Four decades of heartache is over for rugby league’s most successful and beloved club, but the South Sydney Rabbitohs’ rousing 30-6 grand final triumph over the Canterbury Bulldogs was almost overshadowed by an individual performance that ranks among the most courageous and inspirational in the game’s history.
In one of the most dramatic openings imaginable, Sam Burgess had his cheekbone smashed in a head clash with fellow British superstar James Graham in the opening tackle of the game. But the rugby union-bound Souths lock guaranteed a perpetual place in the annals of rugby league gallantry by not only playing out the entire 80 minutes, but starring.
Burgess’ phenomenal effort was capped with the Clive Churchill Medal; the prestigious honour has never been adorned on a more popular winner.
The eventual 30-6 scoreline over the gritty Canterbury Bulldogs was emphatic – highlighting the gulf in firepower between the two sides – but it did not reflect the tense and engrossing struggle of a grand final that was in the balance until the final 10 minutes.
From the ringing of the foundation bell by Souths legend Bob McCarthy and Canterbury great Les Johns, it was a decider dripping in history between two of the NRL’s oldest and proudest clubs – and the ghosts of Rabbitohs history permeated through the match.
Souths had virtually all of the running in the first half, but had only a well-taken try by teenaged winger Alex Johnston – his 21st in 18 rookie-season appearances – to show for their dominance. Canterbury appeared rattled and somewhat disjointed, but defended grimly to restrict the halftime damage to 6-0.
The Bulldogs’ commitment on their try-line came to the fore again during the opening minutes of the second stanza, forced to withstand a barrage of South Sydney attacks. But when enigmatic second-rower Tony Williams snaffled a deft Josh Reynolds grubber at the other end, the underdogs had incredibly levelled the scores.
The shift in momentum and energy was palpable, but a superhuman effort from another member of that remarkable Burgess clan – starting prop George – restored the Rabbitohs’ ascendancy. The blonde-haired behemoth busted through several highly-regarded defenders on a barnstorming run to score under the posts in the 56th minute.
Key calls went against the gutsy Bulldogs thereafter, with an Adam Reynolds penalty extending the lead to eight points, before an extended break as Graham’s granite-like head saw Souths front-rower Dave Tyrell taken off via medicab.
When the game was all but out of reach, however, it became a procession of Rabbitohs grandeur – a freakish bounce saw Kirisome Auva’a, one of four Souths rookies, dot down to seal the result; Reynolds’ superbly controlled performance was rewarded with a kick-and-chase try after a deflection off the goalpost; and megastar Greg Inglis scorched away for a trademark try in the dying stages.
Sam Burgess was handed the obligatory farewell conversion attempt after fulltime, which just shaded the upright. But nothing could detract from the Dewsbury product’s performance, which is destined to be immediately regarded as one of the finest and most iconic in the code’s narrative.
Burgess’ bravery in soldiering on was incredible, but the overwhelming quality of his performance under such duress was awe-inspiring – he racked up 30 tackles and 22 runs for 195 metres. The poignant scene of tears streaming down his mangled face after the realisation the Rabbitohs had sealed the win will go down as one of 2014’s defining images.
Canterbury lost few admirers; the blue-and-whites fought tenaciously – but their extraordinary charge from seventh spot had run its course.
As if preordained by the rugby league gods, the night belonged to South Sydney. ANZ Stadium’s biggest post-Olympics crowd of 83,833 was in attendance, the myrtle-and-cardinal sea of supporters creating an atmosphere superseding anything witnessed at the venue that has long been derided as soulless.
The strains of ‘Glory, Glory to South Sydney’ belted out over the PA to soundtrack an event that has occurred more than any other, but one most fans have never seen – a Rabbitohs premiership. The spine-tingling panorama confirmed one of the game’s oldest adages: when South Sydney is strong, rugby league is strong.