan at half-time," Lazarus said. "We had all week to go and work on a particular game plan and we had to change it at half-time.

"Our defence was the old Canterbury-style of up-and-in but with Anthony Mundine, in particular, he liked to drift across field as soon as one of the defenders comes out to take him, the opportunity opens up for him so we had to be very patient at times in our defence, which is something we had never done all year."

In the Dragons sheds, the players and coaching staff were feeling confident after dominating the opening stanza.

"I remember the first half going really quickly and we were doing it comfortably," Barrett said. "Waitey was pretty calm in his half-time talk and he thought we were going along OK."

Mundine said: "We had the wood on them all year, we pumped them in the first semi in Melbourne and leading 14-0 at half-time I thought we were home."

Chapter 7: The Mundine missed try - Man, oh Man

'A lot of people blame Anthony'

The Storm began the second half in more adventurous fashion, with Kearney offloading to fullback Robbie Ross and St George Illawarra prop Craig Smith being penalised for a high shot on Kimmorley after he gathered the ball from a Geyer kick.

Melbourne winger Craig Smith scored his team's first points with a 42nd-minute penalty goal but the Dragons regained control and appeared set to claim an unassailable lead when Mundine regathered his own grubber near the try line and dived over but lost the ball.

Mundine has been criticised in some quarters for not passing to an unmarked Bartrim on his outside but the star playmaker believes he only bombed the 50th-minute try because Smith's knee hit his left elbow in the attempted tackle.

"I saw the line and nine times out of 10 I get that try," Mundine said. "I tried to put the ball down with two hands instead of one to make sure. Normally I put it down with my right hand but I used two hands and Smith clipped my left elbow, which caused me to fumble the ball.

"We scored five minutes after that in the right corner, it would have been an easier kick for Bartrim but you can't say that cost us the game."

Nikau said: "Mundine should have passed the ball there and they would have scored but Choc tried to score himself. That's just one of those things that can happen in a game."

You certainly don’t win or lose a grand final on that particular incident.

David Waite on Mundine's missed try

Waite suggested Mundine may have been taking "some evasive action with the top half of his body" after appearing to duck under Smith's swinging arm as the Storm winger launched himself.

 "A lot of people blame Anthony for not passing but if he passes the other player still has to catch it and put it down," Waite said. "You certainly don't win or lose a grand final on that particular incident.

"We lost a lot of momentum in the second half without a lot of things happening the way we would have liked them to happen. It was a very interesting game in terms of how the momentum swung.

"There were massive periods with no penalties but there was a penalty for Shaun Timmins being in front of a Nathan Brown kick and they ended up scoring [the winning try] from a set of six they started inside our half. That [penalty] gave them a bit of a lift."

There was further controversy when Martin scored in the 53rd minute off a Geyer pass that many claimed was forward.

The Melbourne five-eighth insisted the ball went backwards, saying: "I was told a blimp view cleared me of a Tom Brady pass."

McGregor scored in the 57th minute after Wishart tapped back a Barrett kick to give the Dragons an 18-6 lead but injuries were set to take their toll.

"We thought we were back in it but then they scored," Geyer said. "Still our resolve was pretty strong. We only needed two more tries and once we got that second try we knew it was anybody's game."

Chapter 8: The comeback - Rising like Lazarus

'You could feel a little bit of fear from the Dragons'

Melbourne captain Glenn Lazarus has revealed how a message from their bench about St George Illawarra's injury toll gave his side confidence they could power home to snatch victory.

While Dragons prop Chris Leikvoll (biceps injury) and Patten (leg) were forced to watch the remainder of the match from the sideline, Anderson made the most of the unlimited interchange rule as he rotated his forwards.

"With about 20 minutes to go we got word that their bench was severely busted up," Lazarus said.

"They only had one interchange player left so that gave us a bit of a boost. We were playing really well but that is something I remember vividly. We just thought if we played as upbeat as we were we would go very close to winning the game."

Nikau and Kearney led the way for Melbourne, making good on their half-time pledge.

"At the start of the second half they went out there and were really physical, took some heads off and changed momentum," KImmorley said.

Tawera was outstanding, he was the one who turned it around in the second half.

