Tipping Point’s View: The break-out years of the North Sydney Bears

The Bearest of margins

The North Sydney Bears were among the more consistent teams of the ‘90s and perhaps the best team of that era not to win a premiership (or make a grand final for that matter, despite contesting five preliminary finals – they were choking in the prelims well before Souths made it cool). You have to wonder whether the Bears would still be running around in the National Rugby League if they’d managed to convert one of those prelims into a GF and, ultimately, a premiership.

After decades of mediocrity, the Bears enjoyed a breakthrough season in ‘91, finishing third behind Manly and eventual premiers Penrith. After winning the 2v3 semi-final, they took on the Panthers in what was known as the major semi-final. Despite a whole-hearted effort, the Bears fell short by two points, on a day most remembered for Daryl Halligan’s inexplicable performance with the kicking boots; the Kiwi sharpshooter missed more goals in 80 minutes than he did in just about the rest of his career (I think he kicked 1/5).

A week later they lost the preliminary final to the red-hot Raiders; it must be pointed out though that before their victory in week one of the finals, the Bears hadn’t won a finals match since the 1950s. Hell of a drought, that. The ‘91 North Sydney side was a mixture of youth and experience, with experienced players like Mario Fenech, Tony Rea and the late Peter Jackson complementing young cubs such as Greg Florimo, Billy Moore, Gary Larson, Mark Soden and David Fairleigh. These future superstars went on to be the nucleus in what was a quality outfit for the best part of a decade.

North Sydney missed the finals in ’92 (finished 11th) and ’93 (finished 6th), but made a resurgence in ’94 sparked by the acquisition of master playmaker Jason Taylor from Western Suburbs (who was selected as halfback in the Bears’ team of the century, narrowly edging out Jason Martin). Having finished the year in second place, they went down to the Raiders in the 2v3 final before a nail-biting victory over the Broncos pitted them against the Green Machine once again in the preliminary final (the Raiders having lost the major semi-final to the Bulldogs, who finished as minor premiers).

Now, let’s be fair: that Raiders side of ‘94 is just about the best club team ever assembled (save for perhaps Brisbane in 1992-93 or in 98) but the Bears pushed them all the way, and were probably favoured with the bookies after John Lomax was sent off for a high tackle (which ultimately rubbed him out of the GF, which allowed Paul Osborne to be recalled… and we all know how that went). But it wasn’t to be: just when the Bears looked like specials to claim victory with a numerical advantage and the better of the scoreboard, Gary Larson shortly followed Lomax down the tunnel for an early shower after a spear tackle, which evened the numbers and killed the Bears’ momentum. I doubt we will ever see a finals match with two send-offs in it. Definitely check out this video with the highlights.

After a spluttering year in ’95, Norths finished in 8th place but were eliminated in week one; their season never recovered after their loss to the Crushers in round five, (which was the first ever victory for the doomed South Queensland outfit), things were looking up for the Bears in ’96 and it looked as though Manly and Norths would finally play out the next chapter in their long-standing rivalry on the biggest stage with both clubs favoured in their respective preliminary finals. Enter the Dragons: at long odds, this St George team – which had finished seventh – blew the Bears away to the tune of 29-12 in what was a massive choke by North Sydney having gone into the sheds trailing by only 7-6. You may recall that the Dragons and the Dogs were renowned in the ‘90s for their ability to play finals footy – and win matches against impossible odds and go on long giant-killing winning streaks in September. Had Norths won as predicted on that day, it would’ve been a much better decider than the ’96 GF ended up being, which was a fairly dour affair punctuated by a moment of controversy where Manly fullback Matthew Ridge decided he didn’t want to play the ball after being tackled and instead just got up and kept running, leading to a decisive stroke-of-halftime try.

In ’97 the Bears lost the preliminary final to Newcastle after Matthew Johns nailed a ridiculous field goal from 30 metres out in the dying stages to break North Sydney hearts, which was followed by a try against the run of play (and a pre-try celebration which was against the run of everything that ever existed) to Owen Craigie (yes, Owen Craigie played for Newcastle in 97, as did Leo Dyvenor, who came on to replace Andrew Johns who had suffered a punctured lung thanks to a botched painkilling injection – against medical advice and at the risk of death, Joey would later play a starring role in the grand final). Perhaps this was fate intervening: we wouldn’t have had “that” Darren Albert moment (which in many respects saved rugby league) in the ’97 grand final had it have been Norths v Manly in the decider (you never know, maybe it would’ve been Nigel Roy scoring that fateful try instead…).

In ‘98 the Bears again made the finals, but they’d missed their window; they proceeded to fade badly in ’99 as the club plunged into insolvency, which was quite frowned upon under the NRL’s criterion for continuation in the competition. What followed was the ill-fated marriage with Manly – which lasted all of three years – followed by a messy divorce where one club stayed in the NRL and won two grand finals over the next decade, whereas the other still trundles away in the NSW Cup, desperately wondering what could’ve been.

BEST OF NORTH SYDNEY IN THE 90S

Matt Seers, David Hall, Michael Buettner, Greg Florimo, Brett Dallas, Ben Ikin, Jason Taylor, Mario Fenech, Mark Soden, Gary Larson, Adam Muir, David Fairleigh, Billy Moore.

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