THE incredible rise of the 2005 Wests Tigers was complete when they were crowned the most unlikely premiers of them all. NICK CAMPTON lets the people who were there tell the story in their own words.
The club was lost.
Five years after the merger the bold new era had never begun. No trips to the finals, no superstar players, just season after season of battling and scraping and clawing and victory was avoiding the wooden spoon. Born of two clubs desperate for survival, the Wests Tigers often had nothing to their names but some hungry youngsters and world-weary fans.
The coach was lost.
Way up in the north, his premierships and star-studded rosters of the past felt so far away. Hamstrung at every turn by politics and cash, one of the game’s great minds seemed to have reached a dead end. Tim Sheens had seen the top but at the Cowboys he was stuck at the bottom.
The player was lost.
Injuries kept him off the field and his incredible talent was a flame that was nearly put out and personal tragedy brought his career to its knees. Scott Prince’s talent was never in doubt, but his bad luck seemed to have no end.
All these parts could have stayed lost, aimlessly drifting through the NRL until the end came. Instead, they combined to form a team that electrified the rugby league world, flying all the way to the top with a style of football that captured the imagination of every red-blooded footy fan and is yet to be matched by any champion.
As quick as they came, they were gone. But for one glorious season everything came together in the right place. The lost ones found their way together, even if it was only for a little while.
<big>NEW ERA, SAME RESULT</big>
In the post-Super League world, most clubs did not have premierships on their minds. The war was over but cramming two competitions back into one meant that few teams could be assured of their future.
The 1999 Magpies were famously one of the worst teams in premiership history and while Balmain did better, they were still well off the pace. Andrew Leeds captained the Magpies to their last finals series as a stand-alone club in 1996, the same year prop forward John Skandalis made his first grade debut. The two were among the Magpies best in their tough final years and both were among a handful of Magpies who survived the merger.
JOHN SKANDALIS> : Confidence was down. I came into first grade in 96 and got my first taste of semi-finals and then it dried up for a while and then 98-99 were the two years we got the wooden spoon.
ANDREW LEEDS: > I was the physio when I was playing for the Magpies and I got merged into that (once I retired). I only caught the last two years of full time professionalism so I worked as a physio and played footy as well.
If you head out to see the Wests Magpies run around in the semi-professional Ron Massey Cup competition you’ll see a few of those hard cores who didn’t want to accept the merger, but what choice did the two clubs have? Parramatta and Canterbury had proposed mergers that were more like takeovers. South Sydney refused to merge at all, were punted for season 2000 and looked dead in the water.
SKANDALIS: > From the word go the players came together and worked as one. We had that hard-core that couldn’t accept that Wests weren’t in the comp and Balmain weren’t in the comp but when it comes down to players we didn’t care, we just wanted to make sure we were successful in that first year.
As the Tigers prepared for their first match, Scott Prince and Tim Sheens were preparing for their third season together in North Queensland. Sheens had given Prince his debut in 1998 and the Mt Isa product was viewed as the future of the club. With his glittering pedigree from his days with Penrith and Canberra, Sheens was supposed to be the man who turned the struggling Cowboys into a genuine premiership force but since taking charge in 1997 the club had never finished higher than 16th on the ladder.
TIM SHEENS: > We’d signed Brett Kimmorley to come up from the Mariners but Super League put him down in Melbourne. It’s a story that not too many people know, but they’d agreed to give him to us after 1997 because they had Noel Goldthorpe playing first grade but at the end of the day Super League went under and everyone came back together and Robbie Ross and Scott Hill and a number of other good players were sent to fill up the Melbourne franchise to keep them strong and Townsville was supposed to survive because we had juniors.
I’m not going to give excuses but there are reasons and the main one was recruitment with so many players tied up at the same time and virtually all the rep players were tied up and you couldn’t buy any stars.
The Cowboys finished last, with just seven wins from 26 matches in 2000. Prince, who was supposed to be the homegrown kid who led the Cowboys to glory, departed for the rival Broncos. Sheens only made it 11 matches into the 2001 season before he was sacked. Meanwhile, the Tigers went on a dream run in that first year and were second on the ladder after 17 rounds. It all fell apart one afternoon at Penrith, where the joint venture surrendered a 31-8 lead in the final 25 minutes to go down 32-31. From there, they lost six of their last eight to crash out of finals contention.
It was the start of a familiar story for the club. Former Balmain mentor Wayne Pearce lasted just one year and Terry Lamb did no better in his two seasons in charge.
SKANDALIS: > After that we just couldn’t recover with our recruitment and we struggled. I did feel at one stage that this is going to be me; I’m going to be one of those players who hopefully has a 10-year career but doesn’t get to experience the highs of a grand final. It did run through my mind, but that changed.
<big>“DO WHAT I GOT YOU HERE TO DO”</big>
After Lamb was shown the door Sheens took over at the Tigers for 2003. The three premierships with Canberra and trips to the playoffs with Penrith seemed a long way away for the veteran mentor but the difference he brought to the struggling club could be seen from the start.
SKANDALIS: > I was worried because I’d heard stories of Sheensy coming in and being pretty hard and changing things pretty quick. He let things flow in 2003, we found our way. You can’t make culture, you have to build culture.
