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2023 Queensland Cup grand final
17 September 2023 - Burleigh play Easts in the grand final of the Queensland Cup on Sunday evening at Kayo Stadium
The Queensland Cup may have a lot of physical heft but its relatively lightweight cultural cut-through1 belies its history. Although the Cup was first contested in 1996, and its predecessor in 1982, both the Eastern Suburbs - sorry, Brisbane - Tigers and the Burleigh Bears were founded about 90 years ago.
It's hard to guess what Depression-era Burleigh looked like. Perhaps a public house, a post office, a few beachside tents of well-off city-dwellers escaping a muggy Brisbane and acres of dairy farmland behind the headlands with a few hundred people in the vicinity but otherwise as white men found it. From those humble beginnings to now being some of the most beautiful and prime real estate in the City of the Gold Coast, so it's their football team that's become the prime Queensland Cup representatives for the same metropolis. The Bears have claimed four premierships - 1999 and 2016 over the Dolphins, 2004 over the Tigers and most recently in 2019, in the game that permanently launched Jamal Fogarty into the NRL, over Wynnum Manly - and finished runners-up in 2003 and 2005.
The Tigers were born out of the old Coorparoo (established 1917) - then and now an inner city suburb of Brisbane on the banks of Norman Creek - and adopted their current moniker in 1933 as the BRL moved to residential rules. Since then, and depending on your view, Eastern Suburbs last trophy of note came in:
1978, a defence of their 1977 BRL title with the legendary Morris brothers,
1983, their last pre-Broncos BRL title, albeit in a short season,
1984, their second state league trophy following 1982’s success, or
1991, their only post-Broncos BRL premiership.
Since 1991, the Tigers have lost grand finals in 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1997 in the BRL and then in 19972, 2004, 2013, 2014 and 2018 in Queensland Cup.
The obvious contrast to draw here is the yawning chasm of modern success: Burleigh 4-2 in QCup finals and Easts 0-9 in their big dance appearances over the last three decades. That’s the weight of history and it partly explains how both of these clubs wend through the best part of a century to arrive at this time and place.
The platonic ideal of a perfect Bayside September day greeted the not-that-many patrons of Dolphins Oval. The blooming flowers in suburban gardens attest to the coming warm summer. The browning lawns attest to the past dry and cool winter, the first for a few years. A mild humidity in the anabatic breeze carried off Moreton Bay and washed down the canals of Newport from Scarborough Harbour, past the really expensive waterfront houses, and across the shellgrit beaches of Redcliffe through the town's business district, to the stadium nexus at Kippa-Ring, home of the Dolphins, whose business is concluded for the year, and monument to their capacity for local graft. The sunset behind the main grandstand, giving the Moreton Bay Figs an amber hue. There is the barest hint of chill in the air.
The fixture is played a week earlier - presumably so the winner has the chance to celebrate, regroup, recover and prepare so as to not embarrass the competition and the state in front of a national audience - but kicking off two hours later than tradition would normally dictate. As with any scheduling screwballing in rugby league, the answer almost certainly lies at the feet of broadcasters. Nine appears to have almost entirely abandoned state cup in both states. Fox stepped in to pick up the rights but to avoid a clash with the final round of the NRLW and the NRLM finals, the final slot available in the weekend was Sunday 5.30pm. While an evening grand final is almost certainly inconvenient for everyone physically in attendance, one hopes that the additional televisual consumers will be sufficient to firstly, make up for the shortfall in ticket sales3, and secondly, for someone to maintain a broadcast interest even when the expansion of the NRLW swallows up the available real estate in future. One hopes Ben Ikin has a plan for that.
Burleigh came into the match as strong favourites. The Bears were minor premiers, had barely taken a backward step all year and won the previous meeting of these teams. Indeed, I tempered my own pessimism around Easts’ chances in the week leading up, just to avoid seeming like a massive bummer.
I shouldn’t have been pessimistic because this sport almost always delivers.
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The opening salvos fired by the Tigers exploded with an energy that seemed to take the Bears by surprise. The early returns were that Burleigh may not have been prepared for how badly Easts wanted, if not the win, then to at least make this a contest. After the first points were scored - a poorly defended effort as Tigers prop Tristan Powell poured through the myriad gaps in Burleigh’s goal line defence to score a soft try - the game opened up.
As minds looked ahead to the break, the Bears hit two tries in quick succession. The first came from a Hamilton call of “6-4 diamond” (or something to that effect) as the ball swung right through all the hands, Keano Kini hit the gap with alarming speed and Tony Francis finished off in the corner. The second came from a freak passage of play, as Corey Thompson did his best to prevent a Hamilton 40/20 from finding the sideline, only to bat the ball straight into a passing Tony Francis’ hands to claim his second.4 Roberts missed both conversions.
