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Before Grand Finals

Grand Final day – it’s all or nothing – there’s a winner, there’s a loser. A fair-and-square, one-off battle for the premiership crown, providing the Grand Finale to the season.

It’s the only logical way to end a footy season – isn’t it?

Well, it is now, but it wasn’t always.

It wasn’t until 1954 that the NSWRL instituted a season program guaranteed to end with September play-offs and a mandatory Grand Final on a date set-in-stone on the nation’s sporting calendar.

For its era it was a bold initiative – most club competitions in the football world were either knock-out cup tournaments, or awarded on a “first past the post” basis as in English soccer’s current Premier League. Even the brash Yanks didn’t launch their first “Super Bowl” in American football under 1967, and nor did they have any accompanying play-offs series until 1970.

Prior to the 1954 season, the winning of the NSWRL premiership was stacked firmly in the favour of the minor premiers.

In 1908, and the following three seasons, the play-offs used a now archaic system that saw teams continue to add to their points on the ladder! A relic of the old rugby union days in Sydney, it led to controversy, dispute, and kick-started some bitter rivalries that will never be settled.

The 1908 semi-finals were played out even though neither Souths (the eventual premiers) nor Easts could be pushed out of a place in the premiership deciding Final. In 1909 Balmain, knowing that they had to defeat the Rabbitohs twice to win the title, and with other furtive intentions in mind, simply forfeited the Final. A year later, Newtown won the premiership even though the Final against the Rabbitohs ended in a draw.

1911 GRAND FINAL
GLEBE v EASTS

To the Glebe “Dirty Reds” Dally Messenger was no hero – he was a pain in the neck. In the dying minutes, Glebe led Easts 8-4. From a charge-down Easts scored an unlikely try in the corner. Amidst a swirling wind, and snarls from the Glebe mob, Messenger landed a stunning goal. He kicked another on the bell, and Easts won 11-8.

In 1911, the competition was turned on its head two-thirds of the way through the season when 20 players left for England on the Kangaroo tour.

Complicating matters, Easts’ stars Dally Messenger and “Sandy” Pearce opted to stay at home, leading to the Tricolours swamping Glebe (minus Chris McKivat) back-to-back in the Final and the first ever “Grand Final”, seizing the premiership from the “Dirty Reds”.

The reality was that many saw end-of-season finals as essentially seeded-tournaments, and unfairly rewarded teams that were strongest in the last few weeks of the competition, rather than through the week-to-week grind – made worse when the Kangaroos were away on tour.

Glebe’s defeat was the catalyst for change (cruelly though, the club would never win a premiership, and was ultimately kicked out of the NSWRL in 1929).

From 1912 to 1925 the title-crown was automatically awarded to the team that topped the table after the home-and-away matches. The NSWRL resolved though that a one-off Final must be played when two teams finished at the top of the table on the same points (thankfully three teams never finished in equal 1st).

The NSWRL also tried to balance the differing views – once the premiership was over, it held a knock-out competition called “The City Cup”. September was then, as it is now, a time for “do-or-die” football.

Largely forgotten today, to clubs, fans and footballers alike of the 1910s and ‘20s, the Cup was a coveted and hard-won prize. The triumphs of Glebe (1913), Wests (1918) and Norths (1920 & ‘22) once held pride of place in club histories and popular memory.

North Sydney’s effort in 1922 was particularly admirable – their City Cup win over Easts (18-11) was achieved just a month after they had “blown out the lights” of Glebe 35-3 in a Final needed to settle the premiership. Finals were again found necessary in 1923 (Easts 15 d. Souths 12) and 1924 (Balmain 3 d. Souths 0).

After three seasons in a row ending in a Final, the League (money-wise) and the public (excitement and interest) had gained a taste for a dramatic finish to the premiership. The 1924 Final had been the first major sports event in Australia to be broadcast on radio (before Test cricket, the Melbourne Cup and Australian rules).

The domination by South Sydney over the 1925 premiership provided the cause for a major upheavel. The undefeated Rabbitohs had a lead so far in front of the other clubs, the NSWRL called the competition off early, awarded Souths the title, and got on with the City Cup games to resuscitate attendances.

Determined to ensure interest remained season-long, the League, in effect, combined the premiership with the elimination football of the City Cup. From 1926 to 1953 the season ended with a Top 4 play-offs series.

