Each week NEIL CADIGAN will look back on some of the most eventful games and most famous names in the club’s 70-year history and bring them back to life. With the Eels just completing their opening round against Manly on Sunday and using ANZ Stadium as a home ground in 2017, it’s appropriate to recall Luke Burt’s debut as a 17-year-old in front of a then world record league crowd at the Homebush stadium in 1999.
LUKE Burt’s star was always going to rise quickly, but even as a confident 17-year-old who had climbed the ranks at Parramatta rapidly the season before, his sudden NRL prompting in front of the biggest crowd to watch a rugby league match was surreal.
And he still remembers it that way.
Burt had been snared from under the Newcastle Knights’ nose from his Redhead Beach home in 1998 by Eels recruitment manager Noel Cleal. In 13 SG Ball (under-17) games for the Eels he scored an incredible 24 tries and 47 goals in a side beaten in the semi-finals.
He was elevated to the Jersey Flegg (under-19s) where he played the final few games and the lost final against Norths. Before the season’s end he was promoted to the club’s reserve grade (then called President’s Cup) and was the run-on centre in the grand final against Canterbury, in which the Eels went down 26-22 after leading 22-0 (Burt scored four tries and 11 goals in three finals matches).
Even though he had impressed in Brian Smith’s first grade trials against North Queensland and Newcastle, Burt was little known when selected on the bench for the round one clash against St George Illawarra in the merged club’s first ever NRL match.
Just under 18 months before Olympians would tread the Homebush Stadium’s turf, rugby league debuted at its new playing headquarters on Saturday night, March 6 1999 with a double-header of Newcastle v Manly and the Eels v Dragons.
It was also the debut night for Burt’s teammate in the Australian Schoolboys and Eels’ Jersey Flegg side of ’98, Lenny Beckett, at age 18 on the wing for the Knights in the earlier match.
Burt looked every bit the Redhead surfer with the shaggy blond hair, tanned skin and a 73kg frame that not only made him the youngest player in either game that night, but the lightest.
He’d only just settled onto the Eels bench, in awe of the crowd, his surroundings and the array of Origin and Test players who he had just wished well in the biggest dressing room he’d seen, when he realised he wasn’t going to get time to think too much about it.
Less than three minutes into the game, Eels centre Stuart Kelly was badly concussed when tackling Dragon forward Corey Pearson and Burt was called into the action. Daniel Wagon was shuffled from left wing to centre and a starry-eyed but confidence Burt joined the NRL on the game’s biggest possible stage for the first of his 264 top grade appearances in blue and gold.
“I was sitting on the bench still in awe at the size of the crowd and that I was sitting next to my idols more so than my peers at that time, when I got the call I was on,” Burt.
“Stu Kelly got smashed in the third or fourth set of the game and that was it.”
The Dragons’ next set of possession, predictably, saw the ball kicked to Burt’s wing.
“I still remember running the ball back and ‘Mary’ Paul McGregor was the first player to tackle me in the NRL.”
Later that half, Burt raised his arm in the air after following a Jason Smith kick to the right corner and claiming a try on debut.
Referee Bill Harrigan relayed to the video ref that he thought it was a try but replays showed clearly Burt did not ground the ball.
While the memories of all who saw his debut that night is of a kid who took everything in his stride and was not daunted by the tempo or the physicality of proceedings, Burt admits he is “filthy” he didn’t make more of that moment.
“I was filthy on myself for not scoring that try; a try on debut in front of over 100,000 would have been awesome,” he said. “I was hopeful more than confident when it went to the big screen but it became obvious I didn’t get the ball down.”
How did he feel, three months before his 18th birthday, being pitch-forked into such at atmosphere?
“The whole night just felt surreal, rather than real at the time. And to win and then celebrate with those guys was something that I never dreamt of.
“I had very good teammates around me and a lot of experience and made me feel comfortable and confident. I knew I had that support and Brian’s [Smith] confidence,” he reflects.
With fullback Chris Quinn injured in the opening match, Burt retained his position in a reshuffled backline and went on to make 24 appearances that season (four off the bench), despite being dropped for a match mid-season. He scored seven tries and 23 goals, sometimes sharing the duties with leading goalkicker Clinton Schifcofske.
However, it took him a while to truly feel he belonged.
“I was probably happy just to have played an NRL match; if that night was my only NRL experience I would have been content. But you soon become hungry to play more and never want to drop down again.
“I probably didn’t feel I was a true first grader for a long time though. I was playing with guys I looked up to playing for NSW and Australia and while I was enjoying it, I was still in awe of them and didn’t class myself alongside them at all.”
PARRAMATTA: Chris Quinn, Clinton Schifcofske, David Kidwell, Stuart Kelly, Daniel Wagon, Jason Smith, David Penna, Dean Pay (capt), Jason Bell, Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh, Jarrod McCracken (capt), Jim Dymock. Interchange: Luke Burt, Michael Vella, Dennis Moran, Dallas Weston.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA: Lee Murphy, Nathan Blacklock, Paul McGregor, Mark Coyne (capt), Jamie Ainscough, Anthony Mundine, Trent Barrett, Craig Smith, Nathan Brown, Corey Pearson, Darren Treacy, Lance Thompson, Wayne Bartrim. Interchange: Shaun Timmins, Colin Ward, Brad Mackay, Craig Fitzgibbon.
Eels 20 (Smith 2, McCracken, Moran tries; Schifcofske 2 goals) beat Dragons 10 (Thompson, Treacy tries; Fitzgibbon goal).
NEXT WEEK: A not as happy a winger – Neville Glover and THAT dropped pass in the 1976 grand final.