Chris Anderson

"At some stages you could feel a little bit of fear from the Dragons forwards seeing them come out of the line. They were two large frames and quite intimidating.

"I don't know whether they stood next to each other in the sheds at half-time and made a pact to turn the momentum and not let this opportunity go but I thought our forwards were amazing."

Anderson said: "Tawera was outstanding, he was basically the man of the match. He was the one who turned it around in the second half.

"He certainly led from the front and we changed the way we were playing so it was very important. He just had that leadership about him, and he showed that all year on and off the field. He was a great trainer and he was fearless on the field, and that really lifted the blokes."

Melbourne's interchange forwards Ben Roarty, Danny Williams, Russell Bawden and Matt Rua had an impact too.

"It has often been lauded what the boys did," Geyer said. "They literally took what Opes said and took the game by the scruff of the neck. That semi-final at Olympic Park was vividly in our minds at the time and I remember the Dragons just seemed like they were too fast for us.

"They were doing a lot of dummy-half running and their speed really worried us so we had to play to our strength and back then with unlimited interchange and four forwards on the bench we just needed to pound them and the boys did."

Williams jolted the ball loose from Wishart and Kimmorley put Roarty over to score in the 58th minute.

Storm winger Craig Smith converted and he then kicked a 65th-minute penalty goal to reduce the Dragons lead to 18-14.

"I am not blaming anybody but everything started to go Melbourne's way and I was starting to think we are going to get beat here," Mundine said.

"I just didn't feel the urgency from my team, with the line speed and the talk.

"You start to doubt things in your head and sure enough that controversial try at the end sealed the deal for them. I pretty much knew our fate when it did happen."

Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough is distraught as Storm players celebrate.
Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough is distraught as Storm players celebrate. ©NRL Photos

Chapter 9: The penalty try - Oh no, Ainscough

'It will be the biggest decision you have ever made'

If Kimmorley had stuck to his initial plan to grubber into the in-goal area, the 1999 grand final may not have ended in such controversy.

"The reason the kick went to the corner rather than a grubber for a repeat set was because Jamie Ainscough had come in-field to take the grubber so the kick went to the corner," Kimmorley said.

"I remember the ball seemed to float in the air for a long, long time and Craig Smith had literally caught the ball and you didn't know if he had scored the try."

Smith was collared high by a desperate Ainscough before he could ground it and video referee Chris Ward told referee Bill Harrigan to "send it up" for review.

Even today I still cop it from Dragons supporters. People don’t forget.

Video referee Chris Ward

"Watching it live I called it straight away, ‘that's a penalty try'. I never hesitated," Ward said. "From where I was on Level 3 of the grandstand I saw it all unfold just to the right of where we were sitting.

"Tim Mander was beside me, saying ‘Wardy, settle, settle. Let's have a look at it'. We looked at it once and I said, ‘I haven't changed my mind, Tim', but he said ‘let's have another look' so I had to go back to Channel 9. ‘Listen', I said, ‘it is a very important decision, it is going to make or break the grand final so I'd like to see it all again very slowly'.

"We went through it three times, I think, and each time I would look around to Tim and say ‘my decision hasn't changed'.

"He said ‘Wardy, it will be the biggest decision you have ever made in your life'. He wasn't wrong. It was the biggest decision.

"I had so many people abuse me afterwards. I had an employee who worked for me at the time who left the most abusive message I have ever heard on my voicemail. He abused me for everything. Even today I still cop it from Dragons supporters. People don't forget.

"That was the most intense moment of my career. I was relaxed about the decision but it was so intense."

The entire process took 2 minutes and 59 seconds from the time Harrigan blew time off until he awarded the penalty try under the goal posts, with the game clock stopped at 75:48.

"At that stage we didn't have the video referee's box at the stadium because they were still building it for the Olympics so I had to phone upstairs to Graeme West, who was working the board, which was the big screen," Ward said.

"In those days the only options were TRY or NO TRY so I said to him just put TRY up and we will explain it to Bill, which we did. Bill said, ‘penalty try, Wardy?' and I said ‘yes'. He walked over to the centre and awarded it."

If the incident had occurred now there would be no doubt about the ruling but confusion reigned on the field and in the stands as the world record crowd fell silent.

"My first thought was that we are going to get something out of this," Lazarus said.