DENE HALATAU: > When you have a conversation with him away from the field, it always found its way back to rugby league. He lives and breathes rugby league, he found it hard not to talk about it.
LEEDS: > Sheensy’s discipline, that helped. He’s a real club coach; he’s not just a first grade coach. He takes a lot of interest in lower grades and juniors and makes sure things get along at all levels.
BRETT HODGSON: > He’s been my most complete coach. I loved playing under Tim. He was honest with me, he knew how to coach in big games. His style of play was beneficial to me and our team and he knew rugby league, there’s no doubt about that.
Sheens’ totally overhauled the Tigers roster from 2003 to the start of 2005, giving 12 players their first grade debuts and signing almost 20 others. Those rookies included Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah, Dene Halatau, Liam Fulton, Chris Heighington and Bryce Gibbs.
HALATAU: > The week of my debut there was an injury, Chris Paterson pulled out and then I got called in. I replaced a front rower on the bench and played the last three minutes of the game at centre.
Robbie and I debuted in the same game. For him and me, it was a pretty special moment. We share that and we often think back to that. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Benji came down (Marshall was a student at Keebra Park High on the Gold Coast) for his debut match, trained with us that week. He literally hadn’t been with us all season and he played that weekend.
We knew about him and he trained a bit with us in the pre-season, but pretty much straight from school to first grade the following weekend. It was pretty awesome for him and pretty cool to watch it.
Guys like Liam Fulton and Bryce Gibbs; I went to school with those guys so it was exciting to be in the squad with them.
LEEDS: > Fulton and Gibbs, they were there for the comedy value. They’re just good players to have around any club.
The recruits were players like Penrith’s premiership winning centre Paul Whatuira, Roosters prop Todd Payten, who played under Sheens at Canberra and Shane Elford, who Sheens had tried to sign for North Queensland. Former Magpie Brett Hodgson joined the club after four years with Parramatta. Since leaving the Magpies he’d become one of the best fullbacks in the competition, representing New South Wales and playing in the 2001 grand final.
HODGSON: > There was an option to stay, I got a call from Wayne Pearce. But at that stage of my career, trying to learn as much as I could, I thought going to Parramatta was the best option for me.
Parramatta had a really successful team. Jim Dymock, Jason Smith were still there at that stage, so for me and my development it was best for me to go there and learn as much as I could.
I knew that it was a different challenge in the opportunity that had come up at the Tigers.
I was excited about going back home.
Prince was the player who changed everything. Despite his undoubted ability, injuries and personal turmoil had nearly ended his career as he never really got going with Brisbane. He played 28 games in his three seasons with the Broncos and looked as though he would never fulfil his considerable potential.
SCOTT PRINCE: > After playing three games in two years you pretty much question if you can be the player you were or better and whether or not rugby league was the career path you were destined for. Initially, I wanted to stay at the Broncos. It was a club that I love and I didn’t want to leave.
The opportunity with Tim arose and the fact that he said ‘mate if you come to the Tigers you’ll be our starting halfback. We’ll get you for three years’. From a financial point of view it was a little bit better than what I was on at the Bronx and that was knowing full well that I spent pretty much three years on the sidelines with injury. You’ve got to take your hat off to Tim for showing some faith in me.
He was mellow (at the Tigers). I remember at 18, coming into first grade. At 18, 19, 20 I was playing alongside guys who had played under Tim before, such as Johnny Lomax, Brett Hetherington, and Steve Walters and up at the Cowboys you had to call him ‘coach’ and all this sort of stuff. I remember asking ‘is this what normally happens (at other clubs)’ and they were like ‘nah, I don’t know what’s happening here’.
He was more mellow in terms of he had his door open. I’m not saying he didn’t have his door open at the Cowboys but it just seemed like he was more approachable and I think he had to do that because at the Tigers there was a lot of young guys and I think he wanted to go down to their level. He didn’t want to be seen as this authority, but more have that softer approach which was something he really worked on and was beneficial (for us) in the end.
SKANDALIS: > (Prince was) a cool head. He was a competitor and it worked out perfectly, Benji coming in and being such an erratic player. He needed someone to bounce off. He needed Princey. I think that’s why they worked so well. Benji had the freedom to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it and Princey’s had the experience and smarts to pull things back a bit when things got out of control.
PRINCE: > We recruited quite heavily. That first year (2004) I think we picked up six to seven new players in that off-season including myself, Scotty Sattler, Shane Elford, Brett Hodgson, Todd Payten, Pat Richards, so it was a building season for myself and the Tigers.
The Tigers seemed to be at the beginning of something at 2004 and the finals were the goal. Prince was an immediate success, playing his first full season as a first grade halfback and making his State of Origin debut.
PRINCE: > The 2004 season when I moved to the Tigers, I was a little bit homesick. I was sort of scratching my head to be honest, thinking ‘what have I done?”’.
Tim identified that as well, he basically said ‘how are you fitting in?’ and I said ‘yeah, all right’ and he said ‘mate I’ve noticed you’ve been walking around here kicking stones and I’m not going to stand in your way. If you want to go back to Queensland and go home, you can do that. But the choice is yours’.
