Who’s the greatest: 1989 Raiders, 1994 Green Machine or 2004 Brumbies?

The greatest individual team in Canberra sporting history? Easy. It has to be the 1994 Canberra Raiders, doesn't it?

You know, the year Big Mal Meninga dashed 40 metres to score a try in his final game – a grand final win against the Canterbury Bulldogs to secure the Raiders' third premiership in six years.

The magnificent six: the Raiders were oozing with talent in 1994.

The magnificent six: the Raiders were oozing with talent in 1994.Credit:Daniel Landon

It was more than just Meninga's fairytale. It was everything: the buzz of the biggest average home crowd in Raiders history, the superstars and the way the city went wild for the last great Green Machine.

OK – maybe it's not so clear cut. Especially when you look at the ACT Brumbies champions of 2004 and the 28,000 fans they had at Canberra Stadium, or the Canberra Cannons titles, or the awakening of the Capitals in 1999.


But someone has to make a decision. A Gain Line analysis earlier this week ranked the Brumbies No. 14 on a top 25 clubs of the past 25 years in Australia and New Zealand.

That analysis was based on ongoing success over that period and other factors, including stability of respective competitions and governance.

You have to look at a little differently for a pure Canberra breakdown. Is success just championships? The Capitals have won seven since 1999 and Canberra United won two titles between 2011 and 2014.

Or is it more than that? The way a team captures a city, the legends who are playing and their performance over the full season. So for this one, it's based on year-by-year teams.

That means putting the Raiders of 1989, when they turned Canberra bleary-eyed and lime green after one of the greatest grand finals of all time, head to head with the Raiders team of 1994, who finished higher on the ladder.

Were the 2001 Brumbies better than the 2004 Brumbies? What about the the Phil "The General" Smyth leading the Cannons to their 1983 or 1984 titles, or Lauren Jackson's arrival lifting the Capitals to glory?

All brilliant independently. All moments that provide the foundation for Canberra sport. But there can only be one winner, and that's the 1994 Raiders. Here's why.


Rugby league has a cut-through in Canberra that most sports can only dream of. Green sausages, green milk, Civic parades and viking fever from rugby-league mad fans.

Nothing will rival the 1989 celebrations, when the Raiders beat Balmain to win the club's first premiership after coming from fifth on the ladder to taste grand final glory.

The Raiders partied hard in 1989 when they returned to Canberra.

The Raiders partied hard in 1989 when they returned to Canberra.

Some will say the argument should stop there – the '89 grand final was the best. Mal, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Craig Bellamy, Gary Belcher, Steve Walters, Glenn Lazarus. And for Canberra pandemonium, it's hard to match. Especially after Daley dropped and broke the premiership trophy.

The 1989 success has its nose ahead for the impact on a city, it would be silly to suggest otherwise.

But the beauty of Raiders fans is that they're always mad. They made green sausages when Canberra made the finals in 2016 and celebrated even harder after Mal's farewell tour of 1994.

The Brumbies get the advantage of being able to host finals matches in Canberra, and they packed in a record crowd at their 2004 title win against the Canterbury Crusaders on a freezing night.

The Super Rugby final was an electric atmosphere. It just wasn't rugby league madness.


Here's where 1994 jumps ahead of '89. The Raiders finished third on the regular season ladder in '94, winning 17 games and scoring a massive 677 points.

They demolished the Bulldogs in the grand final, cruising to a 36-12 win thanks to tries from Ken Nagas, David Furner, Daley, Noa Nadruku, Jason Croker and Meninga.

They tore teams apart in the regular season, scoring 40 points or more seven times in 22 games.

The Brumbies were just as impressive in their 2001 and 2004 titles, finishing top of the table for both and scoring eight four-tries-or-more bonus-point wins in '04. The Brumbies performed so well in '04 despite a major rift between players and coach David Nucifora.

The differing formats of Super Rugby and the NRL make it hard to compare. But breaking it down, the Brumbies won eight of 11 games (73 per cent) in '01 and '04, the Raiders won 17 of 22 games (77 per cent).

The Capitals of 2008-09 had an 86 per cent winning record and Canberra United was undefeated on their 2011-12 championship run with seven wins and three draws won seven of 10 games in 2011-12.

The Cannons won their title in 1983 from fourth on the ladder, and third in both 1984 and '88. The Raiders were fifth on the ladder in 1989 and minor premiers in 1990 with 16 wins from 22 games.


So many champions in so many sports. Lauren Jackson was a Capitals superstar and one of the world's best players and the Cannons had Smyth, Herb McEachin and plenty of others.

Lauren Jackson kickstarted a Canberra Capitals golden era.

Lauren Jackson kickstarted a Canberra Capitals golden era.Credit:Matt Bedford

The Raiders of 1989 had Meninga as the star, Daley and Stuart as young guns, Chicka Ferguson, Belcher, and future coaches Bellamy and Kevin Walters.

The 1994 Raiders had Meninga as the star veteran (who was still captain of Australia), Daley and Stuart at their peak, a young Jason Croker and Ken Nagas, David Furner, Bradley Clyde, Steve Walters and Brett Mullins.

But what about the Brumbies, especially in 2004. Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, George Smith, Joe Roff, Matt Giteau, Owen Finegan, Jeremy Paul. In fact, 14 of the starting XV were Wallabies with another three Test players on the bench.

Larkham, Gregan and Smith are three of the greatest in the world in their positions, Giteau played 103 times for Australia and Roff and Finegan are World Cup winners. Talk about star power.

That probably gives the '04 Brumbies the edge in this category, closely followed by the '94 Raiders.


Modern-day sports administrators would love to go back to 2004. Or 1994. A simpler time – less television coverage means more bums on seats. But more television coverage these days means more money.

The Brumbies won Super Rugby titles in 2001 and 2004.

The Brumbies won Super Rugby titles in 2001 and 2004.Credit:Simon Alekna

The Raiders enjoyed the highest average crowd in the club's history in '94. More than 17,000 people turned up to each of their 11 home games, including 25,253 to a hometown farewell for future Immortal Meninga.

The Raiders have averaged more than 15,000 just twice in the club's history. And in '94 they played in front of more than 40,000 for three of their four finals games and a total of 159,681 over the finals series.

Canberra hero: Mal Meninga is chaired off the field after leading the Raiders to grand final victory over Canterbury in 1994.

Canberra hero: Mal Meninga is chaired off the field after leading the Raiders to grand final victory over Canterbury in 1994.Credit:Canberra Times

The Brumbies set a Canberra Stadium record when 28,753 jammed into the stands for the thrilling 2004 final.

They averaged 22,706 per game that year, including hosting two finals, and then increased that to 22,895 the following season. So the Brumbies had a bigger share in Canberra, but the Raiders were playing on the big stage for their finals series.


Just like Meninga reached out and plucked an intercept, ran 40 metres and scored a fitting farewell try, the Raiders of '94 take the cake. Argument over.

Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.

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