"It might not be a penalty try but we are at least going to get a penalty and we had a lot of momentum. We were just running over the top of them. I thought if we got a penalty we would be a chance of scoring.

"My next memory was hearing Bill Harrigan saying ‘I think it is a penalty try'. The decision was exactly right. If that happened today it would just be a no-brainer but at the time it was a big call by all the officials involved."

Waite and Farrar have different views on the decision.

I have never believed in penalty tries and I still don’t.

Andrew Farrar

"I thought it was a bit nasty," Waite said. "The player has done everything he possibly could. You ask them to do whatever they can to stop the try without deliberately aiming to hit them in the head when someone is flying through the air.

"I don't think there was any intent to hit him in the head but the outcome to try and stop the try – he was in the air falling so Jamie has done everything he possibly could.

"That's the game, they're the rules and people interpret the rules. One team wins and one team loses."

Farrar said: "I suppose according to the rules, because he hit him in the head or neck, that was the decision but – and not just because of that - I have never believed in penalty tries and I still don't. Who is to say he definitely would have put the ball down. You just don't know."

Chapter 10: The conversion - Geyer's jelly legs

'I would have preferred someone else to get knocked out'

Matt Geyer couldn't remember his run-up as he lined up the most important goal kick of his career after Craig Smith was knocked out by Ainscough's tackle.

Geyer still holds the Storm record for most points in a season with his 1999 haul of 242 points from 20 tries and 81 goals but he had stopped practising after Smith had been called into the team three weeks earlier.

"I had just been fetching them for him because I thought there was no need for me to practise, he was hitting them from everywhere," Geyer said.

"I hadn't practised goalkicking for about a month so as I put the ball down I became a nervous wreck.

"I could barely put the ball on the tee, my hands were shaking and as I was walking back you can actually see on the footage that I stop and pause and I look up to my right. I was actually trying to remember my run-up. I was thinking how many steps do I take again."

My legs were like jelly and I was thinking how am I going to get through this. I can’t do this.

Matt Geyer

Of concern to Geyer before the penalty try was awarded was whether Smith had managed to ground the ball.

"Being a bit of a student of the game I knew all the rules. The big thing I was looking at on the day was that Smithy actually grabbed the ball and you could be beyond doubt he was going to score if he didn't get hit," he said.

"On the day I didn't think Jamie Ainscough got him really badly. I thought Smithy was falling but obviously he knocked him out cold and one moment he had the ball in his hands and the next he didn't.

"My mind then went straight into management mode and I thought ‘that's our goalkicker and I'm the No.2 goalkicker' so I started looking to see whether he had grounded it. If he had grounded it I would have had to kick it from out there.

"I would have preferred someone else to get knocked out and Smithy to slot the goal."

After Harrigan walked towards the spot under the posts where the goal kick would be taken, Lazarus ran over to Geyer.

"I said, ‘Lazzo. you are not going to be able to help me right now'. I said, ‘Lazzo, it is alright. I have got it'," Geyer said.

"My legs weren't even underneath me as I was walking back, I couldn't remember my run-up, the noise was incredible, there was red and white everywhere and I knew the occasion.

"My legs were like jelly and I was thinking how am I going to get through this. I can't do this. If it wasn't in front I don't know that I could have backed myself to kick it."

A few minutes later, Geyer was in disbelief as the full-time siren sounded and his brother Mark, who had won a premiership with Penrith in 1991, was suddenly on the field and running towards him.

"I heard 'Boofa, Boofa' and I turned around. Back in those days you must have been allowed bottles and he had a bottle of VB in his hand, and he has thrown it into the air," Geyer said.

"I stopped and I was pointing towards it but he was just running towards me like out of the movies. He was totally oblivious to it and the bottle landed about a foot from him.

"Once I realised it had hit the ground I just ran towards him and I said, 'Mate, how did you get out here?' I could just imagine the security guard trying to stop him.

"I think the big thing for my brother was that his premiership was eight years earlier and we were the same age when we won grand finals.

"At the start of that year I wasn't even a first-grader so to win a comp was unbelievable and I think he was just happy that I had experienced what he had." 

Chapter 11: The aftermath - Agony and ecstasy

'Do you think I will go down in history?'

