1992: Revenge is Sweet
1992: Revenge is Sweet
Sydney University turned the tables on arch-rivals the Bondi Raiders to win the 1992 Championship Game in a boilover. The victory was all the sweeter for the Lions, who had suffered at the hands of Bondi in the previous three Championship Games, losing all three to dramatic comebacks by a combined total of only 6 points. Memories of those comebacks were even awakened by a last-minute touchdown scored by Bondi wide receiver Safwat Rafail, but this time Sydney University were not to be denied. After a couple of awkward bounces, Lions safety Yong Lee dived on Bondi’s onside kick to secure victory and the Championship.
This time the Lions were the underdogs, facing a Bondi team which had cruised through an undefeated regular season scoring 424 points while conceding just 38 in nine games. University had been quarterbacked by newcomer Jason Kelley to a 7-2 regular season, but Kelley gave way at quarterback to veteran John Kirby for the playoffs, allowing Kelley to revert to his natural position of wide receiver. This was one of a number of changes which saw the Lions kick into a higher gear in the playoffs, defeating the Fairfield Argonauts 46-0 and serving notice that they meant business.
If the Raiders had not realised they were in for a struggle, the Lions made that clear on the first series of the game. After taking the opening kick-off and driving to mid-field, Bondi quarterback Paul Kohn was hit by linebacker Jeep Haly blitzing from outside. The hit caught Kohn unprepared as he ran the option and knocked the ball loose. Lions outside linebacker and game MVP John Kirby dived on the ball for a turnover. The aggressive Lions defence would force the Raiders to give up eight turnovers on the day, a key factor in the victory.
Bondi had installed a version of the “Run and Shoot” brought back from the University of Hawaii by Paul Manera, but throughout the season there had been more run than shoot in Bondi’s offence. The option ground attack had shredded opposing defences so effectively there had been little need to go to the air – and never with a game on the line. When the Raiders had dominated the Lions 37-6 in their regular season game, they had rushed for 248 yards but completed only 3 of 14 pass attempts for 39 yards. Clearly Sydney Uni could not let Bondi establish its ground game.
Bondi’s next possession brought up a 3rd down and 1 and an early battle for control of the line of scrimmage. Bondi tried a dive play, but University linemen James Tuai and Fred Guitau knocked the right side of Bondi’s line into the backfield and Raider fullback Con Boutsikakis was tackled for a loss. Despite strong early defence by the Lions, it was Bondi which threatened first. The Raiders had elected to run with a strong wind and, after being stopped, punter Charlie Close hit a big punt which caught the wind and carried down to the Lions’ 2 yard line. The Lions were forced to punt without gaining a first down, giving Bondi starting field position inside the Lions’ half. Paul Kohn hit receiver Michael Vrceli behind the Lions’ coverage and only good pursuit prevented a touchdown, safety Randal Mann and linebacker David Leibowitz dragging Vrceli down on the 10 yard line. From there the Uni defence stiffened. After two carries brought up 3rd and goal on the 2 yard line, Lions cornerback Yves Abdurahman and Bondi halfback Gary Price faced off in the open field, Abdurahman making the tackle on the pitch play to save the touchdown. Bondi Head Coach Peter Tos elected to go for the touchdown on 4th down, calling for a quarterback keeper. Lions safety Yong Lee read the play to put the hit on Kohn five yards from the endzone and the staggering quarterback was finished off by middle linebacker Ron Dumas for a turnover on downs.
But Sydney Uni could not get its own running game going. The Lions had suffered a major blow half-way through the season with the loss of NSW halfback Salim Gundoganli with a separated shoulder. Despite missing the remainder of the regular season and being scheduled for surgery to correct his still dislocated shoulder only days after the Grand Final, Gundoganli stunned everyone by taking the field. Gundoganli ran the ball fearlessly at the Bondi defence and his courageous display clearly inspired his team.
Sydney Uni had been playing conservatively into the wind but the change of end brought a change of heart. On 3rd and 10 on the Lions’ 5 yard line, John Kirby connected with Jason Kelley for a 45 yard completion on the first play of the second quarter. With both defences starting to dominate, the play was enough to shift the game into Bondi’s half and slowly the Lions were able to apply pressure to Bondi’s offence. After exchanging three possessions for little gain, the Lions finally forced the issue. Outside linebacker John Kirby fought his way through the blocking to confront quarterback Kohn and deflect a pitch intended for the halfback. Safety Yong Lee recovered the fumble to give University its first scoring opportunity.
The Lions grabbed their chance with both hands. On first down, University went with four wide receivers for the first time in the game and caught Bondi trying to cover receiver Gordon Ogborne man on man without deep help. Quarterback John Kirby delivered the ball to Ogborne, who easily beat his man with a neat move to the corner for an 18 yard touchdown. Kicker Abdurahman converted the PAT for a 7-0 lead. With time running out in the half, Bondi halfback Gary Price broke the kick-off return to mid-field. The Lions’ defence played tough against the run, bringing up 4th down and 1.