A Kini half-break gave Burleigh great field position, which they expended scrambling side-to-side on the fifth, but instead of finding a way to score points, capped off with a Hamilton kick from the outside of the boot, straight into the hands of Easts’ Max Lehmann. The Tigers return set saw them march down the field. A speculative kick from Jonah Pezet appeared to be comfortably fielded by Kini in goal but Kane Bradley marked the ball mid-air and landed for an easy try. Tigers would lead 12-8 into halftime as twilight descended.
After the break, a lazy escort penalty would be converted in two points by Pezet. Four minutes later, Lehman picked off Hamilton and returned it to the house to the put Tigers up 20-8 with about 25 to go. Only the most diehard Bears supporters, seemingly all sitting in pod 7, still believed at that point. An hour into this game and Burleigh had been punished for their hubris and their irresponsibility. The stadium, already leaning heavily more to orange than maroon, was hushed.
Then, the Tigers were penalised, a recurring theme on the night, and gave Burleigh field position. Hamilton found Sailuima, who powered through the hole and over the defence to bring the Bears back into the game. Burleigh lifted and sought another opportunity as the Tigers lowered themselves into the gutter. Tristan Hope - and I knew there was a reason I didn’t like him - grabbed Keano Kini around the neck and dumped him to the ground. This only resulted in a penalty and the mouthy hooker was extremely lucky to remain on the field.
Astonishingly, only moments later, Hope was involved in another ugly tackle, bending Vaka Sikahele’s back and simultaneously twisting his knee. Andrew Voss might claim this is “all legal” but given that refereeing all year has been about apperances, rather than the merits of technique, it was a bizarre aberration for a horrible injury to be met with a second penalty seconds of game time apart, doubly so when it is clear Easts are intent on playing this way and the referee was not dissuading them.
Burleigh punished Easts for their disgraceful play with a Kini pass finding a deflection off the Tigers Lehmann’s hand, into the Bears’ Pere’s head and then into Francis’ hands for a try. With plenty of time on the clock, the lead had closed to 20-18 and we had a ball game.
But Burleigh seemed to run out of ideas. The Bears couldn’t get into striking distance as the clock ticked down. Maumalo bounced a certain try off a Kini kick with six left. A high shot - more of a hug around Pezet’s head as he fell - added another two points to the Tigers’ lead and chewed a minute or two off the clock.
Roberts left the field with five to go, leaving Hamilton in charge of the offence while chasing points. A more staid half would have found a way to pound the ball down through Easts’ gassed middle and then spread it wide through Kini to find Maumalo. Hamilton did not do these things. An ill-advised kick on the third with 1’37 left on the clock wasted the last really good chance the Bears had.
The Tigers managed to artfully insert themselves into the ruck just enough to not receive significant censure from the referee and slowed proceedings down. Despite the referee finally binning a Tiger with all of six seconds to go, having wasted Burleigh’s final minute with pointless penalties and far, far too late to show any kind of control, time came for the Bears.
There were numerous off-ramps from this disaster for Burleigh. If Tyrone Roberts had hit his conversions. If Ken Maumalo had finished off one chance or hadn’t been robbed by The Bunker inventing obstructions that didn’t exist. If Guy Hamilton didn’t overplay his hand with an unnecessary kick, especially with just 97 seconds left on the clock. If the referee had refused to accept the Tigers’ attitude to the ruck late in the game.
For a team with 55% possession, over 300 additional metres and the benefit of seven net penalties in their favour, the most telling stat for me was that both teams’ post-contact metres were basically the same. The Tigers ran with an intensity and defended with a strength that the Bears did not have. That’s why Burleigh’s points came from weird shit and Easts hung on grimly for the final half an hour of the season to come out on top. In doing so, the Tigers, finally, broke their drought, bringing a trophy home to the Eastern Suburbs and adding more weight to the history of this sport in this state.
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The QCup final is the second worst attended of the state footy league finals, down with the Tasmanian league (when it exists). The 7,000 to 8,000 or so that have typically attended the grand finals since the return to Redcliffe pales to the tens of thousands that attend the SANFL and WAFL finals. The worst, of course, is the NSW Cup final, a competition with so little value that no broadcaster can be bothered anymore.
Yes, two grand final losses in one year.
It was very sparse. Of the finals I’ve been to (17, 19, 21, 22 and 23), the attendance was easily the lowest.
If they’re going to manufacture weirdness like this, Dolphins Stadium needs bigger screens.