MORE THAN A GAME
Former Newcastle Herald Rugby League Reporter BRETT KEEBLE covered the Knights for 24 years. That included their unforgettable last-gasp victory over unbackable favourites Manly-Warringah in the 1997 Australian Rugby League grand final, the unhinged excitement in the build-up to the game, and the unprecedented euphoria and emotion that followed.
WHAT seemed at the time like the worst possible preparation for the biggest game of their lives ultimately provided their greatest source of strength.
The Newcastle Knights had qualified for their first grand final in just their 10th season – against reigning premiers and nemesis Manly, no less – and had barely a moment to themselves.
Andrew “Joey” Johns, their best player, spent most of the week in hospital nursing three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Paul “Chief” Harragon, their inspirational skipper was struggling with a strained hamstring.
Every day was spent signing autographs, posing for photographs, attending sponsors’ and supporters’ functions, answering questions from fans, reporters and well-wishers – all while being swept along in a rising, raging red-and-blue torrent.
Matthew Johns recalls a meal and a meeting with senior players including his brother, Harragon, veteran prop Tony Butterfield, coach Malcolm Reilly, and club officials about four weeks before the finals, at which they dared to dream the impossible dream.
“’Chief’ was always big on why,” Johns told Weekender in the lead-up to the 1997 grand final team’s 20-year reunion celebrations – a private lunch on Saturday then as guests of honour at the Knights’ last home game of the season against Cronulla on Sunday.
“The players were talking about the town and the people and how much it would lift the town, because there were so many raw emotions at the time with BHP closing, the Rio Tinto miners’ strike, the Super League war and so on.
“We wanted to do it for the town, and I remember one of the board members sort of chuckled a little bit and rolled his eyes and he said, ‘Don’t worry about the town, boys, just do it for yourselves’.
“But we walked away from that and said, ‘No, that’s not enough’. For us, it was about the team, but it was about the town. To play for the Knights that year, it really was a noble cause.
“When grand final week came around, Mal threw a few options at us. One of those was to go into camp, but at our first training session after we beat Norths, we had a talk and agreed to stay and enjoy the week.
“We had a lot of commitments but the biggest thing was we had all these people genuinely patting us on the back, grabbing us, and saying, ‘Just f…ing beat these blokes’, so for us, that fed us.
“These days, coaches would say it saps energy, but it was the opposite for us. Everywhere we went to we were met by people who were just desperate for us to win.
“That gave us a clear indication of why we were doing it, so the important factor for us what that it was bigger than ourselves.”
DAYS OF THEIR LIVES
THERE was more than a hint of destiny in the spring air in Newcastle and the Coalfields.
The scent was obviously undetectable on Sydney’s northern beaches, or anywhere south of the Hawkesbury it seemed. After all, Manly had won their previous 11 meetings. Why should a Bob Fulton-coached team full of representative superstars playing in a third straight Australian Rugby League grand final be worried about these upstart underdogs from Newcastle?
But hey, this was “Our Town, Our Team”, and these sons of coalminers and blue-collar battlers were determined to give their citizens the 200th birthday celebration they never had.
“Timing is everything. That’s why it was so good,” Harragon said.
“We were down and out, we were reeling from all those job losses with BHP closing, the Super League war, it was our Bicentenary and we’d had nothing to celebrate, so all that collective cause just magnified the situation.”
Harragon said the players took every event in their stride.
“First off, it took a day or two to come to grips with being in a grand final. As far as winning it, there was no expectation or pressure because we were just going, ‘Wow, we’re here’,” Harragon said.
“So it wasn’t until the back end of that week, and leaving for Sydney on the bus on that Saturday morning before the game, that we realised this was bigger than the game and bigger than all of us.
“There was a bit of magic happening, and it wasn’t a burden hanging around our neck. This was uplifting; it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something great for all these people.
“This was a chance for us to represent the region, and stand up in front of the whole of Australia and say, ‘Look at us’. By being there all week, we absorbed all that, we carried it with us into the game, and it made a big difference.”
Centre Mark Hughes, just a skinny kid from Kurri Kurri at the time, felt bulletproof.
“I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else but Newcastle,” Hughes said.
“It was so uplifting to see the red and blue everywhere, and it really did make you feel stronger and better than you actually were.
“The underlying confidence you get from that, I look back now and think, ‘I was only 20. How was I feeling so strong and confident in that situation?’ but you knew you just had the whole town behind you, and an amazing group of senior rugby league players around you.”
The players travelled by bus to Sydney on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for the grand final breakfast at the Regent Hotel on Thursday. It was a taste of things to come.
“The bus trip before the breakfast, people were already lining the streets to wish us well as we left Marathon Stadium,” Cessnock-born utility forward Bill Peden said.
“It was then that we knew it was more about our town than just sport. It was about community pride and we had an obligation to give everything we had for our families and friends and our community. At that time, I just felt lucky and proud to live where we live.”
On Saturday, players made their way to Marathon Stadium for their last ride to Sydney as also-rans.
“There were probably a thousand people in the carpark to see us off, then thousands more lined up all the way along Newcastle Road and the link road out to the freeway,” said foundation forward Marc Glanville, who was about to play his 188th and final game for the club.
“Older blokes like myself, Chief, Butts, ‘Crowey’ (Stephen Crowe) were all quite emotional, because you could see on our faces how important it was for us to win. We had always imagined what it would be like if we made a grand final, then what it would be like if we could win it.”
Glanville broke down again at a team meeting in Harragon’s room at their Coogee hotel that night, convincing every player there that no matter what, the Knights could not, would not, lose.
THE rugby league world knew Andrew Johns was hurting.