Bondi went for it and converted the first down, but paid the price when Paul Kohn dislocated his shoulder after a hit by safety Randal Mann and an awkward landing. Former NSW quarterback Con Boutsikakis was called in to direct the Bondi attack but failed to work the clock and stranded the Raiders in good field position with timeouts remaining as time expired to end the half. The Lions had the lead 7-0 and an upset was in the air.
After halftime, Bondi picked up where they had left off, Gary Price again busting the kick-off open behind the wedge, only being ridden down by Yong Lee on University’s 35 yard line. However, this time Bondi came out of the locker room throwing the ball, completions to Vrceli and Price setting up a 30 yard field goal attempt from Vrceli which fell short. The Lions had survived but were not yet out of danger. On the ensuing drive, Kirby was sacked and stripped of the ball by defensive end Michael Aichholzer working around from the blind side and Bondi recovered the fumble. A few plays later and the stakes had been raised to 2nd & goal on the 6 yard line, where the Raiders tried a halfback misdirection play. Centre Jim Minogue and Boutsikakis muffed the snap and the ball spilled into the backfield. From a down lineman stance, outside linebacker John Kirby dove for the ball and grabbed it just ahead of the despairing Bondi linemen. This recovery brought Kirby’s personal tally to 2 fumble recoveries and 1 fumble caused.
Sydney Uni would only give up one turnover on the day and this time Kirby directed the Lions off their goal-line behind tough running from Gundoganli and fullback Jim Kalotheos. A punt into the Raiders’ half relieved the immediate pressure.
With their tails in the air, the Lions defence then drove the Raiders backwards: Yong Lee and John Kirby recording tackles for losses before Kirby broke up a deep pass. With time running out in the third quarter and the Lions running with the wind, it was time to play a trump card. Turning to the back pages of the playbook, Coach Andrew Ogborne called a trick play which the team had not run since the 1984 Grand Final. Only this time it was his brother Gordon who would feature on the play.
After returning the Bondi punt, Ogborne ran to the sideline, but rather than leaving the field, he set up one yard in from the sideline. The remainder of the offence huddled and then set up in a formation which disguised the “missing” receiver. The Bondi defence failed to spot the ploy and Ogborne ran unmarked into the Raiders’ secondary. John Kirby laid the ball out on the fly pattern, but Ogborne still had work to do, taking a diving catch on the Raiders’ 5 yard line.
In a clutch play on 3rd and goal, Kirby was given time by his offensive line – Don Davis, Randal Mann, Tom Manuel, David Westcombe and Ron Dumas – to find Jason Kelley behind the coverage at the back of the endzone for a touchdown.
With the PAT successful, Sydney University now led 14-0.
While Bondi had caught the Lions by surprise with its passing game at the start of the second half, the institute was now ready and waiting. Bondi’s next three possessions all ended with University interceptions, the first one taken on Bondi’s first play of its next drive by Ron Dumas plucking the ball off the helmet of cornerback Abdurahman, who had bobbled the interception chance. As the third quarter ended, Sydney University began running down the clock, keeping the ball on the ground and attempting only one further pass play for the rest of the game.
Lions defensive back Nigel Kelly made a great special teams play by downing a punt by Jeep Haly on the Raiders’ 2 yard line. Caught in a tight spot the Raiders tried for a big play. Quarterback Boutsikakis rolled right and then threw back left for a streaking wide receiver. But in the game’s most spectacular play, Lions safety Randal Mann reached out with his weaker right hand and brought in a diving one-handed interception to deny the Raiders.
Mann enjoyed the play so much, he arranged for a repeat performance with only minor casting changes. After another punt to the Bondi goal line, Boutsikakis was again on the run out of the pocket and obliged with a pass deep over the middle. Mann came up from deep coverage to snare his second interception, this time diving forward to hold the catch.
With University controlling the ball on offence and time getting away from the Raiders, Bondi became more and more desperate on offence. The Raiders went for it on fourth down, Michael Vrceli running a reverse. But University linebackers Jeep Haly and John Kirby were in position to make the tackle and force another turnover on downs.
Inside the last two minutes, Bondi got the ball deep in its own half for one last chance to score. A facemask penalty on a batted down heave into the endzone brought Bondi close and a completion to Vini Morgillo underneath the prevent defence placed the ball on the Lions’ 10 yard line. On 3rd and goal and with less than 30 seconds left, Boutsikakis rolled left and fired a touchdown strike to Safwat Raifail, who had hooked in front of the coverage on the goal line. If they could make the point after try, Bondi had an outside chance of winning the game in regulation time with an onside kick, a hail Mary touchdown and a 2 point conversion. But on the point after try, University defensive tackle Tapa Monga and Jeep Haly burst through the Bondi line and blocked the kick to put the game just that little bit further out of reach. Bondi tried to surprise the Lions with an onside kick out of the huddle, but the Lions recovered the ball and knelt it down to seal their hard fought win.
In defeating the Raiders, the Lions passed a severe test of character. Bondi’s late charge had brought Sydney University face to face with its worst fear: that it would somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Raiders’ comeback clearly posed the question – would the Lions crack under pressure? The Lions found the answer and not only defeated the Raiders but put to rest any doubts about their ability to handle pressure. It was the Lions who performed when the pressure was on in the 1992 Championship Game. Sydney University handled the pressure alright – all the way to the NSWGFL Championship.