The 14-year rivalry that still bonds Eels stars

Back in the wild west of his youth, Michael Jennings reckons he only got one shot.

One crack at the meanest gunslinger in town. Only for a sniper in the stands to take him out instead.

Right throughout his junior footy days, Jennings was always the Penrith pauper, lining up against the princes of Parramatta.

Jarryd Hayne. Tony Williams. Trent Hodkinson. Tim Mannah. Kris Keating. Krisnan Inu. All in the one electric batch of Eels juniors 14 years ago, with Jennings coming across them as he made his own rapid rise through the Panthers ranks.

"I played my whole junior career against Haynesy and you hated playing him, just dreaded it," Jennings laughs.

"The way he was then, and how he transitioned into first grade, everyone knew he was going to make it.

"His ability was just so good, you just knew he was going to make it and he did very early.

"He played fullback, and I can only remember one opportunity to burn him.

"There was one Harold Matts game we were playing against (Parramatta) and I made a break and had some open space with Haynesy there.

"But as I went for it both my calves went with cramp, and I just dropped straight to the ground. The sniper got me good there."

Parramatta Eels centre Jarryd Hayne.
Parramatta Eels centre Jarryd Hayne. ©Paul Barkley / NRL Photos

Two back-to-back under 16s titles, the second undefeated in 2004, had keen Blue and Gold observers predicting a long-awaited first grade premiership would be eventually delivered by Hayne and friends.

Still they wait. But the conversion rate of that Eels squad to the NRL and beyond still startles – particularly when less than quarter of players at that level go on to play at the highest.

Now Jennings has joined them. That still tickles his teenage tormentors too.

After all, this is the bloke who as a proud Panther in 2011, declared "I don't hate the Parramatta players, just the team they represent."

"There's still one game, that (2004) Harold Matthews grand final that comes up in our chat all the time," Jennings chuckles.

"Timmy, Haynesy, T-Rex, Trent Hodkinson they had the best team. They were massive favourites, Kris Keating was there, a couple of big monster wingers that would just steamroll you, they were the size of T-Rex now.

"We were massive underdogs and we only just lost to them in the grand final by two points (18-16).

"We had me, Tim Grant and Junior Tia Kalifi back then and the rest of Penrith was mostly just guys that went on to play park footy – not too many of us made it to NRL.

"We've all come a hell of a ways since then but we all still look back to those days as kids and have a laugh."

Eels centre Michael Jennings.
Eels centre Michael Jennings. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

No kidding. Born just two months apart, Hayne and Jennings boast a combined 444 NRL games. 242 tries. 41 State of Origins.

Jennings went to Bondi before coming back west and joining the club he had loathed most of his life.

Hayne returns via just about the most talked and typed about journey in the game's history, via San Fran, Fiji, the Glitter Strip and every headline imaginable.

Now, literally half a lifetime since crossing paths in junior footy, they have been named on the same teamsheet for the first time at club level. Against Penrith of course.

"It's crazy when you stop and think about it like that," Jennings tells NRL.com.

"Where did the 11 seasons go, I didn't realise either of us had been around that long now.

"We became friends through our time in rep camps and playing Origin and what not.

"Now to have Haynesy back here is fantastic. Now he's back where he belongs in Parra colours and you can just see how happy he is."

Two weeks ago, Hayne officially found himself on the wrong side of 30, while Jennings will join him in April.

Not that they're showing their age. This chat with Jennings ended when he was dacked for the second time in as many minutes by a Parramatta teammate.

Some things never change.