WARRIOR-ROO BLOG NO.5: 1997 – SUPER LEAGUE, ARL & PRINCESS DI

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Robert Anderson is a Brisbane-based Warriors fan and long-time member of the club. Throughout 2020, he will share his memories and thoughts on his beloved team for This Warriors Life. Here’s the fifth edition of Robert’s ‘Warrior-Roo’ blog (find previous entries HERE):

The 1997 season was a truly bizarre one for rugby league in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in history we had two competitions – Kerry Packer’s ARL and the newly-formed (and short-lived) Super League, a creation of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Super League has first emerged in 1995, offering huge money on the spot for players willing to sign up. It was meant to kick off in 1996 but a court ruling delayed the breakaway competition by 12 months. It was easily one of the most controversial and ugly sagas in the code’s history and it took years for the game to fully recover.

I immediately pledged my allegiance to Super League as the Warriors and Broncos were both on board. The rebel outfit had some big ambitions for the game and were actually the first to introduce the video referee (many may not think this was such a great thing…). Funnily enough, I attended what was the very first and last Super League [remiership games. Round 1 was Broncos v Warriors at the old QEII Stadium (then known as ANZ Stadium) and it began in a blaze of glory with a dazzling laser light show. Sadly that was as exciting as the night would get with the Broncos overcoming the Warriors 14-2 in an error-riddled affair with Matthew Ridge making his long-awaited Warriors debut. My main memories of the game are prized Broncos recruit Anthony Mundine getting injured in the first half and the bloke in front of me getting dacked when he stood up to cheer Michael Hancock scoring the first-ever Super League try.

I was also lucky enough to attend the Super League grand final, also at QEII. The match was a sellout with what was a record crowd of 58,912. They brought in extra seating to accommodate additional capacity, which helped bring the crowd closer to the game in a stadium where you notoriously felt a county mile away from the play. The Warriors had qualified for the under-19s and reserve grade grand finals, but unfortunately went down in both to Penrith and Canterbury respectively.

Right after we had taken our seats young Warriors under-19s centre Tai Savea scored a try to keep the Warriors in the game against the Panthers. Tragically only a couple of years later he would lose his life in a fishing accident in the Waikato after having signed with Balmain. A young Ali Lauitiiti also played for the Monty Betham-led junior team, with famous players like Hitro Okesene, Logan Swann and captain Aaron Whittaker – plus future stars Jerry Seuseu, Joe Galuvao and Paul Rauhihi – playing for the reserves. The main game itself was a fairly tight contest for around 60 minutes before the Broncos kicked clear to win 26-8. It was a big thrill personally as Steve Renouf, one of my all time favorites scored a hat trick. Funnily enough Michael Hancock, who the previous year had been told by Wayne Bennett he was free to leave, also crossed for the last-ever Super League premiership try.

The Warriors had what most would consider to be a disappointing season, but they did at least finish the year strongly. Big wins over the doomed Perth Reds and North Queensland Cowboys were real highlights. One memory that does stick out was Matthew Ridge striking Reds winger Chris Ryan in the head while attempting to stop a try. It was a nasty incident, with ‘Ridgey’ clearly keen to reproduce his miracle try save from the previous season where he kicked the ball out of Darren Smith’s hands as he was attempting to ground the ball. The Ill-fated World Club Challenge also saw the Warriors excel against the far inferior Euro Super League teams. I was again at QEII to watch them get edged out by the Broncos in a see-sawing game 22-16. Much-maligned winger Lee Oudenryn had one of his best games for the club scoring a double, while a young Ben Walker was the match -winner for the Broncos.

Ironically enough it was actually on the ARL side of things that produced one of the most remarkable and unique rugby league experiences I’ve had. With the Broncos dominating Super League across town, the battling South Queensland Crushers we’re struggling at the foot of the ARL ladder and were on the verge of folding. It had been reported that they would merge with the Gold Coast Chargers, who were currently enjoying their best ever season. The Crushers were struggling so much to the extent that in order to get a decent crowd for the final few home games they opened the gate and let everyone in for free. My father and I decided to take advantage of this offer and went in for the final (in more ways than one) home game of the season against Western Suburbs. The equation was a simple one for the Magpies – a win would see them secure a finals berth, while a loss would allow the Chargers to sneak in for a historic maiden finals campaign. It seemed like a formality that the Crushers would cop one last hiding.

Driving in to the stadium they announced on the news that Princess Diana had been involved in a car accident in Paris and was in hospital. I couldn’t help but think at the time that the entire Crushers existence had also been a bit of a wreck. You knew times were tough when one of the highlights at the stadium food bar was a spam burger. I played it safe and went with the trusty tub of chips.

Right before the game kicked off the it was announced that we would observe a minute’s silence as Princess Diana had passed away as a result of the accident. I will never forget it – an eerie silence fell over the crowd as we were all in shock. I think it’s one of those incidents where you never forget where you were when you heard the news. The game kicked off and the Crushers got out to a 12-0 lead, before going on to belt the Magpies 39-18 and break a host of club records in the process. A young Clinton Schifcofske scores a record 18 points, plus it was the Crushers’ highest winning margin. It was only a couple of late tries that restored any kind of credibility for the shell-shocked Magpies. It truly was an unforgettable afternoon.

With that result the Chargers historically qualified for the first time – a first for any Gold Coast incarnation. They beat Illawarra in the first round, but heroically went down to the Roosters the following week. Based on this strong showing the Chargers made the decision to continue on as a single entity, effectively killing off the Crushers. Twelve months later the Chargers themselves were gone too.

The ARL season finished, of course, with Darren Albert’s last-second match-winner to secure the Newcastle Knights’ first premiership after one of the great grand finals against Manly Sea Eagles.

A year that most rugby league fans (though not Knights supporters, naturally) will want to forget was funnily enough one of the most memorable for me personally. That’s the beauty of the game we love – it’s full of surprises, twists and turns. However, to everyone’s relief the game reunified in 1998 to form the NRL as we know it today.

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