I said ‘No, I’ve signed here for three years and I’ll see it out’ so he said ‘mate, pick your lip up and get your attitude in check and enjoy it. Do what I got you here to do’.
HODGSON: > There were a lot of challenges in 2004. We were right on the cusp of it. Benji was only just starting, he only played a couple of games. We were a very young squad and we just needed that year together to gel. Its important you take some time to progress as a team.
SKANDALIS: > We had to win two out of our last three games (to make the finals) and we just couldn’t get it. We got beat by Newcastle at the end and it was just heartbreaking. I remember Sheensy coming up to me after the game, cause I was devastated. That thought came into my head, this is far as I’m going to get. He came up and said we have to learn from this year and take it into next year and we’ve just got to work harder.
PRINCE: > For myself, it was the first full season I had where I didn’t miss any football and that really gave me the confidence. I thought, ‘f**k, I can do this. I can play a full season without getting injured. I can play a full season with no dramas, without looking over my shoulder and thinking someone is going to take my legs out or whatever’. That gave me the confidence to ham it up and spice it up the following year.
With the exciting young bloods and the recruits surrounding a core group that had been at the club since the merger – the likes of Skandalis and former Balmain forwards Mark O’Neill and Ben Galea – there was an expectation that if the Tigers didn’t make the finals in 2005 they never would.
The season did not start as they would have liked. An opening round defeat to Parramatta marked an inconsistent start to the season. An epic, last gasp 37-36 win over defending premiers Canterbury in Round 3 was an early highlight but halfway through the year the Tigers were struggling for consistency and were in 12th spot on the ladder after 13 rounds with a 5-7 record.
PRINCE: > In 05 I think it just grew even more and the type of relationship we had with the team, everyone had spent 12 months together and everyone knew what everyone was like on and off the field. That’s how it happened. Even through 05 there were times where we were like ‘f**k, we’re never going to win a game’. I remember we had the best pre-season and we came out first game and got our bums smacked. We had a bye Round 2 and that’s the worst possible bye ever.
HALATAU: > It is tough. Every team when they finish their pre-season thinks they’re a good chance of doing some damage because everyone works their butt off and every year every club is trying to get that little bit extra out of the boys and they train that little bit harder.
To come to the end of the pre-season and have an ordinary start to the year is tough but I think we’d developed a trust in each other by then; we’d been playing together for two or three seasons, so we were very familiar with each other.
LEEDS: > You’ve got to keep sticking to your basics. Stick to your plans and your systems. You’ve got to trust your systems. That’s where Sheensy was terrific, with a younger team he had so much experience behind him and he made the players believe that. You’ve just got to persist, persist, persist. If you don’t believe, it won’t happen.
PRINCE: > The relationship I had with Tim was if anything needed to get done from a coaching position I felt like I was the link between him and the team. If it didn’t get done, I felt like I let the team down and the coach down and that was something I took on-board as my job.
HODGSON: > We had nothing to lose and when a team has nothing to lose they’re dangerous. We just threw caution into the wind.
SHEENS: > We went for a high-risk season, we practised though, but it was a high-risk, play the ball type attitude but with plenty of rehearsal.
Everything we did was rehearsed; you didn’t see us take quick taps – that’s off the cuff stuff. Everything we did, even if it was a bit different, was rehearsed. Maybe Benji’s flick was the exception, but he’s done things like that at training.
SKANDALIS: > We got beat by Brisbane 40-22 and that sticks in my memory because Sheensy blasted us. He said ‘If you guys are serious, if you really want to match it with the big boys, that can’t happen again’.
After the loss to the Broncos the Tigers went on an eight-game winning streak. Prior to 2005, the club had never won more than three games in a row. They felt like they couldn’t be stopped, their belief became invincible.
HALATAU: > There was a game down in Canberra (the Tigers recovered from a 14-0 deficit to win 22-14). We weren’t playing the best and we were behind and we somehow dug ourselves out and came away with the win. That was the point where I felt like regardless of how a game is going, we can still win. From that game we won eight in a row.
SKANDALIS: > They were young and playing first grade so they loved it and that was infectious. It rubbed off on us older guys because we might be worried and stressed and maybe went a little into our shells in some of the games whereas they didn’t really give a shit. They played like they were playing touch footy.
HODGSON: > On paper, you could say we weren’t good as the Parramatta side from 2001 was, but we just clicked. It was something you can’t explain, it just happened.
LEEDS: > They talk about momentum, we had incredible momentum. We felt unbeatable. When you bring a bunch of people together and they get along it really helps and there’s big fluke factor in that I think. They lived in each other’s pockets day and night. They loved being with each other, that was the most noticeable thing. Any winning football team is a happy team.
At the heart of the revival was the superb playmaking of Hodgson, Marshall, Prince and Farah. Hodgson enjoyed a scoring bonanza all year and his 308 points remain the second-highest season total of all time. Farah was eased in off the bench but developed as the year went on. In Prince and the 20-year old Marshall, the club had a rare halves duo on their hands, the kind that some clubs wait decades for.
