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.
It had all the ingredients of being the season every diehard Eels fan would look back on as Parramatta’s best in 70 years.
And if not for just 40 minutes, when all was at stake, 2001 would have been.
Instead season ‘01’s amazing feats by the Eels are overshadowed by frustration, and hurt, not just for players involved and the fans whose expectations were so high, but especially coach Brian Smith, who was responsible for turning the club’s fortunes around after joining the Eels in 1997, and club stalwarts Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt who all look back on illustrious careers that seemed so close to including a premiership ring.
The 30-24 grand final loss to an Andrew Johns-inspired Newcastle Knights, ruined what should otherwise be recalled it as a wonderful season in all other aspects by a young side that looked like it was capable of generating Parra’s second dynasty.
“I marvelled at what they could do on the field,” Smith told me in 2002 when interviewed for The March of the Blue and Golds, the history of the Parramatta Eels.
“We were win-loss, win-loss, win-loss, win-draw (against North Queensland) after eight rounds. There were no signs that we would go on and lose just one of the next 20 games [18 wins, one loss and a draw].
“It was more to do with the chemistry in the team than anything else. It took them a few weeks to get it together and gel but once they did, they played a brand of footy that was unreal.
“While we didn’t get the whole job done by any means, we had a fantastic year … the most enjoyable year of my career by a long way.”
The 2001 side set these competition records (which all still stand):
• Most points scored in a regular season: 839
• Most points scored in a full season (finals included): 953
• Most tries in a season: 159
• Most points in a finals match: 56-12 victory over the NZ Warriors
• The biggest for and against difference of any side (regular season): 433, which was 248 better than the next side, Brisbane
Club records were:
· Highest winning margin by any Eels (first grade) team: 62-0 win over North Queensland (since beaten by the 74-4 victory v Cronulla in 2003)
· Most home wins in a season by a Parramatta side: 12 (the only loss at Parramatta in 14 games was the first-home-clash defeat to the Sharks)
They also won 17 from 18 games from round 11 to the preliminary final, scoring 50 points or more five times and having a for and against dominance of 691 to 263, or an average score of 38-15 during that period. It was extraordinary.
Nathan Cayless was captain of the side at age 22, his second season as skipper. The Canterbury Four that had such influence in turning the Eels’ fortunes round – Dean Pay, Jarrod McCracken, Jim Dymock and Jason Smith – had all moved on over the previous two seasons, leaving a young side.
Halfback Jason Smith, who was unwanted by the Northern Eagles or seemingly any other club, was recruited by Smith and had a marvellous last season, scoring 265 points, while Michael Buettner was the prodigal son returning home after five seasons alongside Taylor at Norths and the Eagles. Taylor broke Daryl Halligan’s premiership record of 2035 points set the previous season.
The combination of their experience and young talent and exuberance, typified by the performance of 19-year-old centre Jamie Lyon who scored 15 tries in 24 games, was simply breathtaking.
“We had a whole heap of young kids in our team and we just enjoyed our footy,” recalls Cayless.
“We enjoyed going to training; we enjoyed each other’s company.
“There was so much enjoyment in the way we played and the way Brian allowed us to play. We were just kids having the time of our lives.”
The Eels naturally went into the league’s first night grand final (8pm kick-off) hot favourites after winning the minor premiership on 42 points, five ahead of Canterbury, and disposing of the Warriors 56-12 and Broncos 24-16 in the finals.
What could not be overlooked was that the Knights had the world’s best player in halfback and skipper Andrew Johns and they had lost just three games out of 21 when he was in the side that year (and lost six out of the eight in which he was missing).
After just seven minutes of the grand final the Eels were behind 10-0 after conceding two soft tries. After 21 minutes the score was 18-0. While the Eels seemed hesitant, Newcastle completed their first 13 sets of possession and hardly missed a tackle.
Yet Parra could have been much closer at the break instead of 24-0 down. Andrew Ryan looked certain to score when Knights second-rower Steve Simpson miraculously slipped his hand underneath the ball over the line and soon after a try went begging when a pass from Hindmarsh to Burt near the left touchline went to ground with the line wide open.
Parramatta, courageously, won the second half 24-6 and but the horse had bolted in the first 40 minutes. The final scores was 30-24 after Burt scored a converted try in the final minute.
“It was a tough … they just steamrolled us early and got too big a lead.
“We played a team that did not make an error in the first half and Andrew Johns played the game of his life as did Ben Kennedy … we didn’t touch the footy for 15 minutes at one stage.
Added Smith: “It was gutting, it was terrible. It is not something that is ever easy to handle.
“I felt for JT [Taylor] in particular. It was terribly disappointing that we didn’t do the job as well as we could have but what was fantastic was that at 24-0 down our boys showed exactly what they were made of internally to get back and make it so close. But for JT it was the end, the last game he ever played.”
Click on the video above for more on the season from Cayless.