Pre-match attention understandably focuses on the likes of superstars Nathan Cleary, Reece Walsh, Adam Reynolds, Dylan Edwards, and Payne Haas ahead of Sunday night’s blockbuster between Penrith and Brisbane.
But Grand Finals have a knack of producing unlikely heroes – unheralded types who sew their name into the fabric of rugby league history with a memorable performance on the game’s biggest stage.
1942 – Lin Johnson (Canterbury)
Played on an SCG quagmire, the 1942 decider between Canterbury and St George was locked 9-all in the dying stages when Berries fullback Lin Johnson lined up a penalty goal from in front of the posts.
The decisive kick went terrifying close to being one of the most infamous misses in the code’s history as the former NSW rep and Indigenous trailblazer slipped on the sodden turf in his approach, but the ball scraped over the cross-bar to clinch an 11-9 triumph – and Canterbury’s second title.
1967 – Greg Norgard (South Sydney)
Young centre/five-eighth Norgard arrived at Souths from Newcastle in 1967, making five first grade appearances during the regular season before featuring in the club’s reserve grade grand final loss.
Norgard sat on the bench for the first grade grand final later that day as Souths’ reserve back, entering the fray after winger Michael Cleary left the field injured.
Following a backline reshuffle, the rookie slotted in at pivot and helped the Rabbitohs to a gripping 12-10 win over Canterbury.
He stayed at the club for a further five seasons but made just 21 appearances in the top grade altogether, including only one further finals match – again as a replacement in the 1968 major semi loss to Manly.
1969 – Syd Williams (Balmain)
Syd Williams played 58 games over five seasons for Balmain and represented City Firsts in 1967, but his greatest rugby league legacy is as the sole try-scorer in arguably the biggest boilover in grand final history.
The diminutive Williams, who had not featured in the Tigers’ finals campaign to that point, replaced winger George Reubner in the second half of the decider and flashed over for the only try of the match – a pivotal moment in the 11-2 upset over two-time premiers South Sydney.
1975 – John Rheinberger (Eastern Suburbs)
Easts centre John Rheinburger earned his niche in rugby league folklore by making his only first grade start in the 1975 grand final.
A member of the inaugural Australian Schoolboys squad in 1972, the youngster came on as a replacement in one match during the 1975 season, before being called up to replace Mark Harris, who broke his leg in the preliminary final.
Rheinberger did his job in Easts’ 38-0 demolition of St George but did not play another first grade game.
He went on to have a successful career in indoor cricket but remains a favourite of rugby league trainspotters.
1985 – Chris Guider (St George)
Guider created history in 1985 as St George qualified for grand finals in all three grades, despite slipping down the pecking order to third-string hooker at the club.
The pint-sized rake played 15 first-grade games in ’84, but Phil Ritchie and Tony Townsend were preferred the following season.
Nevertheless, Guider helped the Dragons’ Under-23s to victory in their grand final, before coming off the bench in the reserve grade side’s decider success.
He was then used as a replacement as the Saints went down 7-6 to Canterbury in the premiership grand final – just his second appearance in the top flight that season, and only the 17th of his career.
Guider captained the club during a disappointing ’86, before quitting the game to dedicate his time to the Church of Scientology, a faith he publicly renounced in 2011.
His achievement in playing Grand Finals in all three grades on the same day in unique in the code’s history.
1989 – Steve Jackson (Canberra)
Jackson was a fringe forward for the burgeoning Raiders in the late-1980s and had not made a top-grade appearance in more than two months when he took his place on the reserves bench for the 1989 grand final.
But the no-frills No.20 replaced Brent Todd as regulation time wound down, before leaving five Balmain defenders in his wake on an extraordinary 20-metre charge to the try-line in extra-time, sealing a euphoric 19-14 victory.
The Mackay product went on to represent Queensland in nine Origins during stints with Wests and Gold Coast, but Jackson will be forever linked to that iconic try in just his 16th first-grade game.
1992 – Alan Cann (Brisbane)
Nuggetty backrower Cann was a relative unknown in Brisbane’s star-studded squad, but the 21-year-old forged a regular place in the run-on side on the eve of the 1992 finals series.
One of only two players in the Broncos’ starting side who had not played Origin football, Cann scored a memorable second-half double in the history-making 28-8 defeat of St George, displaying tremendous strength and surprising footwork.
The Logan junior made his sole appearance for Queensland in 1996 and finished his career with Adelaide Rams two years later.
1994 – Paul Osborne (Canberra)
When a one-week suspension cost Kiwi enforcer John Lomax a place in Canberra’s 1994 grand final line-up, coach Tim Sheens called upon ball-playing prop Paul Osborne to fill the breach – despite the fact he had been sidelined for a month with injury and hadn’t appeared in first grade for 11 weeks.
