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. This week he tells of 1985 when eight Eels from the previous year’s grand final team missed a third of the season while picking up extra cash with English clubs.
May 1985. The hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, London.
Two legendary Parramatta footballing figures – Peter Sterling (Hull) and Brett Kenny (Wigan) - oppose each other in the Challenge Cup final while ‘on loan’ from the Eels in between Australian seasons.
It is a contest between the two (fellow Eel John Muggleton also played for Hull) that has a special place in history. Both were outstanding, with Kenny pipping Sterling for the Lance Todd Trophy as player of the match, becoming the first Australian to win the honour, in Wigan’s 28-24 victory that stands as a classic in British league history.
Yet what is lost in history is what was happening back at Parramatta during that time and how the appearance of the three Eels in what was then British rugby league’s greatest event was just the tip of a very large iceberg that hit the Aussie league scene.
And it had an undoubted effect on the ’85 Parramatta season, the only between 1981-86 in which the Eels did not make the grand final.
After the Kangaroos had gone through the 1982 tour to England and France undefeated, then thrashed the Brits in Australia in 1984, there was a massive demand for Aussie players to play in the English season which was played (until 1996) in the northern hemisphere winter, from September to May. So, a large proportion was in between the Australian season and suddenly a flood of Australian players were able to pick up enormous extra cash plying their trade in the UK.
In that 1985-86 season close to 100 players from the ‘Winfield Cup’ and Brisbane competitions played in the 16-team English first division and its second division. With Parramatta premiers in 1981-83 and beaten grand finalists in 1984, their players were in big demand.
So, with no international matches at the end of 1984, soon after the 6-4 grand final loss to Canterbury, no fewer than eight Eels headed off to England, and did not return until well into the ’85 season. The off-shore travellers were Sterling, Muggleton (Hull), Kenny (Wigan), Eric Grothe, Neil Hunt, Mark Laurie (Leeds), Paul Taylor and Chris Phelan (Oldham).
For Sterling it was his second season at Hull, after starring there in 1983-84 while Muggleton returned for the 1985-86 season. For all the other players, it was their only UK club experience.
There was much speculation that the Eels would struggle with five of their all-star backline missing, and the critics were out in force after the season began with a 26-6 loss to St George. It led new skipper Ray Price to wrote in his Rugby League Week column: “The guys in England aren’t losing our matches – we are. Players 5000 miles away can’t drop balls, stop talking, ignore match plans, lose your enthusiasm or throw discipline out the window. Let’s forget about them and think about ourselves.”
His teammates must have taken notice. Parra won six of their next seven games to be second on the ladder behind St George after round eight.
Ironically, their form was better when their ‘B-team’, under the leadership of Price (who replaced retiring Steve Edge after the ’84 season) and Michael Cronin, than their A-team despite Price, Cronin, Steve Ella and Stan Jurd being the only survivors of the ’84 grand final team in action (plus grand final reserves David Liddiard and Steve Sharp).
The Eels won six of eight before the cavalry began to filter back from England, but lost eight of the 16 remaining rounds.
Kenny, Grothe and Hunt returned against Manly at Brookvale in round nine and the Eels went down 14-10. Sterling returned a fortnight later, another loss – 17-4 to Balmain. Prop Paul Mares, one of the stars in the depleted side for months, suffered an ACL injury and didn’t play for a year.
A 22-20 loss to the poorly performed Easts in the third last round was described by coach John Monie as the team’s worst performance in five seasons and meant, for the first time since 81, the Eels would not finish in the top three.
It seemed like the players who played with such heart and enthusiasm while the stars were in England, and the jaded seven (Phelan returned to play in the Brisbane competition), rarely mixed to full potential.
They were handed a good slice of luck when they had to meet Penrith, who had to come through a play-off for fifth place against Manly that went to extra-time to make the finals for the first time.
The Eels disposed of their neighbours comfortably, 38-6 then came up against a Balmain side, who had finished second but were bashed by third-placed Canterbury in a punishing 14-8 loss in their semi-final.
The Eels had a psychological edge on the Tigers who boasted Wayne Pearce, Garry Jack, Paul Sironen, Steve Roach, Ben Elias, English Test centre Garry Schofield and the brilliant Scott Gale, having beaten them 40-8 in their previous meeting. They continued the dominance, winning 32-4.
When they came up against ’84 grand final nemesis Canterbury, who’d gone down 17-6 to minor premiers St George, the intensity of their opponents went to a new level and with half the Eels team having had no break from playing in 20 months, they were no match for the Dogs of War in the second half, losing 26-0.
The Dogs went on to beat St George 7-6 in a dour grand final in which they continually sent bombs into the in-goal, terrorizing Dragons fullback Glenn Burgess, at a time when a safely disposed bomb in the in-goal earned only a line-drop out. The rule was changed to a 20-metre restart the following season after what happened to the defenceless Burgess.
The Bulldogs’ victory meant Canterbury and Parramatta had won three titles each in the first six years of the 1980s.
And a year on, they would go face to face in the ‘tie-breaker’.
To watch highlights of the 1985 Challenge Cup final, CLICK HERE - http://bit.ly/2t2ah6f