Prime Minister John Howard, the Dragons' No.1 ticket-holder, was on the field for the post-match presentation and talking to the St George Illawarra players when Ainscough turned to Waite and said: "Do you think I will go down in history".

As soon as the full-time siren sounded, St George Illawarra players slumped to the ground and many of them were in tears.

Few have watched a replay of the game but they assured Ainscough, who won St George Illawarra's player of the year and players' player awards for his performances during the season, that the 20-18 loss wasn't his fault.

Waite said: "Jamie is fine. 'What about that' he said. ‘Will that go down in history?' I said ‘it sure will, I think it is the first one in a grand final'.

Jamie actually said, ‘do you think I will go down in history’. I said, ‘yeah, probably’.

David Waite

"It was interesting, with the Prime Minister next to him and Jamie actually said, ‘do you think I will go down in history'. I said, ‘yeah, probably'. Every year you see it replayed at this time of the season."

Mundine was among the teammates who consoled Ainscough.

"I just told Jamie to keep his head up and not to put that on himself," Mundine said. "Shit happens, it's sport and it just wasn't meant to be.

"He was one of our best players that year. The game is still very vivid in my memory and I definitely think ‘what if this, what if that' but you just have to accept what is written for you and move on."

Craig Fitzgibbon said: "That wasn't the sole reason we got beat. There were plenty of other factors that went into it. Leading 14-0 at half-time we should have been able to finish that game off so it's unfair to say that the penalty try was the one and only reason."

However, the penalty try dominated the immediate aftermath of the grand final, with demand for the match officials to explain their ruling so intense that NRL media manager John Brady organised a specially convened press conference.

Andrew Farrar with Paul McGregor, Nathan Brown, Jamie Ainscough and Craig Fitzgibbon at the end of the 1999 grand final.
Andrew Farrar with Paul McGregor, Nathan Brown, Jamie Ainscough and Craig Fitzgibbon at the end of the 1999 grand final. ©NRL Photos

"It was the first time ever I had done a press conference but the media insisted I come down and explain it," video referee Chris Ward said. "I was a bit nervous and I got Tim [Mander] to come along as well.

"You couldn't have fitted another person in the room, they were shoulder to shoulder and they were all shooting questions. The press asked me how and why did you come to the decision.

"I told them the same story. The decision was made before it even came upstairs. I said I had already made my decision. The replays confirmed it."

On the field, Lazarus celebrated his fifth premiership win with three clubs in his last match by performing a cartwheel.

"Mundine and Blacklock had been doing somersaults and backflips so Lazzo said if we won he would do a cartwheel," Nikau said.

Lazarus denied accusations he had "rubbed it into their noses".

"Throughout the semi-finals we would play first and the Dragons would watch the second game and all I was watching was Nathan and Anthony doing backflips and twists and turns and all of that," Lazarus said.

"It wasn't a dig at the boys, it was just the fact that it was the first time we had beat them. I managed to get a cartwheel out but that was about it. There were no backflips in my repertoire."

Chapter 12: The return home - Noddy the 'pilot'

'We were the toast of Melbourne'

After winning the Clive Churchill Medal as player of the grand final, Kimmorley was invited into the cockpit of the Storm's plane to help "fly" the team home to Melbourne, where a party had been organised with Molly Meldrum as MC.

"It is a huge honour, even now," Kimmorley said. "I think I probably stole the award off Tawera Nikau. I thought Tawera changed the game enormously."

The Storm had chartered the plane, with Ansett staff dressed in Melbourne gear, and seat 1A reserved for the Summons-Provan Trophy.

"We had a chartered flight back to Melbourne, all the players were in business class, the partners and sponsors were at the back, you had your beer and meat pie for dinner and it was an amazing feeling," Kimmorley said.

"It was a Hollywood ride. I didn't actually ‘fly the plane' but I sat in the cockpit for about 45 minutes with the captain. I got to ‘fly' home by being out the front, obviously by being man of the match.

"When we got out at Melbourne airport, which is about an hour from Olympic Park we couldn't even get off the plane. We had to leave our bags on the plane. It was like a rock star reception, the airport was packed with fans everywhere and we went back to Punt Road for our own party for a few days."

Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett paid tribute to the Storm and the team was afforded a ticker-tape parade with the AFL premiers North Melbourne, whose team was captained by Wayne Carey and included the likes of Brent Harvey, John Longmire, Byron Pickett and Corey McKernan.

"We were the toast of the town in Melbourne, there was a massive parade for us at city hall," Nikau said. "It was one of those things that you will never forget.

"It was a fairytale finish for Lazzo but for me it was about a lot of the guys who don't get mentioned as much, like Paul Marquet, Danny Williams and Richard Swain as much as the big names."

An emotional Lazarus told his teammates: "You've got your own story now".

"I was a lot older than most of the other players and I used to reflect on teams that I had played in that had won grand finals," Lazarus said.

"I think the emotion was the fact that it was my last game. It just hits you like a ton of bricks that when you wake up tomorrow you are no longer going to do something you had done every year for 30-odd years."

St George Illawarra internationals Brad Mackay and Rod Wishart joined Mark Coyne in retirement after the 1999 grand final and were farewelled with celebrations at Kogarah and Wollongong, while Fitzgibbon joined the Roosters.

"At the time I was off contract so I didn't know if I was going to stay or what would happen," Fitzgibbon said.

"It was such a great line-up so being a young guy, just to get into that team and play in a grand final I was thrilled. I signed with the Roosters the week after that so it turned out that was my last game for the Dragons."

Farrar said: "It's probably the worst football decision I have ever seen, when they didn't re-sign Craig and he went to the Roosters.

"All he wanted to do was stay at the club but we were in a situation with the salary cap because of the two teams coming together. We got an exemption the first year and each year after that we had to come down."

Chapter 13: The legacy - Foundation for future success

'Maybe the Melbourne Storm might not even be here'

According to Lazarus, it is impossible to downplay just how significant the Storm winning a premiership in their second year was for the club and the game.

"If we had finished second-last in our first year and third-last in our second year or been just an average team for a handful of years then maybe the Melbourne Storm might not even be here now," Lazarus said.

"If you look at Gold Coast and Melbourne, here we are 21 years down the track and the Storm is probably the most successful and professional team in the competition, whereas the Gold Coast is struggling to stay afloat.

Storm captain Glenn Lazarus celebrates the win with a cartwheel.
Storm captain Glenn Lazarus celebrates the win with a cartwheel. ©NRL Photos

"Winning is virtually everything in regards to keeping fans coming back, attracting sponsors and getting media interest.

"The one thing they spoke about before we even kicked a ball was the need to build a winning culture."

The Storm made the finals again the following season but fell short in 2001 following the departure of Anderson as coach after the opening seven rounds, and again in 2002.

Since the appointment of Craig Bellamy in 2003, Melbourne have featured in the play-offs every season except 2010 when the club was forced to play for no competition points after breaching the salary cap.

The Storm have played in eight of the past 13 grand finals - 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2018 – and been officially crowned premiers three times.

"We had a great coach in Chris Anderson, he had a strong work ethic and some great values, and if you look at the club today I am proud to have been a part of that initial team that set some high standards," Nikau said.

"Craig Bellamy, Cameron Smith and others have carried that on and made the Storm the best sporting franchise in Australia."

Anderson said: "We set a culture there straight away that the Storm was a winning club and when they got the opportunity they knew how to win.

"That's a really important thing for any club and you can see with what they have done since that they have carried that tradition on."

For the Dragons, the 1999 grand final played an important role in cementing the joint venture as St George and Illawarra fans united behind the new team.

In contrast, Wests Tigers and the ill-fated Northern Eagles joint ventures, who joined the premiership in 2000, struggled with factional fighting.

However, it has also been a rocky road at times for St George Illawarra, with Mundine quitting during the 2000 season to take up boxing and Waite being sacked as coach after round 20.

After being eliminated in the second weekend of the finals in 2001 and 2002 under the coaching of Farrar, Nathan Brown took the Dragons to within one win of the grand final in 2005 and 2006 before Wayne Bennett steered them to premiership glory in 2010.

"It is just a shame with the circumstances at the end in 1999," Barrett said.

"We were two minutes away from winning the grand final and as players you probably took it for granted, you think you are going to be in a lot more and that ended up being the only one we played in."