PRINCE: > We pretty much kicked it off from the get go. When I walked into the gym the very first time when I went to introduce myself. There was a real strong vibe and we hit it off straight away. Benji’s one skilful man. He is something special.
I think the touch footy aspect helped. I play a lot of touch footy now, some say I played touch footy while I was playing NRL. I asked an Australian touch football player, I said ‘who was the best touch player you’ve seen in the 20 years you’ve been involved in this game’ and he said ‘Benji Marshall’.
We used to connect where I didn’t have to talk to him; I’d just yell out ‘whoot whoot’ or something like that and pass him the ball. We just had a connection where I’d see stuff and he’d see stuff and we’d see stuff at the same time and we’d just be looking and nodding, we didn’t really have to talk. It was sixth sense.
With their thrilling play and youthful exuberance, the Tigers were the neutrals’ favourite all year and their fan base swelled as the finals approached. The club had never made the finals before. The Magpies made it three times in their last 17 seasons as a stand-alone club. Balmain only made the playoffs once in their final decade. Starved of success and hungry for glory, the fans came flooding back.
PRINCE: > I really noticed when we went up to Queensland to play. Living in Mt Isa and Townsville and Brisbane I didn’t know anyone who supported the Tigers. I had friends and family come up to me in Tigers shirts and I was like ‘what’re you doing’ and they were like ‘mate, we’ve been supporting the Tigers since we were kids!’
BENJI MARSHALL: > We were getting mobbed in the street. I couldn’t go shopping at the supermarket. Tigers’ fans were stopping me everywhere I went. I saw Tigers flags in the street and on cars. It was crazy, but it was a great feeling.
SKANDALIS: > We beat the Bulldogs 54-2 (in Round 24) and they’d won the grand final the year before. That game made us believe we could do it. The way we played in those wins, it was fast, it was entertaining. We believed we could win any game.
PRINCE: > I always had confidence in terms of the self-belief we gained through those wins; I think we had nine wins straight or whatever it was. After about six beers I’ll think we won 15 straight. I didn’t even think about the premiership, I just thought ‘I’m enjoying this run and I’m going to take each game for what it is and whatever happens happens.
HALATAU: > We played against the Cowboys at Campbelltown and we were in our heritage jerseys. It was a monster crowd, a sunny afternoon, you just felt like everyone was behind us. It (was) the same any game we played at Leichhardt.
Ten weeks into the year, Sheens made the decision to give Prince the captaincy after regular skipper Mark O’Neill was injured. Despite O’Neill returning a month before the playoffs, Prince remained the skipper while O’Neill was informed he would not be retained for 2006 and signed with English club Leeds.
HALATAU: > There was a big thing that year about us doing extra stuff by ourselves and we were letting the rest of the boys know what we were doing, so we could hold each other accountable.
I often linked up with Mark O’Neill, nothing like a good Malcolm (shuttle run) outside on the field. It didn’t have to be much, it just had to be something little that you thought you needed.
SKANDALIS: > Mark O’Neill was a big reason we won that grand final. People don’t realise how hard that would have been. True sportsman and true champion that he is, he didn’t make a big fuss about it because that would have derailed us.
PRINCE: > Initially, it didn’t fit. I felt like I wasn’t ready. I was a little bit overwhelmed, especially with the proud history of Wests and Balmain.
SKANDALIS: > (O’Neill was) always the leader. To this day, we’ve got guys who will call him and talk to him and ask for advice. He says it like it is and he doesn’t dick around in terms of telling them if somethings right or wrong and they trust him. Even to this day, our 05 squad will ask for advice because he’s that kind of guy. Even though he didn’t have the C next to his name the young players, that first point of call was Buckets.
SHEENS: > It was not difficult at all (to make that decision). It’s an issue where probably the whole story will never come out, but it’s long gone. Mark achieved what he wanted to achieve, as did we, and he’s moved on. These younger blokes were coming through and we told Mark earlier in the year that was going to happen. He knew that, the issue then as far as the captaincy is concerned, is an issue I won’t go public on and never will.
PRINCE: > When Tim said ‘I want you to be captain of our side’ I said ‘yeah, thank you, I’m honoured’ and so on but the thing in the back of my mind was ‘fucking hell, now I’ve got to deal with the pre-game interviews’. That’s the only thing I was worried about.
<big>THE FINAL STEPS</big>
SKANDALIS: > We lost our last two games heading into the semis. Penrith beat us and Melbourne beat us and they had pretty big packs at the time and there were a couple of stories going around. Sheensy got them to show us. (They said) ‘”We’re not going to go too far in the semis because we don’t have a big enough pack”. I have to agree with that, we didn’t have a big pack but we had ability. The style of football we were playing, it got us moving the other team around and they couldn’t match us.
You put that with Benji and Princey and Hodgo and Farah? We weren’t that big, myself and Toddy (Payten) were the biggest front rowers. We took it in our stride, we fed off it, we made sure we proved them wrong.
HALATAU: > Maybe they were losses that we needed, I don’t know. We certainly didn’t doubt ourselves after those games; we just backed what we’d done in the last couple of months.
