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Grand Final time: Wests v University of Queensland...when even ugly field goals count like gold

Tue, 13/09/2022, 10:15 am
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Wests' 1985 premiership-winning squad
Wests' 1985 premiership-winning squad

The Lillicrap name is the modern link to one of the most controversial of Hospital Cup Grand Finals which was decided by a wonky field goal doing limbo under the crossbar.

Those club statesmen and long-time fans excited about Sunday’s Wests v University of Queensland Grand Final at Suncorp Stadium can’t help but tell you about 1985.

It was that September Sunday 37 years ago when the same clubs last duelled in Queensland Rugby’s pinnacle club game at Ballymore.

It wasn’t a classic grand final but it had a classic punchline.

Wests celebrated a 10-7 win at Ballymore and the margin was that wobbly drop kick from flyhalf Tim Lane. 

It is still debated to this day by Wallabies Jeff Miller, Michael Lynagh, Michael Cook, Greg Martin, Brendan Nasser, Andy McIntyre, David Nucifora, Cameron Lillicrap, Julian Gardner, Roger Gould, Peter Slattery, Bill Campbell, Troy Coker and Lane himself.  They were the 14 current or future Wallabies who made sure the turf at Ballymore was overloaded with talent that afternoon.

The teams...Wests v University in 1985.

Rugby has thrown up another of its uncanny links between past and present. Lillicrap’s son Fergus will at lock be in the Uni pack on Sunday while Lynagh’s son Tom will be at flyhalf in the Colts 1 grand final preceding it. 

Ugly. That’s something everyone agrees on as a description of the Lane drop kick. It took a misshapen arc and reached the goalposts at barely crossbar height.

There’s the riddle. Did it sneak over in that tight right angle of crossbar and upright or slip just under? 

“It was a wobbly, ugly sort of thing the way it moved in flight. The ball plateaued and was dipping,” winning skipper Julian Gardner said in the new book, Bulldog! Bulldog! 70 Years of Wests Rugby. 

“Kerry saw it the way he did.” 

The late Kerry Fitzgerald was the first Australian into a Rugby World Cup final...as referee for the 1987 decider in Auckland. 

Fitzgerald was certain the Lane drop kick crept the ball over the crossbar. 

Prop Lillicrap had his view on the day: “The field goal that wasn’t. I remember being close by and clearly seeing the ball and the crossbar and it dropping under. You can’t change history.” 

Lane himself didn’t have the perfect view because he was skittled by ginger-haired flanker Miller as he got the kick away. 

“I didn’t see if it went over. The ball was very close to the upright and crossbar. Kerry was sure it went over but we spoke not long after,” Lane said. 

“Had it not been a field goal, he said he would have awarded a penalty for the late hit on me.” 

The Bulldogs might have got their crucial three-point margin via a different method, something that is almost never mentioned.

The controversial field goal was also early in the game and Uni had numerous chances to erase its relevance. Master sniper Michael Lynagh had a rare off day with the boot.

Lane still gets the reminders about 1985 and can always smile: “When I bump into guys like ‘Marto’, Andy Mac and ‘Ginge’ (Miller) they’ll bring it up. 

“To win that grand final was very special with that group of guys at Wests.” 

It was a towering achievement made possible by Wests coach Alec Evans, who demanded physicality and precision and knew the drills and mentality needed to get there.

Wests coach Alec Evans celebrating the 1985 grand final win with the Big Rooster Cup.

So stubbornly resisting Uni’s much-touted scrum in the 1985 grand final was something he savoured.

Newsagent-prop Bill Abram playing a good deal of it with a broken bone in his wrist. Dasher Kent Bray’s four-point try and a toe-poked penalty goal from prop Richard Leslie was the other scoreboard ammunition. 

The 2006 premiership is the only title that Wests have won in the intervening years which makes Sunday uncharted territory in every way. 

Young Lillicrap savoured Uni’s 2019 grand final triumph as a rookie and is certain the experience of six-time premiership coach Mick Heenan is an advantage. 

“I don’t speak for all the players but I will. We have complete faith in ‘Heeno’. He’s the mastermind, he knows what he’s doing and it’s up to us to execute the plan,” Lillicrap said. 

“Seven grand finals in a row from him is ridiculous.” 

Lillicrap was a discovery in 2019 when Uni were struggling and in danger of missing the semi-finals. Heenan was growing sick of sub-standard training performances on Tuesdays. 

“I told the guys after another loss I would pick anyone who showed me something on the Tuesday. Ferg came out and belted everything that moved at training and made his First Grade debut that week,” Heenan recounted. 

“He’s been a fixture ever since.” 

Lillicrap was more into rowing in Year 12. He played Colts 3 and Colts 2 before grabbing his chance. 

At 1.90m, he hasn’t the height to be a top lock so the transition to prop began in the last off-season. 

He’s stacked on 8kg to reach 112kg. He’s been learning his trade in Second Grade and First Grade but, at this end of the year, he’s back to lock. 

Discussing front-row play is when his father’s chuckle really livens up. Lillicrap senior played seven Tests and at the 1987 and 1991 Rugby World Cups. A better run with injuries would certainly have bumped up his tally. 

He is the long-time scrum doctor at the Queensland Reds so having a front-row expert in the family has definite advantages. 

“Getting the neck and back strong with a lot of gym work has been a big focus. The transition to prop was never going to be easy but it’s a challenge I want to continue to work at,” young Lillicrap said. 

“Dad’s best tips and war stories of the old days are after a few beers around the fire on the front lawn. Before you know it, we are on all fours practicing. 

“He’ll watch a little video of me and instantly notice I need to sink the knees more or get more aggressive on the bind.  

“There are tips I can take into every training session from work as well as home.”

The Lillicraps...proud father Cameron (left) with Fergus after University of Queensland's 2019 premiership triumph at Ballymore.

Lillicrap works as a medical rep, for a company distributing orthopaedics, under 10-Test Wallabies prop Fletcher Dyson. More packing down. More education in the dark arts. 

Come Sunday, Lillicrap knows Uni will have to produce their most complete performance of the 2022 finals to get the better of minor premiers Wests. 

The two teams played out a dramatic 37-all extra-time draw in the major semi-final. 

“As a team, we’ve said the best thing from that game was finding a lot to work on. We definitely made some improvements against Brothers (to win last weekend’s preliminary final 36-22). 

“Wests have a big pack and they want to go forward. We have to take it to them there and pressure their breakdown.”

Sunday’s grand final has all the elements for a tense decider. If there is a lesson from history, anything can happen when things get tight.  

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