Back in August, the Eels said their farewells to Parramatta/Pirtek Stadium. At the time, I was asked by the club if I would like to contribute to the official program for that final match against the Dragons. Having attended matches at Parramatta since the mid 1960s, I felt honoured to offer my reflections on the players who donned the Eels jersey since 1986. Though I feel certain that some of our current crop of Eels will one day feature in lists of team greats, the onus was on reminiscing the achievements of the past.
Fast forward to 2017, and with the demolition of the stadium now underway, I realised that we did not publish the article as a post on TCT, having left it at the time as a commemorative publication for that event. The Parramatta Eels did a tremendous job with the layout and design which brought my text to life and I truly appreciate what it looked like in print.
So before we begin a new chapter of the Eels history, firstly at ANZ, and then at the new Western Sydney Stadium, I thought it only fitting to share this article with TCT readers who weren’t able to attend that final match at Pirtek.
I hope you enjoy looking back.
Thirty for 30
Thirty years of matches at Pirtek Stadium. So many talented Eels players have graced this magnificent rugby league arena during that time and every Parramatta supporter would have a favourite or two. To honour three decades of residency at the home of the Blue and Gold Army, I’ve composed a list of memorable Eels. Let’s call it 30 for 30. Some players make this list because they’ve been legends. Others make the list because …… well, just because.
Let the memories begin.
The Team (1 to 17)
1. Fullback – Jarryd Hayne (176 games)
The modern superstar of the game has moved on from our great club, but his incredible feats for the Eels can never be forgotten. Trying to single out his finest moment on Pirtek Stadium would be impossible given that the “Hayne Plane” started his highlights reel from virtually his first match in the NRL. Catapulting the Eels into the 2009 Grand Final and collecting his first Dally M Award would feature prominently in his list of achievements. I’d rate him as the most freakishly talented Eel of all time.
2. Wing – Eric Grothe Snr (152 games)
Few players have the capacity to lift the crowd to their feet the way that “Guru” did. Grothe decimated defences with a combination of strength and speed. His trademark was the ability to maintain balance at pace whilst leaning forward to bump off defenders. It seemed standard fare for Grothe to beat the first tackle, and a flying “Guru” in open space would be the stuff of nightmares for opposition fullbacks. As a cover defender, he had few peers. As a bloke, he remains quietly spoken and humble. The long locks may be gone but he will forever be the Guru.
3. Centre – Michael Cronin (216 games)
Mick’s final year at Parramatta was the Eels’ first at the stadium. It was far from Cronin’s best year, having missed much of the season through a major eye injury. However, “the Crow” ended his time in the blue and gold with the 1986 premiership and a then scoring record of 1,971 points. His ability to “ball play” in the back line made his younger team mates look good. Strong and deceptively quick, Cronin was a handful for defenders. Throw in some of the most talented backs to ever lace on a boot and you had a once in a generation backline. Very few players in world sport have the distinction of running out to play in front of a stand named in their honour. The first “Champion of Parramatta” was always going to feature on this list.
4. Centre – Steve Ella (153 games)
“Zip Zip” was small in stature but big in talent. Blessed with the ability to change direction at pace, Ella was the perfect foil for centre partner Cronin. Often the beneficiary of slick offloads from “the Crow”, “Zip Zip” possessed enough silky ball skills to also star in the halves when required. Eric Grothe believes that we never saw the best of Ella due to the severe leg injury that he sustained when first playing top grade football. If that wasn’t his best, it’s startling to imagine what could have been!
5. Winger – Semi Radradra (66 games)
Not many current players are on this list, but Semi has earned his stripes via his extraordinary try scoring strike rate. Crossing for 59 tries in only 66 appearances, the flying Fijian is well on his way to smashing club records. Remarkably, the man from the village of Somosomo had not played a minute of Rugby League until signing on for Parramatta’s NYC squad in 2012. Transitioning to the NRL in the following year, the big fella has become a household name throughout the country.
6. Five-Eighth – Brett Kenny (265 games)
To be considered the equal of Wally Lewis in the Origin arena, you’d have to be a remarkable player. Brett Kenny was just that. A local junior from the Guildford club, Kenny burst onto the scene in 1980 and went on to partner Peter Sterling in the halves during the Eels golden premiership era between 1981 and 1986. His unique feat of scoring try doubles in the ’81, ’82 and ’83 deciders should have extended to the 1986 Grand Final, but he was twice denied by the referee. In 2008, “Bert” was named in the top 100 players of all time. He was the natural.
