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.
The Parramatta Eels were involved in the most freakish coincidence in Australian sporting history in 1977 when they were just less a few metres of a football’s flight away from winning their first premiership.
Who would have thought that both Australian Rules football and rugby league would experience their first drawn grand finals in their long history, requiring replays, a week apart?
And a year later rugby league would produce the same circumstance again with the second, and only subsequent undecided grand final, involving Manly and Cronulla – after Manly were involved in a semi-final replay against the Eels a fortnight earlier!
So, this meant that Parramatta were eliminated from the competition two seasons running in replayed finals matches.
Until grand final day in ’77, it was without doubt the Eels’ greatest season to date.
After quickly developing a premiership force under new coach Terry Fearnley in 1976, greatly influenced by newcomers John Peard (from two-time premiers Easts) and Ray Price (the Wallaby international from Parramatta rugby union), Parramatta marched into their second successive grand final in ’77 with great input by another newcomer, goalkicking Test centre Michael Cronin.
Cronin, an international playing out of Gerringong since making the 1973 Kangaroo tour to England, has vowed he’d never head up the Pacific Highway and play for a Sydney club. But Fearnley was persistent and made many trips to the South Coast trying to entice Cronin before finally wearing him down.
It became considered by board members as such an unattainable goal by Fearnley, they didn’t believe him when Cronin agreed to join the club – on a handshake deal – that the coach was ordered to obtain an official signature on a contract.
Fearnley, who died in 2015, told me: “No one believed me. It had become mission impossible and they wouldn’t believe it was true unless they saw a signed contract. But Mick had shaken hands on the deal and that’s all he wanted. Finally, Mick had to come to Auburn one day for treatment of an injury and I arranged to meet him. He signed the contract on the bonnet of a car in the Auburn shopping centre carpark – he didn’t read it.”
There were many doubters who believed Cronin would not handle the week to week grind of Sydney football and the commute from Gerringong. They were quickly proved wrong. In the first of his 10 seasons as an Eel, Cronin won the Rothmans Medal and Rugby League Week player of the year awards, and was the competition’s top points-scorer with a then club record 225 points (tries were worth only three points).
However, there were two points that avoided him that hurt him the most – in the grand final against St George.
The Eels finished the competition rounds as minor premiers on 38 points after just three losses from 22 games. The reserve grade also won the minor premiership (and went on to win their grand final) while the under-23s led the competition until the final two rounds and lost the grand final 9-5 to the Roy Masters’ coached minor premiers Western Suburbs.
The club won their second club championships by the proverbial mile.
Yet, they went into the finals as the only club without a major sponsor branded across the front of their jerseys, prompting Dux hot water systems to do a lucrative deal for the final series.
Parra had a setback in the major semi-final against the Saints, beaten 10-5 (two tries to one) as the young Dragons, coached by the wily Harry Bath, were one of the few teams able to counter the Eels low-error, low-frills attacking style of effectively taking the ball downfield and quite often ending the set with a pin-point Peard bomb towards the in-goal.
Bath, in a tactic well before its time but common these days, had the second marker charge at Peard (often tiny halfback Mark Shulman) and both wingers drop back to protect and assist fullback Ted Goodwin.
The Eels beat Easts 13-5 (three tries to one) in the preliminary final to earn a rematch with the Dragons. However, injuring had hit the camp with Peard suffering a hamstring injury, which badly affected his running and kicking, and prop Denis Fitzgerald struggling with an ankle injury and illness.
So Fearnley began the grand final with regular fullback Mark Levy at five-eighth and the competition’s tallest player Phil Mann at fullback, and Fitzgerald on the bench with tough lightweight John Baker in the front row.
The moment imprinted on every Eels fan of the 70s came with two minutes of regular time remaining. Behind 9-6 after only one try had been scored, by Goodwin who followed his own kick and forced the ball centimetres inside the dead-ball line on the stroke of half-time, this how it unfolded:
The Eels took the ball down the right edge to the Dragons’ 20-metre line and Cronin put Price into a small gap; Price threw a wonderful overhead ball to centre Ed Sulkowicz who stepped right, then straightened and somehow got the ball over the try-line.
The crowd erupted and Cronin, having to battle a strong cross-wind, lined the ball up about five metres in from the right touchline. Eels fan were left silent when the ball swung just to the right of the posts.
For the first time, a grand final went into extra-time, at 9-all, but there was no further score after two 10-minute halves. Players stood on the field puzzled about what that meant and after a long pause it was announced over the PA that there would be a replay the following Saturday.