Their first opponents in the finals would be Sheens and Prince’s former club – North Queensland had been the finals darlings of 2004 after a stirring run to the prelim in their first playoff series. Led by a scorching Matt Bowen and newly crowned Dally M winner Johnathan Thurston, who had turned to gold in his first season in the north, they made for a tricky opponent.
PRINCE: > Our goal was to make the top four and once that sort of happened it kind of reset and we though ‘ah shit, our next game is against the Cowboys, here we go‘ and bang, we were in the game.
MARSHALL: > In the dressing rooms on the night of that first final, I looked around and, for the first time that year, noticed that everyone was very serious. Usually, there was a bit of laughing and joking in our dressing room, but not on this occasion. I could tell we were ready to play.
The result was a demolition. A 50-6 victory for the Tigers saw Hodgson score a finals record 30 points from three tries and nine goals.
Only one team in rugby league history had won the title in their club’s first trip to the finals – the 1909 Newtown Jets. The Dragons and Eels were still favourites, but the possibilities for the Tigers seemed endless. After the Cowboys belting, there was the small matter of the powerful Brisbane Broncos to deal with in the second week.
HALATAU: > Coming up against Brisbane, who had guys like Shane Webcke and Lockyer, they had a quality side. We didn’t expect it to be an easy game at all.
MARSHALL: > As we were driving into the ground, I was stunned by the sheer number of people heading down Cleveland Street towards the Moore Park precinct; cars filled with Tigers jerseys, flags hanging out the windows, people walking up the street quicker than traffic.
SHEENS: > (After the 34-6 victory) We won on our defence today. They (Brisbane) made some breaks but we scrambled. A side like that is always going to get at you at times, you expect it, but it’s what you do about it. People hustle back, Brett (Hodgson) made some telling tackles and people covered their runners. I wasn’t expecting to go out there and not let Brisbane get past us at times and I expected that they’d probably score 20 points. I was hoping we’d score 21. As it turned out they didn’t score 20 points and we scored 34. I knew we had points in us; it was just a matter of stopping them.
The prelim remains a match for the ages. Over 41,000 people crammed into the Sydney Football Stadium to see which of the merged clubs would progress to the grand final – the Tigers or Dragons. St George Illawarra finished second in the regular season, was packed with internationals like Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, Trent Barrett, Luke Bailey, Jason Ryles and Ben Hornby. The Red V were considerable favourites.
HALATAU: > Apparently the crowd was maybe 70-30 Dragons fans to Tigers, so we were down on numbers, but it didn’t sound like that. When we went out for warm up the atmosphere in that ground that night……I still haven’t had anything as good as that.
SKANDALIS: > We went out for the warm up and just in the warm up I was emotional. The noise was deafening. When the game started I couldn’t hear the players, I couldn’t hear the plays that people were calling.
MARSHALL: > I had the feeling (leading into the game) that every time I touched the ball something good was going to happen.
PRINCE: > That was the hardest game, my arse was hanging out. It was everything and more.
St George had a quality side. They had big bodies across the park. At that time St George were a really big side – Trent Barrett, at five-eighth, was 100 and something kilos, he’d fit into a pack quite easy. It was fast, it had everything.
MARSHALL: > Just before the game, Tim had picked that particular time to tell me he had a new scrum play. He said: ‘If we get a scrum, this is what I want you to do.’ I said: ‘You’re telling me now?’ He said: ‘Yeah, you’ll be right, just tell Hodgo and Shane Elford.’ I said: ‘What about the rest of the team?’ ‘No, that’s all’ he replied.
So I told Hodgo and Shane, and like me they expressed their doubts. Sure enough, about two minutes in, the Dragons dropped the ball in their own half. I looked at Hodgo, We realised we better do it. Tim was calling it from the sideline.
The moved worked perfectly, and Hodgson’s pass put Marshall on the outside of Mark Gasnier and he scampered 30 metres to score the first try of the match.
MARSHALL: > I looked over to the sideline and saw Tim just nodding.
Dene Halatau proved to be the unlikely hero, scoring two tries.
HODGSON: > Dene Halatau was just outstanding. I’ve never seen him play as good as that game. He’s a huge reason we made the grand final.
HALATAU: > The first one came off Benny Galea playing the ball; he’s reminded me of that a few times. I just sort of tipped Robbie up that I was coming in for a run because that was what Sheensy said to me. He said “sniff around the ruck when you’re on the field with Robbie and if you see a chance to run then just go for it”.
SHEENS:* > Our double dummy-half work which we used to a degree towards the back end of the season with Dene Halatau going to lock was very successful. We brought that in specifically for the first semi-final and when it worked so well, we continued to work with it but we did it specifically to take on the big Cowboys forwards.
HALATAU: > They were just a bit loose and I managed to get through and score next to the posts. I wasn’t sure if I got the ball down, there was a bit of a mess. I got up and the boys always say if you’re unsure if you scored the try and they’re going to go upstairs to act confident and I don’t think I did. I just sort of stood up and said “I don’t know if I scored”.
A 20-12 victory meant that the impossible dream continued – the Tigers, who had never been to a finals series before, who were built from the bones of two dying clubs, who were 151/1 when the season began, were going to the grand final.