But the former St George stalwart became entrenched in premiership folklore when he laid on the opening two tries of the decider with brilliant offloads, setting the Raiders on course for a 36-12 thrashing of Canterbury.
‘Ossie’ hung up the boots after the match at the tender age of 28 and used his new-found popularity in the capital to win election as the first Independent Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly.
1999 – Craig Smith (Melbourne)
A first-grade regular during Melbourne’s foundation campaign, goalkicking winger Craig Smith spent most of 1999 playing for Queensland Cup feeder club Norths.
But he was recalled during the finals – more than a year after his previous NRL appearance – and played a crucial part in the Storm’s dramatic 20-18 victory over St George Illawarra in the grand final.
Smith kicked three goals and produced a try-saving tackle on Anthony Mundine, before being hit high by Jamie Ainscough as he was about to score a late, score-levelling try.
A penalty try was awarded, with Smith the unwitting, unconscious hero of a phenomenal triumph, but the 26-year-old retired in the aftermath of an unhappy season.
2000 – Luke Phillips (Sydney Roosters)
Fullback Luke Phillips’ heroic effort in the 2000 grand final loss to Brisbane immediately passed into rugby league lore as arguably the best by any player in a losing side on the game’s biggest stage.
Phillips prevented a slew of Broncos tries with courageous play at the back, while he was the Roosters’ chief attacking spark as they went down 14-6 in a dour decider.
The Churchill Medal would have been a certainty had the Roosters prevailed, but his opposing No.1, Darren Lockyer, carried off the honour after a typically influential display.
Phillips retired two years later after featuring in the Roosters’ 2002 grand final triumph over the Warriors.
2003 – Scott Sattler (Penrith)
Journeyman utility Scott Sattler had largely spent his career in the shadow of his father’s towering reputation.
John Sattler was a legendary South Sydney captain famous for leading the club to victory in the 1970 decider with a badly broken jaw – but Scott carved out an indelible place in grand final folklore for himself in 2003.
The match was evenly poised at 6-all during the second half when Roosters winger Todd Byrne burst into open space down the sideline, but Penrith lock Sattler hared across and bundled Byrne into touch.
The 32-year-old’s stunning save – destined to become the most storied cover tackle in the history of the game – gave the Panthers the impetus for an 18-6 upset of the defending champs.
2008 – Michael Robertson (Manly)
Underrated Manly winger Michael Robertson joined illustrious figures Alan Brady, Johnny Graves, Eddie Lumsden and Steve Renouf as the only players to notch a hat-trick of tries in a Grand Final, crossing three times in 17 minutes during the Sea Eagles’ record 40-0 demolition of Melbourne.
The former Canberra flyer capped a career-best display by throwing a superb in-field pass to put departing club legend Steve Menzies over for a late try.
Robertson was tipped as a possible bolter for the Australian World Cup squad, but teammate David Williams edged him for a spot and Robertson represented Scotland instead.
He left for Super League after winning another grand final with Manly in 2011.
2012 – Bryan Norrie (Melbourne)
No-frills prop Norrie typified Craig Bellamy’s ability to transform journeymen into valuable role-players in his dominant Melbourne Storm machine.
The former Dragons, Panthers and Sharks bookend joined Melbourne in 2010 and became a regular first-grade starter for the first time in his career.
As the Storm alleviated three years of salary cap scandal pain by winning the 2012 Frand Final, Norrie produced what Big League magazine described as a ‘career-best performance’, running for 149 metres – the most of any forward on the field – in a gritty 14-4 defeat of the Bulldogs.
Norrie hung up the boots in 2014 after playing 120 games in five seasons for the heavyweight Storm.
2013 – Sam Moa (Sydney Roosters)
Big-name recruits Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Luke O’Donnell all played vital roles in the Roosters’ 2013 premiership triumph under rookie coach Trent Robinson.
But a low-key buy capped a wonderful season with the rejuvenated heavyweights with a massive play in their grand final comeback against Manly.
Nuggetty prop Moa played just one game at Cronulla before building a solid reputation at Hull FC and being picked up by the Roosters.
With 20 minutes of the decider left and the Roosters trailing by four, Moa combined with Sonny Bill Williams to kick-start a 70-metre movement finished off by Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
The Roosters went on with the job to triumph 26-18 with Moa among the winners regarded as unlucky not to get a Churchill Medal nod ahead of controversial pick Daly Cherry-Evans.
2018 – Cooper Cronk (Sydney Roosters)
The modern master of grand finals, arguably no player has carried such a prohibitive injury into a premiership decider as Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk did in 2018.
Cronk suffered a severely restricting AC joint injury in the preliminary final and his health dominated the grand final week build-up ahead of the grand final against the Storm, who he left after 14 seasons with another premiership ring in 2017.
He made zero runs and nine tackles in the big one, but his leadership and calming presence was regarded as a vital factor in the Roosters’ 21-6 victory, while Cronk’s performance earned him a lofty place in the annals of grand final courage.