Rugby League

Tim Sheens recognises Penrith momentum as Raiders celebrate 25th anniversary of 1989 flag

Tim Sheens knows exactly how the Penrith Panthers feel right now. 

In 1989, his Canberra Raiders side was written off by "so-called experts", not afforded any respect and branded cannon fodder by a Sydney media expecting a star-studded Balmain to beat them easily in the grand final. 

The Raiders celebrate their 1989 grand final win over the Tigers.
The Raiders celebrate their 1989 grand final win over the Tigers. Photo: Getty Images

Like the Panthers of today, the Raiders thrived on an "us against them" mentality to beat the Tigers in a match still regarded by many as the greatest grand final ever. 

Premiership five-eighth Laurie Daley sent a text message to his 1989 teammates on Wednesday to remind them it was the 25th anniversary of their extra-time triumph. 

Sheens didn't have to remind his players they had been written off by all and sundry. 

"We didn't talk about it a lot, but it was obvious, it was in your face," Sheens said. 

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"That was the case with the Sydney media who bagged us all the way through and said we couldn't win it, our forwards weren't good enough.

"It really brought the community together, it was a special time down there."

Glen Lazarus and Mal Meninga hoist Tim Sheens aloft in 1989.
Glen Lazarus and Mal Meninga hoist Tim Sheens aloft in 1989. Photo: Getty Images

It's a hallmark of the game that a quarter of a century on, it still stands the test of time as arguably the best grand final ever. 

Whether it's Mal Meninga's ankle tap on Mick Neil, John "Chicka" Ferguson's late try, which sent the match into extra time, Steve Jackson's match-winner, or Benny Elias hitting the cross bar. 

"I don't know whether it is [the best], but it had the drama there's no doubt," Sheens said. 

"We came from fifth [after the regular season] and scored just before full-time. We were nowhere near favourites to win it. 

"It makes for a great story and I'm happy for people to say that [best ever]. I'm just pleased we won it."

Raiders hooker Steve Walters said the grand final breakfast on game day hit home to the team it was them against the world. 

"They introduced Balmain first and went through the whole team, but when we came out the announcer knew about three players," Walters said. "We had a little chat about that later. I still remember it. 

"They [Balmain] had all the high-profile players and they thought we were just making up the numbers."

It's now etched into Raiders folklore, but fullback Gary Belcher joked Chris Sullivan's field goal, which gave Canberra the lead early in extra time, as a "shocking play". 

"No one wanted him to take it, there was plenty of time left and we had six tackles on their line," Belcher said. 

"If he missed it, fair dinkum, I reckon Sheensy would have hooked him from the field. 

"I think we had them psychologically. They had the game won and all of a sudden it was snatched from them, and they had to go into extra time."

Belcher described the reception in Canberra as "chaos" and the team had to wait until they hit the tarmac for their first celebratory beer. 

"It was actually a dry trip home because the pilot strikes were on. But we made up for it when we got back," Belcher said. 

"We got on this crappy old DC-3, which had been there since 1945 I reckon. 

"There was thousands at the airport, it was chaos."

Even when Canberra trailed 12-2 at half-time, Sheens still believed the Raiders would win. 

An intercept try to James Grant and a lucky bounce for a Paul Sironen four-pointer had given the Tigers the edge. 

"Sheensy was saying all the usual things and we have to hang in and we're going OK. But I remember doubting that, I have to put my hand up," Walters said. 

"I was feeling really sh**ty because we'd been the better side, but were losing. 

"A lot of people enjoyed it which was great. Twenty-five years is a long time, so it's great to still be talking about it."

Canberra defended its premiership in 1990, lost the 1991 grand final to Penrith before claiming a third title in 1994. 

Brisbane (1992-93) is the last team to win back-to-back premierships, and the Roosters are desperate to break that drought this year. 

But Sheens doesn't subscribe to the modern theory that the days of clubs forging dynasties are necessarily over. 

"The Roosters may do it this year and it's quite an achievement, no doubt about that," Sheens said. 

"With [Sonny Bill] Williams leaving [the Roosters] and Sam Burgess leaving Souths, they're a big part of their franchises and how they handle that will determine whether or not they continue to dominate. 

"Canterbury limped into the finals and Penrith weren't supposed to do what they've done. Like we had back then, they've got momentum."