: NRL Round 22 - Parramatta Eels v Knights @ Parramatta Stadium, Sunday the 9th of August 2009. Digital image by Grant Trouville © nrlphotos.com

THROWBACK | The 2009 run to a grand final

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. We head back to 2009 – and the incredible run to a grand final appearance.

It is perhaps the Parramatta Eels’ most incredible season considering all the circumstances and theatre that surrounded 2009. A second grand final appearance of the decade came amidst controversy, predicted calamity and incredible conquest from an impossible position.

Here are the components …

  • On October 21, 2008 two-season coach Michael Hagan, who had taken Newcastle to the 2001 premiership, quit and it was November 21 before former lower grade mentor Daniel Anderson, who had decided to head home after a very successful three-season stint at St Helens in England despite having no job to go to, was announced as Hagan’s successor. He took over next day, when pre-season training was almost three weeks old.
  • On December 14, 2008, the ‘3P’ ticket took control of the football club board and took aim at unseating three-decade CEO Denis Fitzgerald and the long-lasting leagues club board which had reigned under the chairmanship of Alan Overton for 21 years. On April 26, 2009, they overthrew the board at the leagues club elections and on June 9 ‘Fitzy’ walked and Paul Osborne was appointed by the Roy Spagnolo-led new board.
  • The team floundered during the first half of the season as the club was never far away from controversy. As the off-field drama simmered, State of Origin halfback Brett Finch was squeezed out after four rounds and was later picked up by Melbourne.
  • Jarryd Hayne had been moved to centre then five-eighth by Anderson for the first seven rounds which caused wide criticism as the Eels won just three of their first 12 games (one draw) to be 14th on the ladder.
  • With nine rounds remaining the Eels were third last with no apparent chance of featuring in the finals.

No one could have anticipated what was to follow.

Anderson’s first impression when he gathered his squad was the lack of size of his forwards and he felt he had to adopt an expansive, even adventurous style with the ball to compete. It naturally took his side a while to gel.

He tried several combinations in the halves the loss of Kris Keating (broken jaw) for the season after round 10 opened the way for the Eels first grade debut of 27-year-old journeyman Jeff Robson. A week later 19-year-old Daniel Mortimer made his NRL debut as – almost in desperation – Anderson searched for a solution in the halves. The pair did not miss a match after their first union and were integral to the run that followed.

After 18 rounds, Parramatta were on 15 competition points - three points ahead of last placed Sydney Roosters and five behind eighth-placed Penrith – with nine games remaining, five of them against top-eight sides.  

They beat fourth-placed Melbourne 18-16 in Nathan Hindmarsh’s 250th NRL appearance, second-placed Bulldogs 27-8, second-last placed Cronulla 30-0, eighth-placed Newcastle 40-8, 14th-placed Warriors 40-4, fifth-placed Wests Tigers 26-18 and eighth-placed Penrith 48-6 to be guaranteed a finals spot (standing seventh) before the final round.

Skipper Nathan Cayless and Hindmarsh were outstanding during that period, prop Fuifui Moimoi explosive; centre Kris Inu was an unorthodox excitement machine, Ben Smith, switched from centre to back row to add much-needed size to the pack, was outstanding on the right edge in defence, winger Eric Grothe was in career-best form; rookie interchange prop Tim Mannah provided good go-forward and a quick pay the ball off the bench and interchange hooker Kevin Kingston was dynamic out of dummy half in tandem with Matt Keating.

Hayne stood above everyone in one of the most incredible displays of hot form ever seen in the NRL (full story later in this series). In those seven successive victories, he was man of the match six times, romping past Johnathan Thurston to win the Dally M Medal.

In the final round match, the Eels lost to minor premiers St Gorge Illawarra 37-0 and the general consensus was their brave run, just like in 2006 when they finished eighth from a similar improbable position under Jason Taylor after coach Brian Smith had stepped away mid-season, would end.

However, to use racing parlance, the Eels “ran dead” against the Dragons, who’d lost momentum and were under pressure after three straight losses. The Eels knew a victory meant seventh spot and a clash with the Dragons again a week later, while a loss meant also a sudden-death clash – but most likely with the Bulldogs. They did little training all week, Anderson did not even issue a match plan or tip sheet and Grothe and Hindmarsh were rested with injury.

The ‘Dogs’ shock loss to Wests Tigers meant a re-match for the Eels against the Saints. And what a difference a week would make.

An 80-metre intercept try by Grothe turned the game at 12-8 and the Eels ran away to win 25-12.

Next was third-placed Gold Coast who had made the finals for the first time and boasted seasoned big-match players like Scott Prince, Mat Rogers, Luke Bailey, Ash Harrison and Anthony Laffranchi. Parra Power was too great in a 27-2 victory.

That meant only Canterbury, who had lost only one of their previous seven games, stood in the way of an unexpected grand final appearance from eighth position.

In an absolute blockbuster of a match before non-grand final record crowd of 74,549 the Eels were again dominant, winning 22-12 after coming from 12-10 behind at half-time, and earning a showdown with Melbourne who thrashed the Broncos 40-10 in the other grand final qualifier and were in their fourth straight season decider.

A miracle premiership was one victory away, but there was drama in the camp. Hayne had been put on report for using his knee while trying to dislodge the ball from Bryson Goodwin who was attempting to score a try and was put on report, Matt Keating was also placed on report for a “chicken wing” while skipper Cayless limped off in the first half with a hamstring injury.

Hayne and Keating pleaded guilty to grade one charges and did not have enough demerit points to miss the decider while Cayless recovered.

The odds were stacked against Parra, as they had been all season. Only four Eels had ever played in a grand final – 2001 survivors Cayless, Hindmarsh and winger Luke Burt plus Penrith’s 2003 winner Joe Galuvao. The Storm had 12 players who had had 28 grand final appearances between them, with nine of them having done a victory lap.

The Eels were behind 10-0 after 24 minutes. A Grothe try brought it back to 10-6 after 45 minutes but Storm tries to Greg Inglis and Billy Slater in the next 10 minutes made it 22-6. However, the Eels, who played with an amazing free-spirit and confidence and approached the grand final far more relaxed and absorbing the hype far better than eight years earlier, weren’t the type of side to lay down.

Converted tries to Joel Reddy from a Robson bomb, then one of the remarkable grand final tries, scored by Moi Moi three minutes later, saw the score at 22-16 with eight minutes remaining.

Moimoi was then the centre of a debatable refereeing decision that may well have decided the outcome.

Slater was grounded by a great scrambling tackle by Moimoi and as he rose to play the ball it slipped from his grasp. Referee Tony Archer awarded Melbourne a penalty, however replays hardly supported him. In the ensuing set of tackle, Inglis potted a game-sealing field goal

The Eels did not want to draw attention to the decision post-match but much later Anderson confided:

“It was a big call, and a debatable one, and I feel we might have won if it went the other way. But those things happen in big games.”

The controversy of 2009 did not end there. Melbourne were instigators to the biggest salary cap blow-out in the game’s history and just seven months later were stripped of the 2009 and 2007 titles … meaning there were no champions declared for the season and the Eels came second to a team that effectively cheated.

The Eels began 2010 as competition favourites but the momentum of ‘09 reversed. They failed to make the finals and Anderson was controversially dumped for Steve Kearney at season’s end.