THROWBACK | Eels win first top grade premiership

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. Today we recall the most historic day of all – when the Eels finally won their first top grade premiership in 1981. ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’.

Vision of the emotional on-field celebrations at the Sydney Cricket Grounds, moments after Brett Kenny’s runaway-and-dummy try christened the end of Parramatta’s 35-season search for first grade premiership, was such an appropriate snapshot of what had just been achieved.

As champagne flowed, heroes were chaired and photographers scrambled for the perfect image, it was the embracing of the old and new that typified the journey of the mighty Eels to their Holy Grail after coming so close in 1976 and ’77.

Centre of attention was 32-year-old prop Bob O’Reilly, whose time in blue and gold went back to 1966 when he was elevated from Guildford juniors to the Eels ranks and played finals football as a 17-year-old in reserve grade before becoming a regular top grader the next season.

The twists and turns had seen ‘The Bear’ play for Australia and in semi-finals in 1971 and ’75 before leaving for four seasons before returning in 1980 for a last hurrah only to be talked out of retirement and buying a bush pup by new coach of ’81 Jack Gibson.

Gibson represented the old who became new at Parramatta in ’81, signed after John Peard – a year into playing retirement – missed the finals by just one victory in 1980 before being moved on, some would say cruelly and prematurely.

Yet Big Jack became the saviour, winning premierships in his only three seasons at the club.

The young and new were plenty ...

Halfback Peter Sterling had been recruited as an 18-year-old schoolboy five-eighth in 1978 and was now still 21 and on the verge of great honours.

Brett Kenny, also from the Guildford club, had never been selected in junior representative sides but impressed in a President’s Cup (under 19s) trial in 1980 and was moved straight into the Eels’ under-23s and by the end of the year was a first-grade centre.

Now, after starting ’81 as centre alongside Michael Cronin and outside Steve Ella, he was Sterling’s halves partner in No. 6.

And Ella, the teenage superstar who had almost two seasons taken from him by a knee injury doctors predicted he would never recover from, was in his first season back, at age 21, doing a premiership lap of honour with junior club teammate Eric Grothe, who debuted a week before his great mate in 1979.

In the forwards were John Muggleton, Eels junior who debuted with Balmain in 1979, before returning home and was also 21. Off the bench were Steve Sharp (24) and Paul Taylor (22) who were among 10 local juniors of the 15 who played in the grand final.

Tough dual international lock Ray Price, ‘The Beetson of the Back’ Cronin, hooker-turned-prop Ron Hilditch and winger Graeme Atkins were the only survivors from the grand final loss to Manly (13-10) in ‘76 and draw (9-all) then replay loss (22-0) to St George in ’77.

Hooker Steve Edge was captain of the Dragons in those 1977 matches (and a member of Saints’ 1979 winning team). He joined the Eels in 1980 and was elevated to the captaincy over previous leaders Hilditch and Price at the start of the ’81 season by Gibson.

The critics said Kevin ‘Stumpy’ Stevens, part of Gibson’s ’75 title-winning side at Easts who was brought to Parramatta in ‘81, was on his last legs like O’Reilly and Gibson surely couldn’t win a competition with them both in the side.

And no one had heard of fullback Steve McKenzie before he was brought into the side in round six and proved a reliable, smart member of this special part of history.

On the field too, as the cameras clicked, was president Stan Simpson, in the last of his 25 straight years in the role, and the young CEO (then called simply ‘club secretary’) Denis Fitzgerald who retired as a player after the ’77 replay and became the game’s youngest club boss in late ’78 at age 29.

The mix was almost the perfect bisection of young talent and exuberance plus experience and wisdom.

Gibson became rugby league’s coach of the century. A large imposing figure, he certainly had an aura but there no magic potion.

“He gave us that extra two per cent that other coaches didn’t have,” said Price. “He made a player try that little bit harder. Made them respect themselves, discipline themselves, have confidence in themselves. But whenever you talk of Jack Gibson you’ve got to include Ron Massey (his coaching co-ordinator) too. It was the perfect team.”

