The Dolphins created an iconic moment last week in their debut match when they shocked the Roosters. As the NRL celebrates a quarter of a century of seasons, our team of rugby league experts have picked 25 iconic moments since the competition kicked off in 1998. From Benji Marshall flicks to Sonny Bill Williams hits, we’ve tried to be as comprehensive as possible.
So here, in no particular order, are our top 25 memories from 25 years.
Mark Riddell applauds his own try (2002)
So good you just have to stand and applaud. Or for St George Illawarra fan favourite Mark Riddell, sit, in the front row of the grandstand at WIN Stadium when he ran in a rare try from 40 metres out against North Queensland in 2002.
Watch the clip back, and you realise exactly how big a talking point this could have been – Riddell almost loses his footing as he clears the fence. Instead, he parks up near a fan eating a hot dog before being embraced by punters. Then Cowboys coach Graham Murray wasn’t nearly as amused, calling Riddell’s gag “an insult” to his well-beaten side.
David Mead’s half-volley pick-up try (2011)
“It happened so fast, I can’t even remember it.” Luckily David Mead’s spectacular try in an otherwise miserable, wooden-spoon worthy year for the Gold Coast has been replayed plenty since Mead stunned a Cronulla crowd more than a decade ago.
Scott Prince’s cross-field kick landed millimetres inside the touchline, and was headed across it until Mead reeled the ball back in with one hand, behind his back, while managing to stay upright and on course for one of the more astonishing tries in rugby league history.
Freddy’s Anzac Day side step (2004)
Brad Fittler, 32 and in the last year of a 336-game career, could see Nathan Blacklock arriving, fast, in cover defence. A few more steps and he wouldn’t have made it.
Thankfully he did. Because the two booming left-foot steps Fittler let loose to slide past Lance Thompson and Ryan Powell, and then again when confronted by Ben Hornby, were the stuff of legend.
Fittler’s legend, no less, given the same footwork had announced his arrival as one of the greats of the game 13 years earlier. This was his last Anzac Day outing, and the match-winning play when the Roosters trailed late in the contest.
Nathan Friend’s backflip try-assist (2015)
Nathan Friend, the little headgeared, brick-laying hooker that could, and did, go viral around the world.
“That might be the greatest piece of gymnastics rugby league you’ve ever seen,” Andrew Voss boomed in commentary, as Friend flew for a high kick and found himself upside down, balancing on Kenny Bromwich’s back for a split second.
By the time he’s able to flick a pass back through his legs, Friend is halfway through a neat midair somersault that lands him on US news broadcasts, including CNN and SportsCenter.
The classic Shaun Johnson flick pass that follows, before Tui Lolohea, scores in the corner isn’t bad either.
Cameron Smith reaches 400 NRL matches (2019)
The Melbourne Storm captain polarised opinion for much of his career but fans were united in their praise when he became the first player in the game’s history to reach 400 first-grade matches. He was 36 years old when, on July 13, 2019, he reached the milestone in Melbourne’s 40-16 win over Cronulla Sharks at AAMI Park. He received a Waterford Crystal football after the match. His wife, Barb, received a diamond ring, which for some reason angered a lot of people.
Johnathan Thurston kicks Cowboys to maiden title (2015)
For most of the 2015 grand final, Cowboys co-captain Jonathan Thurston tried everything he could to will his side to their maiden premiership. Nothing seemed to be working until winger Kyle Feldt scored in the corner in the final minute, leaving Thurston with a sideline conversion after the siren. As he lined up the kick, Broncos trainer Allan Langer couldn’t help himself. “I’ll bet you $500 you miss it!” he joked. Thurston’s arcing kick bounced off the upright but fate intervened in extra time – after Broncos halfback Ben Hunt dropped the ball from the kick-off, Thurston wobbled through the premiership-winning field goal.
Scott Sattler’s cover tackle (2003)
In 1970, Souths captain John Sattler played 77 minutes against Manly with a broken jaw. Not all heroes wear capes, nor have their jaw broken. In early 2001, Penrith coach John Lang told lock Scott Sattler to start covering on the fifth tackle when his team was in possession. With the scores locked 6-all in the 2003 decider against the Roosters, Panthers centre Ryan Girdler’s grubber kick ricocheted off the defence before the ball found Todd Byrne, who motored along the left sideline and looked certain to score. Sattler, a lock, chased like a greyhound and dragged him over the sideline.
Andrew Johns lights up Newcastle (2001)
“Maybe God has come to Marathon!” bellowed Channel Nine caller Ray Warren, with typical restraint and understatement, as Andrew Johns stepped and weaved his way over for the first of two tries — along with six goals — against Brisbane in their round 18 match in Newcastle. The future Immortal had been sidelined for two months by a knee injury. Soon enough, it started to hurt the Knights, who lost four in a row before his much-awaited return against the Broncos. Newcastle won the match 44-0 and went on to upset Parramatta in the grand final. Just a GOAT doing what GOATs do.
