The Dally M Medal holds iconic status now as the prize for the best player in the NRL competition but prior to that title, which began as a newspaper award, it was the Rothmans Medal that was the game’s official best and fairest player and held the greatest prestige.
Each season the night of nights was the Rothmans Medal dinner in Sydney, a black tie event often telecast live when flamboyant big ties were all the rage on the one night players from all clubs would get together and let their hair down.
And evidence of Parramatta’s emergence as a dominant club is reflected in the Eels’ stranglehold on the Rothmans Medal in the late 1970s.
For four successive years from 1976-79, the Eels provided the medallist – decided by the votes of referees on a 3-2-1 basis each match (the Dally M was introduced in 1979 by Sydney’s now defunct afternoon newspaper The Daily Mirror, judged 3-2-1 by journalists or former players who were columnists).
Ray Higgs was the winner in ’76, Michael Cronin took the honours in his first two seasons of Sydney football in 1977-78 before ‘Mr Perpetual Motion’ Ray Price kept the sequence alive in 1979.
The Rothmans was awarded from 1968 to 1996 before a ban on cigarette advertising ensured its demise. Parra holds the title (equal with Cronulla) of having provided the most medal winners with six victories between four players – our three just mentioned and Peter Sterling who won in 1986 and 1990.
In 1997 the award was named the Provan Summons Medal and was won by Brad Fittler (Sydney Roosters) before the newly formed NRL, which had News Ltd, publisher of the Daily Telegraph, as half-owner adopted the Dally M as its official best player award in 1998.
The Rothmans domination directly reflects the emergence of the Eels from the doldrums of 1972-74, when they finished last or second last, to begin its most successful era of 1975-86 during which the club missed the finals just once (1980) and made the grand final seven times.
Higgs, nicknamed ‘The Bulldog’ because of his squat frame as a second-rower but powerful driving defence, was originally from Roma in western Queensland, the town that has the phenomenal record of having produced rugby league internationals in Arthur Beetson, Higgs, Wally Fullerton Smith, Willie Carne, Darren Lockyer and Brent Tate.
He joined the Eels under the coaching of Norm Provan in 1975 and was an instant hit – that’s with the fans and with his tackling style. He had made his Test debut from Nambour in Queensland in 1974, playing one Test against the touring Great Britain side, and retained it as an Eels new boy.
When Terry Fearnley took over as coach in 1976 he controversially made Higgs captain, despite his renowned hot temper, but it proved a master stroke with Higgs leading an Eels side to a grand final for the first time, going down 13-10 to Manly, and being judged the competition’s best and fairest player
The next year, Higgs was again captain of a team this time boasting Cronin, who joined from Gerringong in ’77, and Price, who switched from Parramatta rugby union in ’76. They again made the season deciding match, drawn for the first time (9-all) and then contested the game’s first replay, losing 22-0 to St George.
However, a clash between Fearnley and Higgs after the grand final saw Higgs released from his contract and he moved to arch-rivals Manly, where a back injury restricted him to just eight first grade games. He returned to Queensland at the end of the season.
Price was also a first-season hit with the Eels. He’d played nine Tests for the Wallabies in 1974-75 and was a prize catch for Fearnley who beat several league clubs for the long-haired aggressive breakaway who was in then in the prime of his rugby career at 23.
He immediately adapted to league, scoring seven tries in his first six games (and 12 for the season) and was dynamic with the ball, often twisting out of tackles and perfecting latching onto bombs by fellow newcomer John Peard. It took until 1978 for Price to become a dual international but his first two seasons were magnificent.
But it was Cronin, the craft centre tagged ‘the Beetson of the Backs’, who stood out in the player awards in his first two seasons as an Eel in 1977-78, after Fearnley coaxed him out of beautiful NSW south coast town of Gerringong at age 25. Cronin had played 13 Tests for Australia by then (he went on to play 33).
In 1978 he broke the competition’s points-scoring record with 282 from 16 tries and 117 goals and still holds the club record of 1971 career points which had him top of the competition’s scoring feats until Jason Taylor passed the mark, ironically in his only season for Parramatta in 2001.
Rugby League Week magazine’s player of the year award, defined from player ratings out of 10 points each game, was the second most prestigious award in the 1970s and the Eels dominated that too – winning that award for the same four successive years as the Rothmans Medal run.
Higgs (’76), Cronin (’77) and Price (’79) won the double while Geoff Gerard was RLW’s top man in 1978.
The Rothmans Medal winners:
1968 Terry Hughes (Cronulla)
1969 Denis Pittard (Souths)
1970 Kevin Junee (Easts)
1971 Denis Pittard (Souths)
1972 Tom Raudonikis (Wests)
1973 Ken Maddison (Cronulla)
1974 Graham Eadie (Manly)
1975 Steve Rogers (Cronulla)
1976 Ray Higgs (Parramatta)
1977 Michael Cronin (Parramatta)
1978 Michael Cronin (Parramatta)
1979 Ray Price (Parramatta)
1880 Geoff Bugden (Newtown)
1981 Kevin Hastings (Easts)
1982 Greg Brentnall (Canterbury)
1983 Michel Eden (Easts)
1984 Terry Lamb (Canterbury)
1985 Wayne Pearce (Balmain)
1986 Mal Cochrane (Manly)
1987 Peter Sterling (Parramatta)
1988 Barry Russell (Cronulla)
1989 Gavin Miller (Cronulla) and Mark Sargent (Newcastle)
1990 Peter Sterling (Parramatta)
1991 Ewan McGrady (Canterbury)
1992 Allan Langer (Brisbane)
1993 Ricky Stuart (Canberra)
1994 David Fairleigh (Norths)
1995 Paul Green (Cronulla)
1996 Jason Taylor (Norths)