However, even this system heavily favoured the minor premiers, and didn’t always culminate in a Grand Final. It was a convoluted system. Devised by Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper, and in use in the VFL, it effectively gave the minor premier a “right of challenge” in a Grand Final if beaten in the semi-final (1 v 3) or the Final. If the minor premiers won the Final, the season ended there and then – there was no Grand Final day.

In simple terms, the minor premiers had to be beaten twice to not win the premiership, and their second loss had to come in the Grand Final – a hard ask for the challengers, who were immediately out if they lost just once.

1930 GRAND FINAL
WESTS v ST GEORGE

It took until the fifth season of the new play-off system for a Grand Final to be called upon. Minor premiers Wests fell to St George 14-6 in the Final, bringing about the need for a Grand Final and pushing the season beyond September. In what was the first and last October day-time Grand Final until 2008, the Magpies won 27-2.

It was not until 1930 that the first Grand Final was needed, and minor premiers Wests made good use of their second chance by thrashing St George 27-2 – reversing a 14-6 loss to the “Dragon-slayers” (later “Dragons”) from the week before.

The following season produced the first real sensation. Easts lost just two games in the regular season, claiming the minor premiership six points ahead of Souths, Wests and St George.

The Magpies upset the Tricolours 10-8 – the loss (and second chance) propelled Easts straight to the Grand Final. Souths had beaten Saints in their semi, pitting the Rabbitohs up against Wests in the Final. Souths then smacked Wests 17-3, and followed it up with a 12-7 victory over Easts in the Grand Final to take the premiership.

Minor premiers, South Sydney, survived a Grand Final challenge in 1932 beating Wests 19-12, and a decade passed before another Grand Final eventuated. From then on though, Grand Finals were a more regular occurrence.

The most dramatic Grand Final days came when third-placed teams beat the minor premiers to take the prize in 1946 (Balmain 13 d. St George 12) and 1949 (St George 19 d. Souths 12).

The controversy that surrounded the 1944 Final and Grand Final is often cited as one of the key triggers to the arrival of the modern play-offs and mandatory Grand Final in 1954 – it appeared that minor premiers Newtown had “laid down” in a 19-12 loss to Balmain in the Final.

1943 GRAND FINAL
NORTHS v NEWTOWN

The war-time Grand Final attracted unprecedented interest. Officially the crowd reached 60,922, but via soldiers scaling over walls and onto the roofs of the SCG grandstands, film shows it rivalling the scenes of 1965. Frank “Bumper” Farrell’s Bluebags flogged the Frank Hyde led Norths side 34-7.

Newspapers carried suggestions of a major betting plunge, with Newtown players and officials at the centre of the controversy.

The allegations (never proven) claimed that the Bluebags “fixed” the result, knowing that they had the Grand Final “right of challenge” up their sleeves.

Arguably dispelling the theory of clandestine intent behind the Final, the Tigers beat Newtown again 12-8 in the Grand Final.

The biggest concern for the NSWRL by the early 1950s wasn’t the suggestion of betting scandals, but simply the difficulties of organising a Grand Final with just a week’s notice.

The season schedule almost always butted the Final into the preparation time for the SCG and the quickly approaching cricket season. More often than not, the hastily arranged Grand Final had to be played at the adjacent Sydney Sports Ground.

Lacking the “creature comforts” of the SCG, attendances were invariably less for a Sports Ground Grand Final than they had been for the SCG Final.

1951 GRAND FINAL
SOUTHS v MANLY

So dominant were Souths that the NSWRL hadn’t even bothered pre-booking a Grand Final ground. A shock semi-final loss by the Rabbitohs sent the League into a frenzy. With no grounds available for the Saturday, the Grand Final was shifted to the following day. The first ever Sunday Grand Final was a 42-14 rout by Souths over Manly.

In 1951, despite having three weeks lead-in time to the Grand Final after minor premiers Souths lost their semi-final, the NSWRL were unable to hire either the SCG, the Sports Ground, or even the Showground.

Left with no alternatives, the 1951 Souths v Manly Grand Final was played at the Sports Ground on a Sunday (for the first time) – costing the League a small fortune in lost gate-takings, and leaving more than a little embarrassment on the faces of the code’s administrators.

Determined to end the season on a set date in an “all or nothing” Grand Final, for 1954 the League introduced a new Top 4 play-offs system which gave both the minor premiers and the second placed team an equal shot at the title (both having a second chance if they lost their opening semi-final) and a winner-takes-all Grand Final.

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