Given a 50 per cent tipping success rate is regarded as a remarkable achievement after two months of the topsy-turvy 2014 NRL premiership, the task of predicting the eventual champs is arduous; the next five premiers, nigh on impossible.
The NRL’s evenness – highlighted by high turnover of premiers, with no club going back-to-back since the great, international-laden Broncos sides of the 1990s – is often spruiked as one of the competition’s most alluring features.
With Melbourne, Souths and the Roosters all currently languishing outside the top eight, which contains 2013 cellar dwellers Wests Tigers and Parramatta, the axis of power may already be dramatically shifting.
So what does the next half-decade have in store? Are maiden titles for the Sharks, Warriors, Cowboys or Titans around the corner? Can the Rabbitohs, Eels and Raiders break longstanding premiership droughts? Will the Storm, Sea Eagles and Roosters remain thereabouts, or will the Broncos, Knights, Dragons, Bulldogs, Tigers and Panthers – the other premiers of the NRL era – recover not-too-distant former glories.
A squinty-eyed gaze into the crystal ball revealed the following:
2014 Grand Final
Manly Sea Eagles 12 def Parramatta Eels 10
Clive Churchill Medal: Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles)
Manly takes another swipe at Melbourne’s mantle as the dominant club of the NRL era, securing its third premiership in seven seasons and its second in four years with a gruelling Grand Final triumph over Parramatta.
Both sides finish the match with two-man benches after a stunning war of attrition – the most dramatic (and closest) decider in 15 years. Eels captain Jarryd Hayne covers himself in glory with a career-defining display, but comes up just shy of carrying his team to a long-awaited title when departing Sea Eagles lock Glenn Stewart halts Hayne’s last-minute charge just short of the try-line.
Daly Cherry-Evans creates history by becoming the first back-to-back Clive Churchill medallist. But there’s no controversy this time – DCE was a standout winner after laying on both of Manly’s tries, scored by Justin Horo and Steve Matai.
Semi Radradra’s breathtaking individual try – equal parts beauty and brute strength – stands tall as one of the all-time great Grand Final tries, but ultimately blue-and-gold tears fall on ANZ Stadium at fulltime.
2015 Grand Final
Wests Tigers 26 def Parramatta Eels 22
Clive Churchill Medal: Aaron Woods (Wests Tigers)
Parramatta’s heartbreak continues, with the club’s premiership drought extended into a third decade via a fourth straight Grand Final defeat since the glory era of the 1980s.
The upshot is the Eels’ enormous contribution to arguably the most entertaining attacking Grand Final ever staged, which sees the Tigers maintain a perfect two-from-two record in premiership deciders.
The Brooks-Sandow halfback duel; the bone-rattling hits by Taupau, Ma’u, Galloway and Pauli; Simona’s sizzling hat-trick; the titanic performances of skippers Farah and Hayne – few Grand Finals have provided as many glistening memories.
But the deft skill and incredible power of Tigers front-rower Aaron Woods garners Churchill Medal honours, shading the courageous and brilliant performance of NSW Origin fullback James Tedesco.
2016 Grand Final
New Zealand Warriors 18 def Penrith Panthers 14
Clive Churchill: Shaun Johnson (Warriors)
The Auckland homecoming of former Sydney-based stars Steve Matai and Isaac Luke pays immense dividends for the Warriors, while oft-maligned owner Eric Watson is vindicated for the controversial decisions of a couple of years earlier. The prize: a maiden premiership for the perennially underperforming club.
Phil Gould’s five-year plan comes within a whisker of delivering the Panthers their third title right on time, but coach Ivan Cleary is ultimately trumped by a clutch of Warriors stars he steered to the 2011 decider.
The 30-year-old Manu Vatuvei is the sentimental hero, shedding his butterfingered reputation by gloving a tough pass from man-of-the-match Shaun Johnson to plunge over in the corner for the match-winner six minutes from time.
Johnson, too, exorcises some demons, with the build-up to the match focusing on his inability to step up when it matters most. His cross-field jaunt to set up Vatuvei’s try – eerily similar to the one he produced for ‘The Beast’s’ four-pointer in the ’11 Grand Final – ices a polished but gritty all-round display by the No.7, which includes a stunning cover tackle on a runaway Dallin Watene-Zelezniak that draws comparisons to Sattler in ’03.
The brilliant Kiwi international Watene-Zelezniak bagged two touchdowns, but his try-that-wasn’t proves the turning point.
2017 Grand Final
South Sydney Rabbitohs 20 def Sydney Roosters 10
Clive Churchill Medal: Greg Inglis (South Sydney)
The Grand Final everyone expected (and seemingly everyone wanted) four years earlier belatedly came to fruition, resulting in ‘The Pride of the League’ South Sydney finally claiming its 21st premiership after the most feverishly anticipated Rugby League match of the modern era.
In a disjointed, but nevertheless brutal and gripping decider, Sam Burgess provides a plethora of highlights on both sides of the ball, capping a triumphant return from a failed Rugby Union stint.
But Greg Inglis is the indisputable choice as the Clive Churchill Medal winner, prompting some bleary-eyed veteran players and scribes to declare him the equal of the Rabbtiohs’ ‘Little Master’. The 30-year-old’s multiple try-saving plays during the second half and match-sealing score inside the final five minutes ensure the phrase ‘future Immortal’ gets a solid workout over the ensuing days.
Roosters fullback Blake Ferguson adds to the annals of infamous Grand Final performances, joining the likes of Neville Glover, Anthony Mundine and David Williams courtesy of an error-riddled display. The most glaring and costly of his errors gifted a vital score-levelling try to Chris McQueen on the stroke of halftime.
The day belongs to Souths, but is hailed is one of the great ones in modern Rugby League, as the code’s most famous club ends 46 years of heartache.
2018 Grand Final
Parramatta Eels 19 def South Sydney Rabbitohs 18
Clive Churchill Medal: Pauli Pauli (Parramatta)
The year is dominated by the farewell tour of retiring Melbourne legends Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, whose bid for a fairytale premiership is extinguished in the preliminary final by the Parramatta Eels – the eventual premiers as a 32-year title drought is broken.
The NRL Grand Final had developed a reputation for failing to deliver the outstanding contests befitting of the occasion. But the 2013 decider sparked a run of unbelievable matches – it has almost become cliché for the Grand Final to become an instant classic.
And it so it transpires again in 2018 as the Eels and Rabbitohs play out one of the finest ever, the first to go into extra-time since famous Canberra-Balmain epic of ’89 and first to be decided by one point since Souths’ ‘Miracle of ’55’ against Newtown.
Parramatta overturn an 18-6 halftime deficit, before Will Hopoate plays the ‘Chicka’ Ferguson role, scoring the decisive try in the dying stages. Chris Sandow plays the defining match of his tumultuous career, landing the pressure conversion and nailing an angled 40-metre field goal in the 97th minute.
Desperate scrambling by the Bunnies fails to recover the lead, or their bid to become the first back-to-back premiers in 25 years.
Like Bradley Clyde in ’89, Pauli Pauli takes out the Clive Churchill Medal for a dynamic and tireless display, while the match becomes entrenched as one of the key moments in Parramatta’s history and the crowning achievement of skipper Jarryd Hayne’s remarkable career – a belated win in his fourth Grand Final appearance.