It was February, 1997 in a Coffs Harbour hotel.
The Super League had arrived and the Newcastle Knights had lost several key men from their roster to new rivals the Hunter Mariners.
Brad Godden, Robbie McCormack, Richard Swain, Paul Marquet and Brett Kimmorley were now part of the newly-former Super League franchise and the Knights were preparing for the ARL season.
With the first of two trial games wrapped up, coach Mal Reilly organised a bonding camp on the mid-north coast.
“I remember very well, our pre-season camp,” forward Steve Crowe said.
“We stayed for the week at Coffs Harbour. We trained, drank, bonded. It was goal setting and old school bonding camp. We probably drank beer up to the Thursday. We became really tight. Talked about winning a premiership and meant it.
“We played the Gold Coast and beat them by 30 after beating the Tigers convincingly in the trial earlier. That’s the way the season kicked off, we were confident and slick.”
While there was a positive feeling around the club, the year wasn’t without injury.
Andrew Johns missed a fair chunk of the season with an ankle issue.
Matt Johns also spent some time in the stands with a quad injury but a young, confident indigenous halfback from Brisbane was in town and ready to take his opportunity.
His name was Leo Dynevor.
“An unknown halfback from up North came down and he was just incredible for us,” Marc Glanville said.
“He had an unbelievable season. I guess without Leo, we don’t make the grand final.”
He played 19 games in 1997, scored eight tries and played a major role in getting the Club to the big dance.
While Dynevor was an unsung hero that year, Darren Albert became Newcastle’s favourite son.
His match winner will go down as one of the greats, if not the best ever grand final moment but it was a week earlier when he made a try saving tackle against North Sydney which can’t be overlooked.
Without the winger sprinting from the opposite side to take Matt Seers into touch, the Knights wouldn’t have taken the field against Manly.
What’s even more remarkable, is only 24 months earlier, Albert had signed a contract with the Mariners Super League side.
“They were flashing money around, so I signed to go to the (Hunter) Mariners,” Albert said.
“At the end of 95-96 I ended up getting out of that contract to stay with the Knights, and co-incidentally ‘97 came around the following year and we had quite a successful year obviously, but I almost missed it.”
It’s funny how things have a knack of working out.
Yet, come the week of the grand final, the Knights were met with plenty of distractions.
A headline in the newspaper declaring Andrew Johns could die if he plays in the grand final was one thing, the circus surrounding his fitness, another.
In fact, Johns didn’t train with the team until the final session.
“He broke his rib against North Sydney the week before, the pain killer punctured his lung,” Crowe said.
“After the game he’s in hospital and we went out to visit him on the Thursday and he looked like he was going to die.
“… we didn’t see him all week.
“He staggers out as if he’s off his death bed, dragging his feet and we are cheering and laughing… but there couldn’t be a worse prep.”
Throw in the fanfare around town and training and the Knights were the story of the year.
The Club held a fan signing day on grand final week where 10,000 people turned up to watch the group train.
Another signing day on the Central Coast and the grand final breakfast and the manic week is almost over.
Fast-forward to the night before the grand final, the Knights are finally in Sydney.
Having been farewelled by more than 35,000 passionate supporters as they left the stadium and down the Pacific Highway, the players are now squashed into a tiny hotel room having been summoned by the skipper, Paul Harragon.
One at a time, they go around the room, sharing what this game means to them in an emotionally charged conversation.
“I know I was one of those people who thought ‘oh no, not another meeting, just let us go to bed’ but as per usual, you do what Chief says,” Crowe said.
“There were 20 of us crammed into a hotel room. He asked each of us to explain what this game meant to us as individuals.
“You had everyone from MG (Marc Glanville) at 32-year-old to 19-year-old Owen Craigie and 19-year-old Mark Hughes who’d played about five games at that stage.
“Everyone told their own reason and it was so emotional.
“I remember on the way out, Joey saying, there’s no way these blokes will beat us tomorrow.
“Manly were in their beds at home and we were in this room having this conversation. I remember thinking, clearly we have a big advantage.”
Grand Final morning and the mood is different to that of the intense and heartfelt 30 minutes in Harragon’s room.
The team is downstairs for breakfast and huddled around the newspaper when Hughes trots over.
His teammates burst out in laughter as they handed him the paper.
“In the Sunday Telegraph, the big spread, had player ratings and description,” Crowe said.
“Adam Muir – Dynamic, fast elusive, Andrew Johns – A genius, the maestro… Mark Hughes – Shoulders like a brown snake. Full stop. That was the entire description. That’s the way the newspaper described him.”
They all had a good chuckle.
But come game time, it was all business.
Like they had throughout the entire finals series, the trust cassette tape with a mix of rock music was inserted into the boom box by the physio table and started blasting the tunes around the brick dressing sheds.
Tunes from Cold Chisel, Rose Tattoo and Hunters and Collectors echoed through the room as the strapping tape was applied and the deep heat was rubbed into the legs.
Harragon rallied the troops and delivered a speech. It was emotional and Matt Johns could see it was making some of the players even more nervous.
That’s when the five-eighth broke the tension.
He stopped his skipper mid-sentence and said; ‘George Clooney. Let’s go out and be gorgeous like George Clooney’.
“The whole circle of trust turned into a circle of laughter,” fullback Robbie O’Davis shared.
“It took all the tension away. We all virtually walked out of the dressing room laughing.”
The final piece to the pre-game ritual was the song ‘Holy Grail’ as the two-minute bell sounded to notify the players they had 120 seconds before they were due to leave the rooms and head onto the pitch.
It was fitting that song became the theme for their finals campaign.
On that day, September 28, the Knights beat Manly 22-16 to capture the Holy Grail in front of 42,482 vocal fans at the SFS.