Drought Breakers: Tales From 49 Years of Heartbreak

BY BOZZA

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It was a weekend for fairytales.

The AFL and NRL’s longest standing premiership droughts both came to an end. On Saturday in Melbourne, a team that had not played off for the prize since JFK was President won the day. In Sydney on Sunday, the Grand Final was won by a team only two years removed from a wooden-spoon, and whose Premiership chances have long been considered less likely than a long lost Prime Minister coming back from a swim he started in the late 1960s.

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Like all tales of longing and wanting, Cronulla’s wait for Premiership Glory is filled with hard luck, near miss and heartache. While never truly lacking for talent, which 10 Rothmans/Dally M Medals, Australian Captains and Internationals galore will attest, they just could never get their desperate hands on the Provan-Summons Trophy.

The long wait begun with their entry into the then New South Wales Rugby League for the 1967 season. With legendary St George 5-time premiership mentor Ken Kearney at the reigns, there were high hopes for the Sharks as they began their life in the competition. Early life was difficult however, as they claimed two wooden spoons in their first three seasons. Despite their early difficulty they were able to discover the building blocks for a genuine assault on the competition.

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In 1973, the Sharks had built a rough, ready and talented squad with talented local juniors and experienced UK imports. In only their seventh season, this squad took the Sharks to their first ever Grand Final. Confronting them was a Manly team stocked full with nine internationals, hell bent on defending their crown and claiming back to back premierships. What eventuated was one of the most infamous and violent premiership deciders on record, described the next day by the Sunday Telegraph as a ‘Grand Final as tough and dirty as any bar-room brawl’.

The opening half quickly descended into series of running battles, interspersed with vicious brawls. The farcical nature of the proceedings evident in the tale of referee Keith Page inviting Manly’s Peter Peter’s to resolve the pairs differences behind the SCG Grand Stand. Perhaps not the last time someone has suggested this resolution to their differences with the Manly second-rower.

The Cronulla prop described the events 40 years later. “The old softening up period,” says Watson of that match, ”it went on for 80 minutes. We just belted the crap out of each other. They didn’t back down, and neither did we. It just happened that way. There was a bit of thuggery, and we probably went a bit overboard … which was good. We went out there to upset them. It was just the way the game was played. Perhaps a lesser team would have folded. We hit them with everything.”

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In the end, the brilliance of Manly’s Bob Fulton was the difference between the two sides, his two tries helping the Sea Eagles to a 10-7 victory.

40 years after the final siren, Captain-Coach Tommy Bishop expressed his despair at the result. “You know I still have nightmares about it,’’ he says. “Forty years on I still think about the premiership that got away. I’ll dream about it and toss and turn about it. But every time I wake up the bloody ­result is still the same.’’

Then as suddenly as they had risen, the Sharks were back in the doldrums

The decider was to be Bishop’s last game in blue, white and black. A $2,000 cap on playing salaries saw the British scrum half and his countryman Cliff Watson depart Endeavour Field for ‘greener’ pastures.

But it wasn’t to be long before they were to locking horns again with Manly for the JJ Giltinan Shield[i] and Rugby League Supremacy. In 1978 Cronulla announced the appointment of ten time St George premiership player, four as playing coach, Norm Provan as their coach for the season. After winning their first seven games of the season, the Sharks qualified for the finals in second place.

Qualifying for the club’s second Grand Final was tempered by the realisation that two key members of the forward pack wouldn’t be there. In the last round of the season, New Zealand International Dane Sorenson was sent off and given a season ending 4-week suspension. A loss compounded when former Australian captain, Greg Pierce, was given the same suspension after the Major Semi Final.

Pre-game two parachutists decked out in the two clubs colours fell from the sky with their target set on the half way line. Both fell about one metre either side of the prescribed target prompting legendary commentator Rex Mossop, after a Manly’s draw two weeks earlier, to question, “Bless my soul, is that an omen? Surely we’re not going to have another draw?”

