Controversial Grand Final Calls

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Not for the first time, the NRL had its name dragged through the mud on Sunday as a controversial decision tainted what was otherwise a brilliant Grand Final.

We’ll never know if the Canberra Raiders could have scored with another set of six, but the jaw-dropping decision to reverse the call remains one of the worst officiating blunders in the history of sports.

Human error is to be expected on some level, but does that make it acceptable with a premiership on the line?

Here’s a look at some of the most controversial Grand Final (or championship game) calls from around the globe, that just might Canberrans feel a little bit better about receiving the ole’ screwjob.

1979 VFL Grand Final – That Was Out of Bouuuunnnddss!

Carlton held a commanding 21-point lead heading into the fourth quarter of the 1979 VFL Grand Final right before Collingwood sliced the margin to just four points midway through the final term.

With the game on the line, Wayne Harmes took matters into his own hands scooping the loose ball at the half-forward flank and booting it forward. The kick headed to the boundary, but with Harmes chasing, the eventual Norm Smith Medalist was able to punch the ball back into the field of play and into the path of goal-kicker Ken Sheldon.

To this day, Collingwood fans remain adamant the ball travelled out of bounds. Either way, this is by far the most controversial moment in VFL/AFL history, which more importantly, paved the way for this all-time classic commercial.

2012 A-League Grand Final – Brisbane Roar vs Perth Glory

All square at 1-1 with only seconds remaining, the Brisbane Roar pushed the ball forward into the box hoping to take one last shot on goal before extra time.

Besart Berisha found space front and centre, and after his initial shot was deflected, the ball kindly landed back at his feet before Liam Miller brought him to ground.

The referee didn’t hesitate to call for a penalty shot as Miller clearly made contact with Berisha’s left ankle. Originally the decision looked to be controversial, but Miller later admitted that even he thought it was a foul.

Brisbane went on to win the Grand Final 2-1 to secure their second title, before claiming a third two seasons later.

2019 Cricket World Cup – Not-So Super Over

Who can forget this year’s infamous Super Over in the Cricket World Cup?

All tied up at 241-runs apiece, England and New Zealand failed to break the deadlock as each scored 15 runs off the six Super Over balls.

As the side with the most boundaries, England went on to win the World Cup on a technicality, crushing New Zealand’s hopes for the second straight World Cup after finishing runner-up behind Australia in 2015.

2016 US Open – “I Think It Moved”

Controversial decisions don’t only happen on the field, because as we found out in 2016, even golfers fall victim to the rule book from time to time.

On the fifth hole on the final day of the US Open, Dustin Johnson lined up for an all-too easy 3ft putt. After going through his usual practice routine, Johnson lined his putter up behind the ball, only for it to move slightly on the green.

Good guy Johnson alerted USGA officials as he was instantly cleared of any wrongdoing. Not long after though, officials awarded Johnson a one-stroke penalty, which proved a moot point with the American already holding a four stroke advantage.

In the end, justice prevailed as Johnson still won the US Open by a comfortable margin. But still, this was easily one of the most controversial moments in golf over the last decade.  

1971 VFA Grand Final – Dandenong vs Preston

Umpires left their mark on the 1971 VFA Grand Final between Dandenong and Preston immediately as a free kick for a push in the back was paid against Preston’s Barry Leslie right before the opening bounce.

The decision awarded the opening goal to Preston full-forward Jim Miller, which at the time seemed fairly harmless. In the end, Dandenong went on to win by the exact margin of six points, resulting in a Preston protest after the game.

Preston’s argument was that the free-kick came before the match had officially begun, but after a 2.5-hour meeting, the Board of Management rejected the protest declaring Dandenong the Division 1 Premiers.  

1980 Escort Championships Grand Final – North Melbourne vs Collingwood

It wasn’t the first time a game of Australian Rules was decided on a controversial goal, and it certainly won’t be the last.

North Melbourne found themselves down by three-points with just seconds remaining in the 1980 Escort Grand Final against Collingwood.

Malcolm Blight took control of the ball sending a kick inside 50 that was marked by Kerry Good, but the field umpire failed to hear the final siren in the background prior to Good kicking the game-winning goal.

With the crowd rushing on the field, several players also admitted they failed to hear the siren. The match, however, remains one of the most controversial results in Aussie Rules history, adding to Collingwood’s long list of pain and misery.

