For every player that is fortunate enough to play in the National Rugby League, there is one thing for which everyone covets: winning a Grand Final.
Training over the pre-season, going through the home-and-away season and for a select few finishing in the finals, the ultimate prize of walking away from ANZ Stadium on the final Sunday in September with a premiership ring is afforded to just 17 players annually.
Some players go their entire careers without experiencing the glory of Grand Final success (as Nathan Hindmarsh’s colleagues are all too happy to remind the Parramatta icon). But for others, winning a premiership comes about in unexpected circumstances.
Whether it is through the misfortune of an injured teammate, a golden run of form late in the year or a second chance at the big league, here are ten unexpected NRL Grand Final winners.
Daniel Abraham (Newcastle Knights – 2001)
Used primarily as a fullback in the early days of his time in Newcastle, the 20-year-old was elevated to the NRL side following a serious ankle injury sustained by Knights legend Darren Albert in the first week of the finals. With little more than ten matches in the top grade, Abraham played his part off the bench in the boilover against the Eels. Going on to play a century of matches with Newcastle and a further season in North Queensland, at age 37 he is still plying his trade with the Macquarie Scorpions in the Newcastle Rugby League.
Lote Tuqiri (South Sydney Rabbitohs – 2014)
To say that a 36-year-old dual International who won a NRL title with Brisbane at the start of the millennium was an unexpected premiership winner may seem a bit odd. But having suffered a succession of injuries and spending a large chunk of 2014 in reserve grade, Tuqiri made the most of his chance when granted a reprieve by providing strong service in the final 11 games of his career, culminating in a fitting farewell for the well-travelled icon.
Slade Griffin (Melbourne Storm – 2017)
Managing just one game in first grade in the years following his debut season with the Storm, the hooker/lock managed to force his way into Craig Bellamy’s top squad midway through 2017. Losing just two matches for the reminder of the year, Griffin managed to play his part in the win against the Cowboys before heading off to Newcastle on a multi-year deal to establish himself as a staring player.
Johnathan Thurston (Canterbury Bulldogs – 2004)
While it may seem sacrilegious to say JT’s feats in Grand Finals were anything other than in keeping with the status of an Immortal in waiting, things weren’t as brilliant in his final season at the Bulldogs. Suffering a broken leg early in the year, the 21-year-old playmaker was selected in jersey 18 as a replacement for injured captain Steve Price against the Roosters. Coming into the game during the second half and producing a vital touch finder during the closing stages, an ecstatic Thurston gave away his premiership ring to the injured Price, feeling his seven game contribution throughout 2004 was undeserving in comparison to the legacy left by Price at Canterbury.
Sisa Waqa (Melbourne Storm – 2012)
Playing club rugby in Sydney two years earlier, the Fijian speedster managed a single appearance for the Storm throughout much of 2012. However, following a serious injury to Matt Duffie and holding out premiership winner Anthony Quinn with his performances, Waqa crossed for seven tries in ten matches to have his name recorded in the history books as a Grand Final victor.
Richie Fa’aoso (Melbourne Storm – 2012)
With half this list comprising of Melbourne players, it stands to reason that the systems in place at the Storm produce success better than any other club. Shifting from Newcastle just before the June 30 deadline as a depth signing, the Tongan front rower stood up when called upon as a replacement for Jason Ryles in the run toward the decider. Coming off the bench to play his part in a flawless team performance, Fa’aoso’s time in the Victorian capital was short, but memorable.
Ryan Tandy (Melbourne Storm – 2009)
Playing eight games in the NRL over six seasons prior to heading to Melbourne, the Irish International made his debut for the Storm just three weeks out from the play-offs. Validating Craig Bellamy’s faith in his ability with solid contributions during a dominant team finals campaign, Tandy came off the bench in the subsequently stripped premiership triumph over Parramatta. In a tragic turn of events, he passed away at age 32 in 2014 after receiving a lifetime ban for his role in a spot fixing scandal at Canterbury.
Apisai Koroisau (South Sydney Rabbitohs – 2014)
Having been unable to break into the Rabbitohs line-up since July, the rookie dummy half was given the biggest break of his career following Issac Luke’s preliminary final suspension. In just his 14th game in the NRL and wearing jersey 21, the Fijian representative provided good service for South Sydney as he celebrated in a long-awaited moment of history.
Shane Perry (Brisbane Broncos – 2006)
Languishing in Queensland Cup for four years with Redcliffe after managing 14 games with Wests and Canterbury at the turn of the millennium, the 29-year-old halfback earned an NRL revival in 2006. Drifting in and out of first grade for most of the year, the sacking of Brett Seymour in the weeks leading into the play-offs saw Perry given the responsibility of partnering Darren Lockyer in the halves. Part of a huge Grand Final upset over the hotly-favoured Storm, Perry played a further two years with Brisbane before finishing up with Catalans in 2009.
Craig Smith (Melbourne Storm – 1999)
In a strange twist of fate, two namesakes took the field for the Storm and Dragons in the 1999 premiership decider. While the NZ prop was left to ponder what might have been at the end of 80 minutes, the Melbourne winger proved to be an unlikely hero. Playing in just his third match of the year, a defining moment in rugby league history unfolded when opposing winger Jamie Ainscough collected Smith high in the act of scoring a try. Ruled a penalty try by Bill Harrigan, the subsequent conversion under the posts gave Melbourne the win in just their second year in the competition. Retiring at the end of the season with just 20 games to his name, the 26-year-old was able to finish up having been a part of something special.