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’s a well-used trivia question that all long-serving Eels fans would know the answer to – who was the last ARL/NRL team to win three successive premierships?
As easy as it is for Parra-fanatics to reply with “the Eels of 1981-83”, the difficulty of achieving that feat is evidenced in the records before and after.
Parramatta remain one of only five clubs to win the triple-crown in the game’s 110-season history – and the only since St George’s never to be repeated 11 straight titles from 1956-66.
The other hat-trick champions are South Sydney (1925-29, 1953-55), Balmain (1915-17) and Eastern Suburbs (1911-13, 1935-37) with next closest South Sydney (premiers 1967,’68, ‘70 and ‘71 and beaten grand finalists in 1969) and more recently the tainted Melbourne Storm (four successive grand finals 2006-09; 07’ and 09’ premierships withdrawn).
Only one team since the Eels’ incredible feat have won back to back premierships even – the Broncos in 1992-93 and in 1997-98 (Super League and the first season of the NRL).
But enough off historical records, let’s get inside the feat itself and the people who achieved it.
Season 1981, Jack Gibson’s first involved as Eels coach, was all about the breakthrough after waiting for 35 seasons to bringing a premiership crown to Sydney’s west, the Eels could have been forgiven for basking in the glory during ’82 – especially as nomads having to play home games at Belmore and train at the park-football venue Granville Park with Cumberland Oval burnt down.
Instead Parra went into the finals as minor premiers, beating – in the grand final - a Manly team littered with an incredible list of international players in pre-salary cap days – then saw a club record six players tour with the Kangaroos in the historic first undefeated tour of Britain and France: Ray Price, Peter Sterling, Steve Ella, Brett Kenny, John Muggleton and Eric Grothe. Mick Cronin, a certain selection, was unavailable.
Few people remember that ’81 grand final hero Bob O’Reilly played on in 1982, finally bowing to a knee injury, after 13 rounds knowing that new signing from Newtown, Geoff Bugden, was a handy replacement. Queensland State of Origin forward Chris Phelan was the other notable addition in ’82.
Big spending Manly thought they had the ‘wood’ on the Eels after handing out a 31-14 hammering late in the season and winning the major semi-final 20-0, their third victory in four clashes that season against the Eels.
“Manly did it comfortably,” Peter Sterling remembers. “They could do that to you. They were a star-studded team; they had players being chosen for rep teams from reserve grade, such was their depth.
“It was a wake-up call for us though; it steeled us to the fact that we couldn’t let them get the jump on us again. So it might not have been bad for us going into the grand final.”
The Eels had to beat the Roosters in the preliminary final to earn a rematch and did it easily, winning 33-0.
After only two minutes of the grand final, Manly’s cockiness only grew after exciting newcomer who took the league world by storm, 18-year-old halfback Phil Blake, dived on a bomb spilled by winger Neil Hunt (switched from fullback mid-year to make way for Paul Taylor) in-goal.
This time, the Eels composed themselves quickly. Steve Ella replied not long after and by half-time the Eels led 16-3 after tries to Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny and Hunt (it was the last season tries were worth three points, not four).
At full-time it was a decisive 18-9 victory.
PARRAMATTA: Taylor, Hunt, Cronin, Ella, Grothe, Kenny, Sterling, Price, Sharp, Muggleton, Phelan, Edge (c), Bugden.
MANLY: Eadie, Ribot, Close, M. Blake, Carey, Thompson (c), P. Blake, McCabe, Walker, Vautin, Randall, Brown, Gerard.
The next season, Manly lured Immortal Bob Fulton back from the Roosters as coach (replacing Doug Ritchie), feeling they needed his ruthlessness and influence to usurp the Eels.
They certainly had the talent – no fewer than 18 players who were Australian or Kiwi internationals including ’82 Kangaroo captain Max Krilich, Graham Eadie, Paul Vautin, Kerry Boustead, John Ribot, Chris Close, Alan Thompson, Terry Randall, Paul McCabe, Ray Brown, Bruce Walker, and former Eel Geoff Gerard. Such was their stocks of talent several played more reserve grade than first grade!
The Eels had begun the season on fire with a 54-14 win against Newtown in the first match played at Campbelltown, 46-16 against the second-season Canberra and 46-8 over Penrith, and finished second on the ladder. However, there was a bit of a Kangaroo tour hangover for several players, like Brett Kenny and John Muggleton (who struggled with injury) and Manly were clearly the form side going into the finals.
They’d finished eight points clear on top of the ladder, meaning they had a rest the first week of the finals while the Eels beat Canterbury 30-22 in the match most remembered for Grothe’s incredible try after beating six defenders in an incredible 60-metre run.
The Sea Eagles were first into the grand final again, after beating Parra 19-10 in the major semi-final. The Eels bounced back by beating the Bulldogs a second time, this time 18-4.
In the process, they lost prop Ron Hilditch and Geoff Budgen with injury but had top-quality replacements in Stan Jurd and Peter Wynn, who had returned from a knee injury, off the bench but scoring a classy try in the final. Bugden shocked the club by announcing his retirement at 23 but had second thoughts and returned in 1985.
This time it was the Eels who jumped out early, with Brett Kenny and Eric Grothe scoring in the first 13 minutes to lead 12-0. Kenny crossed for his second only two minutes into the second half, giving him the unique feat of scoring try doubles in three successive grand finals.
Kenny was the ultimate big-match performer. He also scored a try and set up two more in the 1985 Challenge Cup final for Wigan at Wembley and had two tries disallowed in the ’86 Eels-Bulldogs decider.
His second effort took the score to 18-0 and Manly weren’t in the match. The team that fielded 12 internationals in their run-on side went down 18-6.
“There was some déjà vu again with Manly beating us in the major semi-final again, but we were comfortable at half-time in the grand final,” Sterling recalled.
“I’d like to have this confirmed as it may be an urban myth, but I can’t even remember Jack Gibson being in the sheds at half-time.
“He may have been there and said something but my psyche is that he wasn’t and it was complete gesture of confidence saying in his absence that there is nothing I need to tell you so go out in do what you did in the first 40 minutes. I don’t remember any team talk but a sense of calm.”
Days after the victory Gibson stunned many by announcing he was standing down despite ultimate success in his three seasons, living up to his trend of never staying at any club longer than three years.
PARRAMATTA: Taylor, Liddiard, Cronin, Ella, Grothe, Kenny, Sterling, Price, Sharp, Wynn, Mares, Edge, Jurd. Reserves: Duffy, Phelan, Laurie, Martine.
MANLY: Eadie, Ribot, Close, Sigsworth, Boustead, Thompson, Phil Blake, Schubert, Cleal, Vautin, McCabe, Brown, Gerard. Reserves: Ryan, Chisholm, Michael. Blake.