The former Manly hard-man turned commentator was on the money. After a hard fought match, the two sides couldn’t be separated after 80 minutes despite a late field-goal attempt from Steve Rodgers. Due to the Kangaroo tour to England set to depart the following Saturday, the two teams needed to return to the SCG for the Replay on Tuesday.

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For Manly this was to be their 5th game in 17 days, but the Sharks were unable to push the advantage. After the Grand Final, 4 more players joined Dane Sorenson and Greg Pierce in the grandstand. Minus John McMartin, Gary Stares, Mick Mullane and Barry Andrews, they were never in the Replay beaten by the Sea-Eagles 16-0.

Manly’s Premiership run is now the subject of a number of question marks which fed into the theory of a Cronulla curse. The refereeing in the Minor Semi Final and Replay prompted Parramatta to lodge an official request for the annulment of the result. Manly’s winning try coming on the back end of a seven tackle set. It was a courtesy referee Greg Hartley extended to the Sea-Eagles three times, while also giving their opponents a five tackle set three times.

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Despite also sending Parramatta lock Ray Price off in the Replay for an offence he was later acquitted for, Hartley was given the refereeing duties for Manly’s Preliminary Final with Western Suburbs. Manly victorious again after some interesting calls in their favour from referee Hartley. The controversial whistle-blower denying Wests two tries. The second he denied Graeme O’Grady’s four pointer for being off-side, despite him recovering his own kick.

It seemed that there was no mistake big enough, or controversy large enough, to prevent Hartley’s appointment for the next match. It was no surprise then, that despite giving Cronulla a caning in the Grand Final penalty count, that he was appointed to officiate the Replay. His piece de resistance, the opening try of the Replay coming from a forward pass on the seventh tackle.

The 1980’s were a difficult time but during this lean run, and despite limited finances, Master Coach Jack Gibson developed a group of young Cronulla juniors. A talented group of players containing Shark favourites Andrew Ettingshausen, Mark McGaw and Gavin Millar among others. By the time Gibson stood down in 1988, the Sharks were ready to circle again.

With Allan Fitzgibbon at the helm, Cronulla claimed their first ever minor Premiership and entered that season’s finals full of hope on the back of a 10-game winning streak. Young and inexperienced, they were mauled by finals hardened Canterbury in the Major Semi Final and were bounced out of Premiership contention the following week by Balmain and their enigmatic talisman Ellery Hanley.

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A fortnight’s work undoing a magic season in which Barry Russell and Gavin Miller were crowned players of the year with the Rothmans Medal and Dally M Award respectively and Ettingshausen, McGaw and Miller debuted for Australia.

1988’s Preliminary Final defeat would be the first of six losses at this stage of the competition before this season. Their one successful passage through a Preliminary Final in this time came in the 1997 Super League Competition. In front of 60,000 screaming Queenslanders at QEII Stadium in Brisbane, the Ettingshausen led Sharks were never really in the hunt losing the only ever Super League Grand Final to the Brisbane Broncos 26-8.

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This year was the payoff for all their hurt and anguish. A 16-game midseason winning streak helped the Sharks qualify third ahead of the finals. The club that had appeared permanently cursed had a September and October to remember. A hard fought, grinding win over the Raiders in Canberra followed by a dominant display over the defending champs gave them their fourth shot at the title.

For the second time this finals series, the Sharks tested the blood pressure of their fans as they engaged in a Grand Final to remember with the Melbourne Storm. After giving up the lead late in the game, it was almost as if 50 seasons of agony pushed Andrew Fifita through a sea of purple to score the game deciding try.

There can no longer be any jokes about empty trophy cabinets or missing Prime Ministers, no more talk of curses and bad luck, Cronulla are Premiers.

[i] For those unaware prior to 1997, when it became the prize for the NRL Minor Premier, the JJ Giltinan Shield was awarded to the Winner of the Grand Final. From 1951 until the introduction of the Winfield Cup in 1982, it was the sole prize for the Premier of the NSWRL competition.

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