Adam Reynolds’ try against the Roosters (2012)
South Sydney fans still get goosebumps watching replays of Adam Reynolds score the match winner against bitter rivals the Sydney Roosters in 2012, with stunned commentator Warren Smith famously declaring: “You can take me now, I have seen it all.”
Nathan Merritt scored in the 79th minute to make the score 22-18. From the kick-off, with 50 seconds remaining, Dave Taylor went left and put Chris McQueen into space. He found Merritt, who found Issac Luke, whose no-look pass was picked up by Reynolds to score.
Reynolds was flanked by his teammates in one of the miracle triumphs.
Hazem El Masri’s sideline kick (2002)
Few players were better at kicking goals than Hazem El Masri, and who can forget El Magic’s sideline conversion to beat Newcastle in 2002.
Luke Patten scored right on full-time to make it 21-20, then El Masri, blocking out the heaving Newcastle crowd and their heckling, started his conversion right of the posts. It swung back around and over the black dot. It was the Dogs’ 16th consecutive win that season.
Images of Knights coach Michael Hagan in the box summed up what everyone else was thinking.
But a month later the Bulldogs’ world was rocked by news of salary-cap rorting.
Cameron Smith’s judiciary pain (2008)
In one of the few times he tasted defeat, Cameron Smith will never forget the loss at the NRL judiciary during the 2008 NRL finals.
Pleading not guilty to making unnecessary contact with the head of Brisbane’s Sam Thaiday, Smith lost and as a result missed the preliminary final against Cronulla, then the decider against Manly. The Sea Eagles won 40-0.
Geoff Bellew, now the NRL judiciary chair and Supreme Court judge, represented Smith at the hearing, but even he could not free the future immortal.
Craig Bellamy went DEFCON 1 after the Storm booked their spot in the grand final and took aim at the media for highlighting the club’s alleged love affair with the grapple tackle.
Steve Menzies’ fitting farewell (2008)
Steve Menzies was worshipped at Manly, and the biggest roar in the 2008 grand final came when the departing legend crashed over for a try late in the second half.
The Sea Eagles’ title celebrations were already in full swing with the score 28-0 against Melbourne – but the stadium erupted when Menzies passed to winger Michael Robertson, whose ball back inside was juggled by “Beaver” before he scored.
What a brilliant way for one of the game’s true gentlemen to bow out.
Jarryd Hayne burns the Dragons (2009)
Jarryd Hayne’s 2009 season is considered by many as the greatest stretch of individual form in the game’s history. The climax of that run was an incredible solo effort against the Dragons at Kogarah in the opening weekend of the finals series.
The Parramatta fullback bamboozled one of the best defensive teams of the modern era, evading eight players to seal the win for his eighth-placed side against the minor premiers.
The commentary of Ray Warren is still music to the ears of Parramatta fans: “He stops, he stammers, he hesitates, three steps, one blade of grass. He’s still going Jarryd Hayne! He’s going to score! Simply dancing!”
Benji Marshall’s flick of beauty (2005)
Not only is it considered one of the most iconic moments in grand final history, it’s the highlight reel moment of the career of one of the sport’s most exciting players.
A generation of fans grew up wanting to do the Benji Marshall step and, later, the Benji flick pass after his show-stopping moment against the Cowboys in the 2005 grand final.
The audacity of the young Wests Tigers superstar to throw a no-look flick pass to Pat Richards after running 60 metres through the Cowboys defence summed up the once care-free nature of a player who transformed enormously throughout a 346-game career.
Cronk carries Roosters on a broken shoulder (2018)
The sub-plot was intriguing enough. Cooper Cronk’s Roosters against the Melbourne Storm, the team he left for love, in a winner-takes-all showdown on the final Sunday of the season.
But a shoulder injury suffered in the preliminary final against South Sydney meant Cronk was no guarantee to play. The severity of the injury was a closely guarded secret in the build-up.
It wasn’t until after the Roosters lifted the premiership trophy did they reveal that he had fractured his scapula in a tackle from Sam Burgess a week earlier.
He didn’t run the ball in the grand final, but he orchestrated the win through his actions in one of the most heroic performances of all time.
Sonny Bill Williams’ shoulder charge (2004)
It was used to promote rugby league for years afterwards. Sonny Bill Williams’ shoulder charge on Joel Clinton during Canterbury’s 2004 preliminary final against the Panthers remains one of the most iconic moments in the sport.
The shoulder charge has since been outlawed, but Williams announced himself on the competition when he produced the hit that rocked the sport. Clinton’s head and hair rocking back, coupled with the amount of sweat that sprayed off the pair’s bodies, made it even more spectacular.
Nathan Blacklock’s Leichhardt try and somersault (2001)
Nathan Blacklock’s last-second, match-winning try against the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval in 2001 was one of the more exciting finishes of the past quarter-century.
Blacklock showed his incredible skills by sprinting down the sideline, chipping over the top of Joel Caine and regathering his own kick to steal victory for the Dragons. He followed it up with his trademark somersault.
