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.
Eels fans from the 1990s will remember two regularly used headlines: ‘The Canterbury Four’ and the ‘$9 million flops’.
They represent the different ends of the spectrum of what is not just the major line in the sand for the Parramatta Eels that ended a decade of despair that followed the club’s greatest era from 1976-86, but the biggest – and most dramatic – signing spree by any club in the past quarter of a century.
And it was spawned by what history calls ‘The Super League War’ (a separate story to be written later).
For those not familiar with it, and these sequence of amazing events did happen over 20 years ago now, it’s an extraordinary story.
In late 1994 Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, as Pay-TV in Australia was about to be launched (in 1996), failed in its attempt to do a Pay-TV deal with the game’s sole custodians, the Australian Rugby League. The ARL had an agreement with Channel 9’s Kerry Packer which included, to the surprise of many, an option that covered Pay-TV – despite ownership of any new satellite/cable networks (all satellite dishes at that time) even being finalised.
Murdoch decided he would not be denied – knowing rugby league programming would be the most effective lure for TV subscribers. He pursued a rebel league to start in 1996.
Rugby league exploded into a world of bitterness, deception, broken relationships and an outrageous games of signing players to money they could not have dreamed of. The $1.8 million salary cap in place at the time was virtually thrown away overnight as a casualty of war.
Clubs had to decide between the ‘establishment’ – playing in the ARL competition – or the ‘rebel league’ proposed for 1996. A court decision banned Murdoch from playing in a breakaway league before the decision was overturned in the High Court in time for the 1997 season.
The benefit to Parramatta, who stayed loyal to the ARL but at a great financial cost with only $100,000 in loyalty funds coming from the league while poorer and less devoted clubs gained millions, was the signing of the Canterbury Four - internationals Jarrod McCracken, Dean Pay, Jim Dymock and Jason Smith.
The four were part of the dirtiest player-club bust-up in the crazy period. Days before the ‘April Fool’s Day’ cloak-and-dagger signing spree of the weekend of April 1, 1995, the four players had signed ‘Star League’ (News’ working title) contracts as the Bulldogs, en block, committed to News as part of a series of secret signing sprees.
They later had second thoughts and tried to escape the commitments, claiming they signed under duress. A bitter legal battle ensued, after the four had already agreed to sign the Eels for a whopping $7.6 million covering four or five year contracts – Pay, Smith and Dymock on $400,00 a year and McCracken on $500,000.
So, with an $1.8 million per team cap in force the previous season, the Eels were to pay $1.7 million a season to just four players! And they were just the pointy end of one-off opportunity to snare talent by Parra who had finished 11th or worse in the previous five seasons. Several others came aboard in 1996 – leading the media to value the team at $9 million team.
But first, the courts had to rule if the Canterbury Four could walk. The Industrial Court case began on September 25 – the day after the Bulldogs won the grand final 17-4 against Manly with Dymock winning the Clive Churchill Medal and Smith and Pay playing prominent roles. McCracken, seen as the ringleader of the mutiny, had been stood down mid-season, so bitter had relationships become, and wasn’t even at the ground.
On December 21, the Bulldogs players won their case. They’d already joined the Eels in training but could not wear team colours until Canterbury had formally released them.
By this stage, the Eels had also signed 50-Kiwi Test veteran Gary Freeman, hooker Stuart Raper who was in Australia’s 1995 World Cup squad, young gun Sharks prop Adam Ritson, Knights centre Nathan Barnes, Stuart Kelly from Gold Coast who would become an Origin player, and prop Peter Johnston who was returning after four seasons away.
Of the 42 players used by coach Ron Hilditch in 1995 (emphasising a terrible injury toll) in a side that won just three games, 14 were let go or retired to make way. It was probably the biggest clean-out in the club’s history.
It took a year before it came to roost, with Hilditch moving aside to make way for Brian Smith, after the high-earning Eels finished four points out of the top eight. Yet history shows it was a significant coup – enabled by three factors: a) the Eels leagues club was cashed up with $7 million in cash reserves; b) the salary cap was disposed of to save the game from Murdoch’s raid; c) Parramatta were the only club in a position to take advantage of the one-off opportunity to sign four internationals from a premiership-winning side.
“Super League gave us a once in a lifetime opportunity to buy almost a team of established players. Given the salary cap was in place until then, the opportunity may never have otherwise eventuated,” said CEO of the time Denis Fitzgerald.
And the Canterbury Four proved their worth.
Pay did enough in his four seasons as an Eel to be picked in the club’s Legends team (12 players) selected in 2002. He was captain from 1997-99 and played 76 games, and played every Origin game for NSW from 1996-98. McCracken, co-captain in 1998-99, played 75 games in his four seasons. Dymock was the most prolific servant, making 112 appearances in five seasons before moving onto the London Broncos, and also represented NSW from 1996-98 and Australia while Smith played 89 games in his five seasons from 1996-2000 and missed only two Origin games for Queensland in his five seasons in blue and gold (and played Tests in all years but ’97).
From 1997-2000 the Eels finished no lower than fourth, every season being beaten in the grand final qualifying match (preliminary final) after failing to make the finals in the previous 10 seasons.
While the Canterbury Four had departed by the time the Eels made the 2001 grand final, their influence on the emerging new breed that included Nathan and Ian Hindmarsh, Nathan Cayless, Michael Vella, Andrew Ryan, Daniel Wagon and Luke Burt, was ongoing with most publicly recognising that the tough-line winning attitude of the Bulldogs imports significantly framed their attitudes to the game.
And they could, indirectly, thank Rupert Murdoch for that.