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.
No wonder he quickly gained the name of ‘The Mayor’.
Ken Thornett, the strong, rugged and talented fullback, is best known to young Eels fans as the man who bears the name of the annual first grade player of the year award.
To fans in the 1960s, he was an icon.
When the former Randwick rugby union player, from the most famous sporting family in the country at the time, joined the blue and golds (they had not been coined the Eels at that stage) in 1962 he was such a hit with fans he became the first true personality player in the club’s history that was then 16 seasons old.
Parramatta had won only three matches the previous season as they claimed their sixth successive wooden spoon.
They had started to show some hope of building a competent side, however.
Brian Hambly, a 1959 Kangaroo and Test regular, and Ron Lynch, who became an international in his first season at the club after joining from country town Forbes, had moved to Parra in 1961 – joining 1960 World Cup hooker Billy Rayner.
And Ken Kearney, a tough dual international hooker who captained St George to the first five of their world record 11 straight premierships from 1956 (but attended Parramatta High School), had taken on the coaching role in ‘62 just a year after retiring as a player.
Thornett, who had won a premiership with Randwick before heading to England with his job as a wool classer and turning to league with Leeds in 1960, was heading home for a break between English seasons and was open to playing a few matches in the Sydney competition.
After five rounds of the premiership, Parramatta had only one win, a draw and three losses. It was an 18-round competition back then (with 10 teams) and Parra had their second win the day Thornett flew into Sydney. South Sydney had been trying to lure Thornett, a ‘local’ lad, for months while at the same time Parramatta were trying to secure English centre Derek Hallas.
While pursuing Hallas, club officials were told by his English solicitor that Thornett was headed back to Sydney to spend the off-season and open to playing as a ‘guest’. So, both clubs were there to greet him at the airport.
A heated dispute between the clubs developed, and all the while there was questions raised whether he should not be allowed to play with anyone because of the international poaching rule which had been in operation for more than a decade.
Thornett trained with Parramatta on the Tuesday – 11 days after his arrival - but it was not until Saturday May 14 that he was cleared to play during his stay and the following Saturday before it was ruled Parramatta would be Thornett’s club. Souths claimed they had a letter from the Leeds club in which Thornett told them he would be theirs. Parramatta went one better – they had a contract bearing his signature.
So, he wore the blue and gold for the first time at Leichhardt on May 20, 1962. Reported the Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Clarkson: “He [Thornett] showed his reputation as one of England’s best fullbacks had been earned. A trifle short of condition, Thornett made several strong and fast runs. Whenever there seemed the slightest chance of a break, he loomed into the attack.”
The healthy crowd of 11,866, including a big Parra contingent, watched Thornett’s first match at Leichhardt Oval, won 26-17 over Balmain.
There were 11 games remaining. Thornett could play the next seven before having to return to Leeds … and the blue and golds were unbeaten in that run with six wins and a draw, meaning Thornett never played in a losing side (he missed the victory against Norths with injury).
A Cumberland Oval record crowd of 10,314 turned up for his first home appearance and they watched him inspire one of Parramatta’s greatest victories to that date, a 29-2 over Souths. The score was 5-2 at half-time before Thornett played a major role in four of the second half tries.
Parra were not a one-man band, but the confidence Thornett gave the side from the back was incredible. According to Rayner: “It was great to know you’d lose a scrum but your line was safe.”
Unfortunately, after Thornett’s departure, Parramatta lost their last four matches- to Easts (19-4), Balmain (14-9), Manly (12-7) and Canterbury (9-8) – but qualified for the semi-finals for the first time, in fourth place, one point ahead of Easts.
Parramatta met ‘millionaires’ Wests, going down 6-0. Magpies’ Test hooker Noel Kelly was sent off with seven minutes to go for punching in a scrum, obviously frustrated after Rayner won the scrums 23-9.
The impetus provided by Thornett, the strong pack and international halfback from St George, Bob Bugden, saw the club celebrate by far its best season – with all three grades making the semi-finals. The Mick Kelly-coached third grade lost the grand final to a South Sydney side boasting Ron Coote and Bob McCarthy.
The following season Thornett returned as a ‘permanent’ member of the side, bringing with him younger brother Dick, the powerful second-rower who had played for Australia in rugby union and water polo, while Hallas arrived for the ’63 season, taking the English contingent to four with prop Bill McCall and three-quarters Ken Foord and Mike Jackson. Boy-like five-eighth Ivor Lingard joined one season later from Featherstone.
Season ’62 was the start of a golden era for the blue and golds, with the side making the finals for four successive seasons during St George’s great reign. The Mayor became Australia’s No. 1 fullback on the 1963-64 Kangaroo tour, playing in all six Tests, and went on to play 136 games for the Eels (1962-68, 1971). He succeeded Kearney as coach, taking on the captain-coach duties in 1966-67.
Brother Dick toured in ’63-64 too and played 168 games for the Eels, and 11 Tests for Australia.