It was assumed that try would guarantee him a spot in the NSW Origin team selected later that night, but the winger missed out and never represented the Blues throughout a decorated career. His try in the 1999 grand final was overshadowed by the team’s heart-breaking loss to the Storm.
Ben Barba-Josh Morris try in Mackay (2012)
As rugby league tries go, this was pretty much nirvana.
A fullback picking the ball up on his own dead-ball line, stepping past a couple of desperate attempts to trap him in goal and racing another 60 metres up field before kicking inside for a teammate to collect it on the bounce and score a 110-metre stunner.
It pretty much summed up Bulldogs halfback Ben Barba in his magical 2012 grand final run, with Josh Morris benefiting by scoring arguably the greatest try of his career. Typically, it was a pinpoint kick from Cooper Cronk that forced Barba to start where he did.
Even better, it finally sealed the game for the Bulldogs – and will be a memory not easily forgotten.
Penalty try and Mundine knock-on decides title (1999)
“Bill Harrigan is about to make one of the biggest calls that’s ever been made in 100 years of rugby league,” – Ray Warren.
“Rabs” was never prone to hyperbole during his broadcasts, and on this occasion he was spot on. An NRL grand final was decided by the call of whistleblower Harrigan via video referee Chris Ward in an era when video technology was only a couple of years old in the game.
Officials had no option but to award a penalty try to the Storm after Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough clattered his Melbourne opposite with a high shot as he tried to score from a Brett Kimmorley bomb in the dying minutes. Smith was out cold, and as replacement goalkicker, Matt Geyer knocked over the conversion from in front of the posts to seal a 20-18 win and the Storm’s first title.
Anything more painful for St George Illawarra? Anthony Mundine’s knock-on over the try line with the Dragons leading 14-2 and a huge overlap. The pain.
Brett Morris soars like a bird (2014)
He was never the biggest, nor the most powerful, and was best known for his reliability. But on one night in 2014, Brett Morris produced one of the most spectacular tries rugby league has ever seen.
Hemmed in a corner of Shark Park against fierce rivals Cronulla, Morris pursued a kick from teammate Gareth Widdop and leapt high into the air to snaffle a ball destined to go out. In the process, he copped a midair push from Sharks winger Jonathan Wright, but managed to contort his body to stay in the air and plant the ball with one hand inside the field of play.
“I’m not quite sure [how I did it],” Morris said. “Him knocking me made it easier as it got my legs away from the sideline.”
Inglis runs through Broncos (2014)
At his best, there was almost no stopping Greg Inglis. And in one run against the Broncos, Inglis made a team of NRL tacklers look like under-6s.
Picking the ball up on his own 10-metre line after a chip kick from Ben Barba, Inglis ran past or fended off seven Broncos defenders – and the referee – to score a try that defined his brilliance (alongside the 2014 grand final sealer).
“I think we are better off not saying a word and letting this speak for itself,” Peter Sterling said in commentary.
Braith Anasta field goal against Wests Tigers (2010)
“Something special is about to happen here,” commentator Ray Warren said in the seconds before the game kicked off. “One gets that feeling.”
“Rabs” was right. This was one of the great finals matches. It went beyond the 80th minute when Braith Anasta kicked a field goal from a seemingly impossible position. It was a lesson in how not to set up for a one-pointer, but Anasta still managed to level the scores. Shaun Kenny-Dowall then broke the deadlock with another magic moment, an intercept that ended the Tigers’ season.
Andrew Fifita’s try to break Cronulla’s drought (2016)
This was the moment Cronulla fans had been waiting half a century for. Behind in a decider, against a stacked Melbourne side that knows how to close out big games, the Sharks needed something special, an X-factor to prove the difference. They needed Andrew Fifita, and he duly delivered. His path to glory was blocked by four Storm defenders, but he took them all on and won. The moment made history. Cronulla stole the lead, held onto it and won their first premiership.
Sam Burgess wins Clive Churchill Medal after horrific injury (2014)
Given the way head injuries are now treated, it’s a performance we may never see again. Sam Burgess, in the opening hit-up of the 2014 grand final, ran directly at friend and foe James Graham. The collision resulted in Burgess suffering facial injuries so severe that the Rabbitohs doctor warned that he could lose his eye if it got hit again. Burgess played on regardless, earned Clive Churchill Medal honours. The “Pride of the League” broke a 43-year premiership drought. The feat has been compared to John Sattler playing on in a grand final with a broken jaw.
Greg Inglis does “the goanna” (2014)
South Sydney’s premiership celebrations started early. In the final minute of the match, with victory already secured, Greg Inglis streaked away to ice the cake. That final play was made all the more memorable when, after diving over the line, Inglis then performed “the goanna”, a post-try celebration that is also a nod to his Indigenous heritage. “GI” has been forthright about his battles with depression. When he established Australia’s first accredited and Indigenous-owned mental health and education provider, he named it the Goanna Academy.
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