Added O’Reilly: “I’ve never enjoyed myself more. Jack has brought a new attitude to the club. There’s no undue pressure and I honestly think I’ve done it easier this year than ever before.”

The Eels – who had finished 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 3rd and 6th in the six seasons before Gibson’s arrival, had begun the premiership rounds with a 33-9 win against the Warren Ryan-coached Newtown Jets who few thought recover to take on the Eels in their first grand final since 1955.

In the round five 70kg halfback turned-back-rower Taylor made a club-record 52 tackles in the mud against Easts and became a permanent member of Gibson’s squad – and typified the new grit. Three losses followed then an eight-game winning streak that sparked media speculation that the Eels could again be a real premiership force.

The Roosters were minor premiers and the Eels players, almost to a man, thought they were the side to beat.

However, Newtown quickly emerged as the dark horses, finishing second a point above Parramatta on the final ladder after the Eels drew with Manly (fourth) in the final round.

Parra beat the Jets 10-8 in the dour 2nd v 3rd semi-final, then disposed of Easts 20-8 win in the major semi-final, launching them into their third grand final, to take on the winner of the Easts-Newtown preliminary final.

The final, won by the Jets 15-5, is best remembered for the brutal fight between opposing props Geoff Bowden (Newtown) and Mark Broadhurst which sparked an all-in brawl and saw Bowden miss the grand final through suspension.

Legendary halfback Tom Raudonikis led the Jets into the decider with a mission. The Eels led 7-6 at half-time (tries were worth three points) but when Raudonikis scored from a scrum four minutes into the second half for a 11-7 Jets’ lead, momentum had shifted and Newtown had scored three tries to one.

The score was unchanged until 14 minutes to go when Sterling called a short-side move near halfway. He passed to Sharp then backed up on the inside and right winger Atkins positioned himself perfectly off Sterling’s right shoulder to run away and score. Cronin, right on song with his kicking in the difficult cross-wind, landed the conversion for a 12-11 lead.

It was the 75th minute before the Eels looked safe. In a signature quick-hands shift of the ball through the backs, the ball was spread right and Ella took advantage of an overlap and scored. Cronin’s conversion put the Eels out of reach at 17-11.

In the last 30 seconds Kenny recorded the first of his three grand final try-doubles with his 50-metre effort that came from rebound off a McKenzie kick and the celebrations that lasted days had begun.

And that is the other part of Parramatta folklore … what happened after the victory.

When the Eels returned to the leagues club not long before 10pm, there was pandemonium with thousands of joyous fans crammed inside the club and along O’Connell St waiting for their heroes to return.

The team bus had to pull up 150 metres short and the players were carried, a la mosh-pit, to the front door.

After Gibson’s victory speech was restricted to “ding dong, the witch is dead”, some exultant fans decided to have a bonfire at the somewhat dilapidated Cumberland Oval next door only for it to spread into the grandstand and it was burnt to the ground.

The champion Eels were to become homeless for five years … but that is a story for another day.

Parramatta 20 (B. Kenny 2, S. Ella, G. Atkins tries; M. Cronin 4 goals) b Newtown 11 (T. Raudonikis, G. O’Grady, B. Hetherington tries; P. Morris goal). Crowd 57,333.

PARRAMATTA: S. McKenzie; G. Atkins, M. Cronin, S. Ella, E. Grothe; B. Kenny, P. Sterling; R. Hilditch, S. Edge (c), R. O’Reilly, J.  Muggleton, K. Stevens, R. Price. Reserves: S. Sharp replaced Price, P. Taylor replaced Stevens.

NEWTOWN: P. Sigsworth, J. Ferguson, M. Ryan, B. Hetherington, R. Blacklock, P. Morris, T. Raudonikis (c), S. Blyth, B. Jensen, C. Ellis, P. Gould, M. Pitman, G. O’Grady. Reserves: S. McKellar, J. Walters, G. Bowden, K. Wilson.