Parramatta, the runaway minor premiers, were heavy favourites to progress to the first grand final since 1986 but were upset 29-0 by North Queensland and in a twist resembling a plot from a movie, Prince and Sheens would have a chance to win the title against their former club.
PRINCE: > I didn’t expect the Cowboys to get through at all. I remember thinking how surprised I was. They played a really, really good game of football to kick Parramatta. Parramatta and St George were the favourites to win and make the grand final. We certainly shocked a lot of people. Parramatta, the way they bowed out was really bad. What was the score in that one, 29-0? Tim goes ‘both of us just bought a ticket in the lottery’.
Balmain hadn’t won a title since 1969. Western Suburbs drought stretched all the way back to 1952.
The memories of dual grand final defeats in 1988 and 1989 for the Tigers, the years of crushing futility for the Mgpies, the seasons of scrapping for survival, where every win was cherished and the pain of the merger, it could all be swept away.
History awaited for a team writing their own legend.
SKANDALIS: > My biggest worry was that we’d smashed the Cowboys 50-6 in that first qualifier and anyone who plays like that goes out to never be beaten like that ever again.
HALATAU: > That confidence in each other, it didn’t matter where we found ourselves in a game, we always knew we were a chance to get out of it. I think we took that into that grand final, just knowing we were capable of winning from anywhere.
HODGSON: > In that week leading into the grand final you know what you have, which is why Tim was brilliant. That week he said to us ‘you know what you’ve got. Enjoy it’. I thought the way he treated that week just grounded everyone, made them feel relaxed heading into the game.
PRINCE: > I was that nervous I couldn’t eat at the grand final breakfast in case I shit myself. Every night, you’re lying in bed thinking about the game. It’s rolling in your head and you’re tossing and turning cause you can’t sleep. F**k, it was painful. It was really bad.
SKANDALIS: > Every year grand final week brings back the smell, the feel. I love it, I really do.
PRINCE: > I was shitting myself! People talk about the week of the grand final being the most memorable week in footy, I remember thinking it was a pain in my arse.
HALATAU: > We (Halatau, Marshall and Farah) were staying at my place. Before every final we’d stay at my place where I lived with my mum and my sister in north Parramatta. I don’t know how it started, but we did it for the first game. I put a blow-up mattress in the lounge room downstairs with a fold out bed. If I’m getting ready for a game I don’t want to sleep on a blow up bed or a fold out but the boys were happy to do it.
HALATAU: > The night before the grand final one of Benji’s best mates from New Zealand had his 21st. He wasn’t going to miss his best mate’s 21st, even if it was the night before the grand final. He said ‘I’ll only go for a little while, I won’t be too late’. I don’t know what time he got back, it might have been close to 11, give or take. He rang us up on the way back and said ‘I’m at Maccas, do you want anything?”.
MARSHALL: > All night he and Robbie had been phoning me, stressing out. ‘Where are you man?’ they’d say. ‘We’ve got a grand final tomorrow.’ I was hungry on my way back, and felt like a couple of cheeseburgers, so I phoned the two of them and asked them if they wanted some McDonald’s. They told me I wasn’t getting McDonalds. I told them that I was.
HALATAU: > We said ‘mate, you can’t have Maccas the night before a grand final’ and he said ‘nah, I’ll stop and get some, it’ll be all good’.
MARSHALL: > I bought a large Big Mac meal and four cheeseburgers, just in case the other boys felt like one.
HALATAU: > He’s rocked up with a bag of Maccas and it was only for himself, we didn’t want any. That was Benji then, he was just 20 at the time and it didn’t faze him one bit. Might have given him the energy to set up that try.
MARSHALL: > I didn’t know any different back then. To me that was normal. I ate my Big Mac meal, and they didn’t want the cheeseburgers so I gulped down two of them.
At last, Sunday arrived and the game began. The Tigers were slight favourites but given the free-flowing nature of the two sides and their similar styles, it truly was up for grabs.
PRINCE: > I didn’t feel happy until I ran onto the field. This is what we’ve been waiting for, let’s just play.
SKANDALIS: > I couldn’t imagine how it was going to be. The game happened so quick, we kicked off and it felt like it was over in 20 minutes. Before you could even get your breath back it was over. If I hadn’t watched a replay, I wouldn’t remember anything.
HALATAU: > It’s a little bit of a blur. I didn’t think I had a great game in the grand final. I haven’t watched it back to judge myself but I felt like I peaked the week before.
The game began in poor fashion for the Tigers. Bowen crossed first after some rapid-fire passing in the middle of the field but they got one back when Cowboys centre Paul Bowman threw a crazy pass inside his own in-goal that was put down and pounced upon by Bryce Gibbs.
PRINCE: > Even when we were behind, everyone was comfortable. ‘We’ve got this; we’ll just crank it up another gear’. The first try, no one was shitting themselves at all because we had confidence in attack.
SKANDALIS: > I started feeling relieved when Gibbo scored his try but I don’t know if that was just because I wouldn’t have to see him nude. I remember being relieved that we scored, that was one of my fears, that we wouldn’t be able to score. Once Gibbo had done that it relaxed everyone.
