BY CURTIS WOODWARD
“Newcastle have won the grand final!” With that famous Ray Warren line, Darren Albert and the Newcastle Knights will forever be synonymous with 1997.
For many reasons, people have forgotten a lot about that season. What they refuse to forget is the feel-good story of the Australian Rugby League’s underdog premiers. Up against a mighty Manly-Warringah outfit bursting with superstars, Newcastle’s battlers gave rugby league fans hope after their game had been ripped apart by ruthless businessmen on both sides of the Super League War.
The majority have forgiven and moved on. Time is the great healer. From the war, we now have the National Rugby League. But ’97 still belong to the ARL’s Knights. Banished to sporting obscurity forever are the Brisbane Broncos, the team that won the Super League title that same year. Even now, some will tell you the last team to go back-to-back were the Broncos in 1992 and 1993. But come on. If we’re going to remember the Knights for their heroics, why don’t we celebrate the Broncos of ’97?
We must remember them because they’re quite simply the best team of the modern era but will never get the credit they deserve.
And don’t forget, the Broncos came back and dominated the 1998 NRL season when the two warring factions reunited.
But it’s hard to argue that the ’97 version, which also included Anthony Mundine and injured legend Glenn Lazarus, weren’t the strongest Broncos team they’ve ever produced since their inception in 1988.
The ’97 Broncos: the most dominant team nobody remembers.
Such was the competition for spots, a number of stars were forced to play out of position. Mundine played in the centres as Kevin Walters had a strangle on five-eighth, Brad Thorn played prop, Michael Hancock on the bench, Michael De Vere played wing and Darren Smith locked the scrum. Hell, Queensland prop Andrew Gee played hooker in the grand final against Cronulla-Sutherland!
This was no ordinary team. Between them they boasted three Clive Churchill Medallists, a Rothmans Medal winner, Golden Boot (Darren Lockyer twice), two Dual Internationals (including an All Black), thirteen Kangaroos, sixteen State of Origin players with the squad eventually winning a total of 61 premierships between them. And all this without Lazarus available for the grand final.
It sure is easy to bag this team or even this writer for suggesting these “Super League traitors” deserve to be considered the most dominant outfit in recent memory. It’s even easier to argue that because there were two separate competitions running, we’ll never know how good this squad really was. But if you break them down, position-by-position, ask yourself if the Knights or runaway ARL minor premiers, Manly, had a chance against this all-star line-up.
Backing up this theory you only have to look forward twelve months to see what they did to the NRL and the Canterbury Bulldogs in the 1998 grand final. With Mundine returning to the St. George Dragons and Lazarus moving to the Melbourne Storm, the Broncos dominated all before them in ’98 in a side that also included a young Petero Civoneciva on the bench.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know what these Broncos could have done in a unified premiership.
They are the forgotten kings of a forgotten time.