As Novocastrians painted the town red and blue, their influential playmaker was in Lake Macquarie Private Hospital attached to a tube to keep his punctured lung inflated. Johns would need a miracle to play in the grand final, and Knights fans held their breath, praying for Joey’s bung lung.
Back-page banner headlines suggesting “HE COULD DIE” – a doctor’s warning if Johns played – only added to the drama.
Thriving on the theatre of it all, Johns crawled out of bed and on to the field for the team’s final training session, joined them on the bus to Sydney the day before the game, played through the pain, set up the winning try, and was last man standing after weeks of celebrations.
That included stage-diving and crowd-surfing as The Screaming Jets entertained a packed Civic Park after the tickertape parade and City Hall civic reception two days after the grand final.
Harragon’s gammy hammy was kept under tighter wraps.
“I had a bit of trouble with it that week but I was managing it and it certainly wasn’t going to keep me out,” Harragon said.
“I could have had one of my legs missing and I still would have played.”
IT started with brutality and ended with brilliance.
Unable to run flat out, urged on by his coach’s gentle reminder that “you don’t get sent off in grand finals”, Harragon was like a wrecking-ball in the opening 15 minutes. Undeterred by the penalties he conceded, he launched himself into anyone wearing a Manly jersey.
“Those first five minutes when ‘Chief’ was going mad is still my favourite part of the grand final,” Matthew Johns said in Harragon’s 1999 autobiography One Perfect Day.
Despite Newcastle’s physical dominance in the middle, Manly’s experience and class on the edges were obvious as the Sea Eagles scored two early tries to lead 10-0 after 25 minutes.
Newcastle’s most experienced outside back, fullback Robbie O’Davis, finally gave Knights fans something to cheer about in the 34th minute. After a scrum win deep in Manly territory, O’Davis danced past Toovey and Terry Hill to touch down.
Sea Eagles fullback Shannon Nevin snatched back momentum with a converted try in the shadows of half-time to stretch Manly’s lead to 16-8 at the break, but the favourites would not score again.
O’Davis, the Churchill Medallist, stepped, propped, bobbed, weaved then stretched out to score next to the posts just six minutes from full-time, and Andrew Johns converted to tie the scores at 16-all.
The noise inside the stadium had become deafening. Manly were out on their feet and, though they survived a couple of failed field-goal attempts, were powerless to stop what was coming.
As the final seconds ticked towards the inevitability of extra time, Andrew Johns darted out of dummy-half down the blind side, dummied outside to Hughes, then passed inside to Darren Albert.
The speedster from Scone sprinted away to score the try that gave him – and a community crying out for a shot of self-esteem – something to dine out on for the rest of their days.
“Senior players like Chief, Tony Butterfield, Marc Glanville, they lived and breathed the Knights since 1988, so to be there and to share it with blokes like that was so special,” Hughes said.
“There was no panic and there was an amazing sense of self-belief throughout that whole week, and then again during the game no matter what the situation, so it was like it was meant to be.
“Somehow the rugby league gods smiled on us, everything fell into place at the one time, and the ‘Scone Thoroughbred’ galloped over the line with a couple of seconds to go.
“You couldn’t write a script to beat that.”
EXHAUSTED and elated, the players, staff and a select few significant others on board the team’s Sid Fogg’s charter coach enjoyed a private party for the first 80 kilometres of their trip home.
They were given a glimpse of what was to come when the bus slowed down approaching Gosford.
“Back in those days, there used to be those roundabouts at Gosford, and that was the halfway mark coming back from Sydney,” Matthew Johns recalled.
“We got to those and the bus driver told us to look out the window, because there were people having a party in the middle of the Gosford roundabout. All the way home, there were people having parties on the sides of the road and in the roundabouts, then by Wallsend, we’d slowed to a crawl.”
It was there where Andrew Johns practised his surfing skills atop a police patrol car.
“I’ll go on the record to say Andrew was on the cop car. I was on the cop car trying to get Andrew off the cop car,” Matthew laughed.
“As the bus got to the centre of Newcastle, there were masses of people – tens of thousands out on King Street in front of the Workers Club – so the bus was going so slow, there were blokes jumping out of the trees on top of the bus.
“The top of the bus was smashed but it wasn’t vandalism, it was just mass hysteria. Everyone was just so happy and there was so much goodwill.”
Players spent “Mad” Monday on another bus stopping at as many suburban pubs and watering holes as they could get to, then on Tuesday it was a tickertape parade in open-top cars through streets crammed with smiling people. They started at Stockland Jesmond and finished on the balcony of City Hall in front of a sea of Hunter punters packed into Civic Park and King Street.
“I spoke to blokes that had been around at the end of wars and they said they’d never seen anything the likes of this, so I think it was the biggest celebration our town has ever had,” Harragon said.
Matthew Johns, who now lives on Sydney’s northern beaches but forever considers himself a Novocastrian, said every person in every pub had a celebratory story to share.
“One bloke said he didn’t know what to do when we won,” Johns said.
“He said, ‘I just started screaming, then I went into my garage and sat behind the wheel of my car and hit the horn for five minutes’. In Cessnock’s main street, the fire brigade went up and down with the siren on.
“There’s just a special bond between the club, the town and the people. Craig Johnston said in his book about Liverpool, about how important the 12th man – the Kop – was to them out on the pitch, and it was the same for the Knights that year. They just gave us that incredible momentum.
“You still see it now. There’s such goodwill for the Newcastle Knights in Sydney, and I think it’s got a lot to do with that time back in 1997, because on that day, every person in Australian sport wished they were a Knights supporter.”