The 1985 and 1994 NSWRL grand finals, though very different in themselves, tell together a quite interesting tale of a weapon developed in the 1970s called the “bomb”. In rugby league, a “bomb” is a very high kick into or near the opposition in goal area, which aims to produce a try or to tie the opposition down by a line drop-out.
The 1985 grand final, in which St. George were aiming for a cleansweep of all three grades and started as hot favourites having not lost any of their last ten games, saw Canterbury captain Steve Mortimer use the bomb as a means of keeping St. George in their own in-goal. Although the Bulldogs were able to force a huge number of line dropouts, they only scored one try (but could have scored three or four with better finishing) and were lucky to win after Steve Morris scored for the Dragons.
Apparently the repetitive manner in which Mortimer bombed the ball to Dragon fullback Glenn Burgess was seen as likely to destroy the game if other sides had copied Canterbury. A law was introduced whereby a ball taken on the full in goal led to a 22 (later 20)-metre tap restart, which made the bomb (initially) less effective.
The 1994 grand final is often seen as a perfect farewell by a red-hot Canberra side to Mal Meninga’s career. In fact, like St. George’s unbelievably poor tackling in 1975, Canberra’s big win - which actually flattered Canterbury - was achieved despite quiet games from Steve Walters and Brett Mullins, plus a number of elementary errors and missed opportunities. Canberra took quite a number of wrong options and their ball handling was far from perfect, denying themselves two intercept tries.
However, what watching the 1994 grand final reveals most is Canterbury’s woeful mistakes at the rear. To see them - supposedly a top team - miss every single bomb put to them is utterly shocking. What this really reflects is how Ricky Stuart and Laurie Daley - for all their skill - were taking advantage of the fact that specialist fullbacks were a thing of the past. Stuart put up eight “bombs” during the match and neither Wilson, nor Ryan nor winger Daryl Halligan could take a single one cleanly. A decent specialist fullback would have taken every single Raiders kick on the full rather than dropping easy catches or unnecessarily trying to take difficult ones.
Canterbury used two fullbacks - Scott Wilson and Matt Ryan, who should never have played away from five-eighth or centre respectively. In the 1993 major semi-final, St. George’s Noel Goldthorpe did the same thing to a team that would have had an incomparable record but for this weakness.
So ingrained had the loss of specialist fullbacks become that the causal reader of Rugby League (or I would imagine even the more insider-oriented Rugby League Week) does not realise Scott Wilson should have never played anywhere but five-eighth: almost all his first grade career was at fullback even though he was hopeless there in top company. Even Canberra’s Brett Mullins was basically a winger not a fullback. Having watched Graham Eadie’s wonderful performances for Manly in the 1970s, I can confidently say a genuine fullback of his class would have been worth fifty points (no typo) to Canterbury on September 25, 1994. Had I then been a sports master at school merely watching Canterbury would really have taught me to teach suitable kids the essentials of fullback play to the exclusion of anything else to prevent such an atrocious exhibition ever occurring again. It is true that against other sides of that era who relied less on kicking a specialist fullback was an expensive luxury. However, to imagine a team could, as Canberra did, deserve to win a grand final by fifty or sixty points without playing superlatively well can do no credit to rugby league as a game!
It is honestly a travesty of justice that Daryl Halligan, whose elementary mistakes cost Canterbury twenty points, overtook Eadie - who is about the best player I have seen on Visual Entertainment Group DVDs - in overall points scored in NSWRL matches! Even counting his accuracy as a goalkicker, I feel watching the game now that I would have sacked Halligan just for the tries he gave away failing to catch bombs.