With the score locked at 6-all, the defining moment of the match and of the season came in the moments before halftime.
PRINCE: > The Cowboys put a real good kick chase on and it was a matter of winning field position. I thought ‘shit, here we go, we’ll be under the pump again and I’ve got to get to a kick’, that’s all that was on my mind. All of a sudden Benji makes a break and I didn’t really care how he passed the ball.
HODGSON: > It just opened up, a huge gap that allowed Benji to take another five or ten metres and he just stormed through the middle of them.
MARSHALL: > Everything just opened up. It was like it was meant to be. I did not plan it. I really don’t know how it happened. Instinct took over, and I flicked it out the back.
PRINCE: > I was more impressed with Patty Richards’ catch! To even see the ball, cause Benji flicked it and Patty lost sight of the footy and all of a sudden it’s in his hands. To catch the ball, to palm off Rod Jensen’s cover tackle where only weeks before (Jensen) was in a similar scenario and took the guy out? I think I held my breath when that was taking place.
But once Patty put the big fend on Rocket Rod it was all over. I was like ‘thank God’, cause I was buggered. I can only imagine the forwards. Big Skando would have been sucking in the big ones.
HODGSON: > I was still on the ground, I don’t think I saw the flick pass until the replay so I didn’t even see what he did.
The catch that Pat took as well, there wouldn’t be many people who could take the pass that he did and then fend off Rod Jensen.
MARSHALL: > I didn’t realise what I’d actually done. It all happened so quickly. I watched it on the replay and thought: ‘Holy hell, I flicked it.’ Patty gave me a big hug and said: ‘Thanks, man, I needed that.’
For him to be there and catch that ball was amazing. He deserves a lot of credit for that try. If he hadn’t played on it might not have happened. Not every winger would have seen the break and followed me in like he did.
The 12-6 halftime lead was stretched to 24-12 after tries to Anthony Laffranchi and Daniel Fitzhenry and a reply from the Cowboys to Travis Norton. Thurston putt Matt Sing over in the final minutes, but Josh Hannay’s sideline conversion went wide. When Todd Payten slammed down a Hodgson grubber as the siren sounded the game was over and what had seemed beyond reach became reality. The Tigers were premiers.
SKANDALIS: > I almost ran on the field with a minute to go. The coaching staff had to stop me. When Hannay missed the goal, he missed that goal and I knew it was our game. There was no way they were taking it off us.
PRINCE: > Even running back when Josh Hannay missed that goal I was thinking ‘come on boys, we’ve got a job to do’. Even at that point, with two minutes to go, I was thinking ‘f**k, I don’t want to lose this’.
HODGSON: > When Josh Hannay missed the goal kick, that’s when I relaxed. Not a second before that. That’s when we knew we’d won it.
HALATAU: > The one thing I do remember is when Paulie Fatz (Paul Whatuira) made the break at the end of the game that led to Toddy Payten’s try, that was pretty much right at the death, and I do remember jumping on the boys behind the tryline. I was out of breath; it might have been a turnover or something.
Then Fatz has made this break, we’re running up the field and everything was really frantic. We knew that we’d won the game by then and it was all but over.
MARSHALL: > Liam and Toddy both charged through and I think Toddy pushed Liam out of the way to score.
SKANDALIS: > I couldn’t control my excitement. Tears. It’s a feeling you can’t really explain. Satisfaction, relief, all rolling up in one.
HALATAU: > I just remember being really out of breath for four or five minutes. I couldn’t breathe, I was just so excited. It was overwhelming.
MARSHALL: > I just went quiet. I went to a different planet.
SKANDALIS: > All that came back, all the tough yards you made. All the sacrifices you made and your family made your wife and your kids. Everything, it all becomes worth it. You suck that in, you take it in and you enjoy the moment.
PRINCE: > I savoured it, I loved it. I was thinking ‘f**k, I can’t believe we did it’. I thought about the setbacks, individually and as a team that we went through. I thought of my father, how much I wished he was there. It was one of those things where everything comes to a head. Even now I think, f**k how did we do it? Fair dinkum, you look at us as a team at the start of the year and we were paying 150-1.
SKANDALIS: > The lap of honour, I wish I could go back and slow it right down. I wish I could thank every supporter in the ground and shake their hand. There’s players out there who play for so long and never get to do it.
HODGSON: > It was surreal. Its hard to fathom how much went on in such a short time. Everything was a blur straight away. It doesn’t sink in for weeks, if not months, that we’d done what we did.
LEEDS: > That’s what everyone strives for. I didn’t have much success as a footy player in terms of results, in terms of team success you might say. It was something I never achieved as a player but it was nice to be close to it and see the satisfaction for those boys I did play with, like Skando and Hodgo. Especially those two. We were all very close at the Magpies and had some tough years at the Magpies. It couldn’t go to two better blokes.
HALATAU: > I don’t think we were relieved; we were just excited and proud of what we’d done. I got a photo with John Howard; he came in to congratulate us. Dawn Fraser, I got a photo with her. We smoked a few cigars in the showers, I remember that. Had a few beers and smoked a cigar. Just kind of unwound and enjoyed what we’d done.
