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. He recalls the club’s first major trophy, the Tooth Cup of 1980.
Parra fans of the 1980s will never forget the four premierships, the scenes of jubilation that followed at the leagues club and the emergence of superstars like Sterling, Grothe, Kenny and Ella.
And when they refer to 1980, it’s remembered as the only season in 12 that the Eels first grade side did not make the finals.
Yet it is also the season the club won its first major trophy, the Tooth Cup that also carried $91,000 in prize-money, yet probably cost the team the record of 12 successive finals series appearances – and John Peard’s job as coach.
Peard had been appointed coach first year after retiring as a player, succeeding four-season mentor Terry Fearnley, and injuries and the demands of the five midweek Cup matches piling up on the team’s stamina made his task tougher.
The midweek televised cup, the spawning of Ray Warren as a TV commentator on Network 10, became a compulsory part of the league fans’ diet from 1974 and the Eels made the second final, in 1975, beaten by Eastern Suburbs (Roosters).
With a cast of newcomers at the club, the return of Bob O’Reilly after four years away and the presence of 34-year-old legend Arthur Beetson in his second season as an Eel, provided great hope that the Eels of ‘80, grand finalists in ’76 and ’77 and top four team in ’78 and ’79, could snare that elusive premiership.
Instead, they won the consolation trophy. However, a player who was outstanding that night, Peter Wynn, remembers it as a real highlight with Eel fans going crazy on the Wednesday night, first at Leichardt Oval that housed most Cup games (played over four 20-minute quarters), and back at the leagues club.
“It was mayhem; I’ll never forget the traffic driving along Victoria Rd to get to Leichhardt, the ground being packed to the rafters and the noise in what was a local derby against Balmain,” he said.
“There was only one try scored but it was end to end, with some big hits and great defence.
“What I remember most is Arthur Beetson’s influence; he had a blinder.
“He was man of the match and you just felt so reassured being alongside him; he knew what it was all about in these big matches. I remember him putting a big hit on [Balmain’s international fullback) Allan McMahon early as if to say ‘come with me boys’.
“We had some tough forwards like Ron Hilditch, Geoff Gerard and Steve Edge too against a pretty good Balmain side that included McMahon, Wayne Pearce, Rod Morris, Neil Pringle, Olsen Filipaina and Steve Lavers.”
The match was just weeks after Beetson’s classic performance in State of Origin’s first match played where he also put in an incredible performance for a prop of 34 with a crook knee.
It is a myth that Beetson was selected in that Origin match from Parramatta’s reserve grade. He had return from injury in reserves weeks earlier, but was an integral part of Peard’s side in ’80 although he finished in a reserves grand final that went to extra-time, as he qualified from earlier appearances after the first grade side bowed out.
The Eels won the Tooth Cup final 8-5, with all points coming from the boot of young local centre Michael Collins, who had come through under-23s into reserve grade and was the goal-kicking replacement for Michael Cronin who, can you believe it, was suspended after being sent off due to a fight with Wests Ted Goodwin the weekend before (both were outed for three games).
Also missing was O’Reilly and Ray Price, who both missed the final few weeks of the season with a knee injury. However, the new generation of Eels won the night – 19-year-old centre Brett Kenny who had been blooded just weeks earlier, 20-year-old halfback Peter Sterling who was the Cup’s player of the series in his first full season of first grade, big-stepping 19-year-old fullback Neil Hunt who replaced Garry Dowling while Dowling toured New Zealand with the Australian side but kept the position, 21-year-old five-eighth Micheal Pattison and second-rower Steve Sharp.
Collins would go onto play just two first grade games but he remains as part of Parramatta history as the Cup match-winner with his four penalty goals.
The Eels had won through to the final after beating South Sydney 20-17, Western Suburbs 18-12, Canterbury 16-7 and Wests (semi-final) 9-6.
The Cup winning team was: Neil Hunt, Neville Glover, Brett Kenny, Ed Sulkowicz, Michael Collins, Micheal Pattison, Peter Sterling, Peter Wynn, Arthur Beetson, Steve Sharp, Ron Hilditch (c), Steve Edge, Geoff Gerard. Reserves: Paul Hunt, Bruce Grimaldi, John Kolc, Mark Levy.
However, the workload came back to haunt the side. The competition table was so tight only two points separated the top six sides with three rounds remaining and the Eels only had to win one to make the five-team semi-finals. The ladder was: Wests 26, Parramatta 24, Easts 24, St George 24, Manly 24, Canterbury 24.
Four days after beating Wests in the semi-final, they played the competition leaders again in the premiership and were beaten 34-9 in a spiteful affair at Cumberland Oval. Backing up from the Tooth Cup final, the Eels went down 15-14 to Canterbury.
They had to win the last round clash with St George to be in the play-offs (one point ahead of Souths) and over 20,000 packed Cumberland Oval in expectation, in Beetson’s 222nd and last first grade appearance.
He was outstanding, but the Eels – without Price, O’Reilly and Cronin – went down 20-11.
Beetson bowed out in a very good reserve grade side that included Garry Dowling, John Kolc, Ed Sulkowicz, Graeme Atkins, Graham Murray, Phil Mann and Mark Levy in the 18-16 extra-time loss to Canterbury in the season decider.
Had the 1980 side won just one of the last three games and not been so hindered by crucial injuries, suspension and exhausting workload because of the Cup success, Peard would have most likely retained his job as coach and Jack Gibson not arrived.
But that’s not part of history now, the first major trophy success is.
PICTURED: Back (from left): Peter Sterling, Michael Collins, Geoff Gerard, Graeme Atkins, John Kolc. Middle: Steve Edge, Ron Hilditch, Neville Glover, Peter Wynn. Front: Ed Sulkowicz, Brett Kenny, Steve Sharp.