Super Bowl XL – Pittsburgh Steelers vs Seattle Seahawks

For a league ruled by penalties, flags and constant reform, the NFL has surprisingly had very few controversial decisions on the big stage.

The one that does stand out however, came in Super Bowl XL between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks in 2006.

Still scoreless with the first quarter winding down, Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass on the Steelers’ 16-yard line to find a wide-open Darrell Jackson in the back of the end zone. It was an absolute bullet from the three-time Pro Bowler, but the play quickly drew yellow as officials ruled offensive pass interference.

In today’s NFL, any kind of push off from a receiver is immediately flagged, and now, even challengeable! But back then, these kinds of minor push offs happened all the time, so it’s no wonder the Seahawks felt hard done by.

As a result, Seattle settled for a field goal before the Steelers scored on their next possession. Pittsburgh took complete control of the game not long after, but the referees weren’t done leaving their mark.

Ben Roethlisberger’s one-yard rushing touchdown is still the cause of much debate to this day, while the officials also killed any chance of a Seattle comeback as a very controversial holding call canceled out yet another Jackson touchdown in the third quarter.

1999 NRL Grand Final – Melbourne Storm vs St. George Illawarra Dragons

A head-high tackle from the Dragons’ Jamie Ainscough was the talking point in the 1999 NRL Grand Final.

Down four points in the 77th minute, Ainscough caught Melbourne’s Craig Smith high as he crossed the try-line following the ensuing line dropout, which propped referee Bill Harrigan to call for the video referee.

The Storm were granted a penalty try following the review, which drew them level with the Dragons 18-18. Since the try was awarded on a penalty, Melbourne kicked ahead from right in front to earn a 20-18 advantage on the conversion attempt, going on to win their first premiership after joining the competition the year prior.  

1990 AFL Grand Final – Collingwood vs Essendon

One of the most infamous Grand Final brawls broke out in 1990 between bitter rivals Collingwood and Essendon.

Tempers flared at quarter time as well over 10 players got involved in a skirmish. Gavin Brown levelling Terry Daniher was among the highlights, but the barney eventually led to massive implications on the rest of the game.

As a result, the umpires immediately cracked down in an effort to try and control the rest of the match, which resulted in a handful of penalties going Collingwood’s way. The Pies led by only three points at the quarter-time siren, before piling on six goals to lead 57-23 at the half time break.

2019 NRL Grand Final – A Forgettable Falcon

Sunday’s “six again” decision completely overshadowed the other controversial no-call that cost the Raiders a sure try.

In the early stages of the match, Luke Keary put up a kick that was immediately charged down by the Raiders Iosia Soliola. It was a massive effort from the big man, but the ball somehow ricocheted into the head of the Roosters’ trainer, forcing the play dead.

If the man in orange wasn’t in the way, Elliott Whitehead would have been home and hosed as the first player to the ball. By the rulebook, blowing the whistle and packing a scrum was the right decision, but the play has now called for a complete re-evaluation of one of the leagues most outdated rules.

1985 World Series – Don Denkinger’s Blown Call

There’s only a handful of ways an umpire can affect a baseball game, and Don Denkinger managed to do just that in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Blown strike calls at home plate are the main errors you tend to see from umpires in baseball, but Denkinger somehow called pinch hitter Jorge Orga safe at first base in the bottom of the ninth on a bouncer to the right side of the infield.

It was a bang-bang play at first, but Orga was clearly out. The play was made even worse as the Royals went on to walk plate two runs in a walk off victory, setting up a decisive Game 7 that would eventually land Kansas City their first World Series win.

2019 African Champions League Final

We couldn’t go this far without mentioning VAR, could we?

This one is a little obscure, but in case you missed it, the second leg of this year’s African Champions League Final boiled down to one of the most egregious refereeing decisions the game has ever seen.

Wydad Casablanca scored an equalizing goal with just over half an hour remaining in the match, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside. Wydad refused to keep playing as the referee wouldn’t check with VAR, but little did the players know, the technology itself wasn’t working.

After a delay, Esperance was declared the Champions League winner. Eventually, though, the outcome was overturned as the Confederation of African Football scheduled a rematch.

Honourable Mentions

  • 1976 VFL Grand Final
  • 1978 World Series
  • Super Bowl XLVIII
  • 2006 NBA Finals
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