MARSHALL: > I did fine enough time with Dene Halatau to make a pact that we wouldn’t sleep for two days. At 3am., Chris Heighington father had to take him home. He had already poured a glass of beer over Paul Sironen’s head, after which a few of us took him into the back room to calm down a bit. He asked for vodka, so I gave him a glass of water with ice in it. We told his dad to have him back to the bus by 9.30 the next morning. We were still celebrating on Monday night, more than a week after the game.
<big>“THEY CALL SATISFACTION THE ENEMY OF PROGRESS”</big>
With their young core of stars, the Tigers seemed set to dominate the competition for years. But things started to unravel almost as quickly as they began. They missed the finals in 2006 and at the end of that season Prince returned to Queensland having signed with newly formed Gold Coast Titans. The Tigers took years to replace him and did not return to the finals until 2010.
PRINCE: > We had no one there (in Sydney), we had no family. We’d just had two daughters and all along, when I left Brisbane and when I signed, I always wanted to come back to Queensland. I remember saying to my partner, now my wife, at the time ‘we’ll go down to Sydney, we’ll have these three years and then we’ll come home, I promise’ and that was it. Three years I played in Sydney, my wife only came to three games. She didn’t mind, she was there and she was always supportive but I just felt that it was time to go. I actually wanted to go back to the Cowboys.
It was probably bad timing because we’d just smacked them the month before. I look back now and think ‘what a cheeky bastard’. I rang Peter Parr and said ‘Parry, I want to come home. I want to sign with the club’. I’d just bought an acre block the year before, in 2004, off Noel Goldthorpe that backed onto the Willows golf course and was literally 200 metres from Dairy Farmers. My brother was there, I had aunties and uncles, and I thought it’d be perfect. I’ll play at the club, hopefully retire there. So I called him and he said ‘nah, we can’t do it. We just re-signed Brett Firman for two years; we want to give him every opportunity’.
HALATAU: > There were a few years where we came close, a few years of not really being anywhere, just floating around the middle. I don’t know what it was the following season; I missed the first 10 rounds of ‘06. I think Benji did as well; we both had shoulder surgery a week after the grand final. Same day, same surgeon, one after the other.
SKANDALIS: > The pressure of other teams picking up their game, we didn’t prepare for that. When you play against premiers every team steps up and I don’t think we prepared mentally for that. We lost Benji to shoulder injuries; we lost Mark O’Neill to England. It just didn’t seem to gel.
HALATAU: > Maybe we got a bit complacent. Because we had that confidence from the year before that we could win games. I think we maybe leant on that a bit too much. We thought we could win games before we got into them without preparing as well as we could.
LEEDS: > You become a target I suppose. You should make the finals at least, shouldn’t you? I don’t know. They call satisfaction the enemy of progress, that’s probably what it came down to. True champions stay at the top. Maybe we weren’t true champions. True champions handle favouritism. True champions expect to win this and they go out and do it.
HODGSON: > You even look back now and you can’t believe that happened.
HALATAU: > I’ve been doing a fair bit of reflecting in the last couple of months, knowing that I was about to hang up the boots. I’m proud. I’m proud I was able to do it. I’m grateful, I’ve always been really grateful I’ve been able to play footy for a living, it wasn’t something that I’ve ever taken for granted. I never considered myself a superstar youngster and I had to work hard to get there.
PRINCE: > Even today I went to a school in Yarrabah up near Cairns and I had a lady come up to me and they still talk about it. ‘What you did in 05, my husband is a Tigers fan and he cried that day’ – he cried, I bloody cried! I didn’t come home for a couple of days!
Just the feeling it has on the community and what it means to them, it makes me so proud to play for the club and to have that opportunity to win a premiership, it was something special.
_* Benji Marshall quotes used with permission from Benji, Benji Marshall: My game, M story by Glenn Jackson. Published by Hachette Australia. Available in paperback and ebook
- Tim Sheens quotes where noted used with permission from 2005 Big League Annual._
Great experience for sure, but how long are we gonna have to live off it? It’s been too long between drinks and it’s kind of sad having to regurgitate something that happened over a decade ago just to make the fans feel all warm and fuzzy again. It’s time the Wests Tigers created a new story.
Great read and its funny how the players felt like us.
Remember posting on here numerous times were going to win this before the semis.
Felt detached from the media didn’t care who they played it was likeenen we the fans were on a wave that nobody could understand it was almost like we were the only team playing.
We might see further premierships but nothing like that. And reading that funny how we as fans could almost feel what the players felt,really incredible.
Great experience for sure, but how long are we gonna have to live off it? It’s been too long between drinks and it’s kind of sad having to regurgitate something that happened over a decade ago just to make the fans feel all warm and fuzzy again. It’s time the Wests Tigers created a new story.
Exactly right Flip
The only way we can move forward from this is to forget it ever really happened
Imagine it was just a dream
Still maintain this could of possibly been the worst thing that could of happened for this club’s future
All it did was cover up all the mistakes we were making right across the board and 12 years later we still suffer from them
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