The drama certainly continued. Saints’ young tyros, tagged ‘Baths Babes’, turned up with a physical, rip-and-tear approach, and out-bustled and out-played a Parramatta side that had relied on dour discipline and fair play all season. Referee Gary Cook gave far too much latitude to foul play with St George lock Rod Reddy handed five cautions in the 44 minutes he was on the field but was not sent off by referee Cook.
While there can be no evidence of any bias, Cook was employed by Dragons’ major sponsor Penfolds Wines at the time and many within the game argued that he should never been put into the position of potential conflict of interest by the league.
Reddy was accused of all sorts of ‘cheap shots’, almost all aimed at Price, and the Saints’ tactics unnerved the Eels. However, in hindsight amidst speculation that they wanted to return the biff but it was rejected by Fearnley in a disagreement that led to the coach and captain Ray Higgs parting ways, many Parra players admitted they simply did not back-up physically or mentally as well as the Dragons.
They lost 22-0, after being behind only 7-0 at half-time. What is overlooked in the disappointment is that St George only scored three tries, the last a penalty try after Peard held back John Bailey near the line as they chased a kick in the final minute, with the other points coming from three conversions, a field goal and three penalty goals by Goodwin, which was ironic considering the latitude the Dragons were given.
Even the NSW Premier Neville Wran, a keen league enthusiast who was at the match, was moved to comment how disgusted he was by the Dragons’ underhanded tactics.
“In all my years of supporting rugby league I have seldom seen a player [Ray Price] subjected to so much punishment yet still walk off the field the star of the game. When I walked into the Parramatta dressing room to offer my condolences I was disgusted to find he had been bitten.”
Fearnley, who had coached NSW and Australia that season, denied he’d ordered his side to turn the other cheek but hinted of other “drama” within the camp in the final week of the season. He admitted he would have been happy to return fire with fire but felt the command should not have come from him after pledging a fair-play mantra for two seasons.
“Saturday, September 26, 1977 is a day I’ll never forget,” he wrote in a Rugby League Week series years later. “St George slaughtered us in the first ever grand final replay. I remember the game, the violence and the controversy. I don’t remember the score and I have no intention of looking it up.
“We were killed. We were beaten by a much better team on the day. That was when I realised what a bad loser I was.
“The bitterness of defeat by St George was hard to swallow and was only eased when I was asked to speak at our football club annual general meeting in December. I got plenty of my chest, much to the delight of our 400 members, and much to the embarrassment of league boss Kevin Humphreys, who was present.” Fearnley was soon after dumped as Test and state coach.
The fall-out between Fearnley and Higgs, supposedly over training methods in the final weeks rather than returning fire against the Dragons, saw Higgs leave the club soon after.
The Eels provided six Australian representatives in the World Series – Ray Higgs, Denis Fitzgerald (who was to retire after the series), Graham Olling, John Kolc, John Peard and Michael Cronin, with Price a controversial omission.
The teams that took the field in the grand finals were:
PARRAMATTA: Phil Mann, Jim Porter, Michael Cronin, Ed Sulkowicz, Graeme Atkins, Mark Levy, John Kolc, Ray Price, Ray Higgs (c), Geoff Gerard, Graham Olling, Ron Hilditch, John Baker. Reserves: John Peard, Denis Fitzgerald.
ST GEORGE: Ted Goodwin, Steve Butler, Graham Quinn, Robert Finch, John Chapman, Rod McGregor, Mark Shulman, Rod Reddy, John Jansen, Robert Stone, Craig Young, Steve Edge (c), Bruce Starkey. Referee: Gary Cook. Reserves: John Bailey, Tony Quirk.
REPLAY - PARRAMATTA: Same team except Peard started at five-eighth, Levy as fullback; Fitzgerald only reserve used. ST GEORGE: Bailey started for the injured Schulman; Barry Beath reserve.
Incredibly, the same day of the league replay North Melbourne and Collingwood tied in the VFL (which pre-dated the AFL) grand final, also causing a rematch which North Melbourne won the following weekend. A year on, Manly and Cronulla drew the grand final (no extra-time, straight to a reply three days later because of the scheduled departure of the Kangaroos to England the next weekend). Manly won 16-0.
FOOTNOTE: The Eels suffered a similar fate at the hands of referee Greg Hartley a year later, bashed by eventual premiers Manly in the semi-finals with John Harvey the ring leader, and the match-sealing try coming on the seventh tackle. More of that in coming weeks.