7. Half – Peter Sterling (227 games)
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this Blue and Gold maestro. He was simply the best “game manager” to have ever graced Parramatta Stadium. To put things into perspective, in an era when his backline team mates were legends in their own right, “Sterlo” was up on another level. His list of awards and representative honours are too numerous to mention, but winning the inaugural Clive Churchill Medal in the 1986 Grand Final is surely one of his proudest achievements. In a sport where the body takes a pounding, Sterling’s mind dictated many victories. He is arguably the greatest Eel of all time.
8. Prop – Dean Pay (76 games)
Although only gracing Parramatta Stadium for four years from 1996, this import from the Canterbury club set a young Eels pack on the path to Premiership credibility during the Brian Smith era. Uncompromisingly tough, Pay exemplified the mantra of hard work reaping rewards on the playing paddock. Though renowned as a punishing defender, he possessed the ability to break the line with an unexpected step. With both Origin and Australian jerseys over five seasons, Pay was one of the most highly respected props of his era.
9. Dummy Half – Brad Drew (45 games)
This could be a controversial selection, but it’s hard to go past Brad Drew. The nuggetty dummy-half was a key component in one of the most statistically successful years in rugby league, as the Eels attack piled on an incredible 943 points during the 2001 season. The Eels may not have taken home the title that year, but crowds at Parramatta were treated to some of the most breathtaking tries in the stadium’s history. Drew always seemed to pull the right rein from dummy half and his darts around the ruck were difficult for opposition defences to contain. His stay at the club was far too brief.
10. Prop – Geoff Bugden (99 games)
A Rothman’s medallist in 1980 with Newtown, this big unit saw the light and switched to Parramatta for the 1982 season. Though a number of seasons were marred by serious injury, Bugden continued his Parramatta career through until 1989. His most memorable season came during the 1986 Premiership campaign when he partnered Terry Leadbeater as the “bookends” of the Parramatta front row. Buggo was a real metre-eater, laying the platform through the middle in an era when props needed to stand up to, if not stand over, their opposition.
11. Second Row – Nathan Hindmarsh (330 games)
This list would not be complete without Stadium hero, Nathan Hindmarsh. “Hindy” has played more games on Pirtek Stadium than any other Eel. A one club legend, this bloke seemed to carry the Eels defence on his shoulders for many seasons. Yet as a running back-rower, Hindmarsh holds a distinguished place on Parramatta’s try scoring list with 60 tries. Remarkably, no pair of shorts seemed capable of staying in place on Hindmarsh and regulars to Pirtek Stadium will have images of his posterior forever etched into their memory banks.
12. Second Row – Peter Wynn (175 games)
Although the tall, lanky Peter Wynn played a few seasons in the front row, he is best remembered as a talented back-rower for the Eels. Recruited from bush football in 1979, “Wally” would go on to achieve some of rugby league’s greatest honours despite suffering one of the most horrendous head injuries witnessed at Parramatta. With a running style likened to Ron Coote, Wynn was seemingly all arms and legs and a real handful for defences to drag down. His ability to offload complimented his play and assisted his transition to the front row. A genuine supporter of the club after his retirement, Peter continues to be a presence around the Parramatta district through his retail operation.
13. Lock – Ray Price (258 games)
The man, the statue, the footballer! There will only ever be one Ray Price. This bloke was a Cumberland Oval hero even before lacing on the boots with the Eels. As a Parramatta Two Blues rugby player, Price was a cult hero to rugby followers and his style of play was a natural for the code switch. His nickname of “Mr Perpetual Motion” aptly described his commitment to the game. Legend has it that his passion for Parramatta prevented more than one of his team mates from daring to take the field in opposition to him. His statue tells you that Parramatta Stadium was his house.
14. Bench – Nathan Peats (35 games)
In just over two seasons, Nathan Peats endeared himself to the Blue and Gold Army with performances which left nothing out on the field. His fearless defence and line speed set the platform for an Eels pack striving for respect. Who will ever forget the standing ovation afforded to him at Pirtek Stadium following his forced departure?
15. Bench – Tim Mannah (178 games)
At the age of 28, Mannah has already spent 8 years in the engine room of the toughest sport in the world. He leads by example by making the tough metres and laying the platform for his fellow forwards to follow. His career has rewarded him with four Origin caps. As a club captain, Mannah has few peers, representing Parramatta with pride and class.
16. Bench –Dean Widders (112 games)
It’s doubtful whether a better utility player than Dean Widders has ever represented the Eels. Although regarded as a backrower with sublime ball skills, his surprising pace could see him fill in at centre when required. Off the field, this proud indigenous man has promoted literacy within the Aboriginal community, a passion which earned him the prestigious 2004 Ken Stephens Medal.
17. Bench – Jim Dymock (112 games)
Arriving at Parramatta in 1996 via the Super League War, Dymock quickly established himself as a tough and skilled backrower for the Brian smith coached team. Along with his ex-Bulldog team mates, Pay and Smith, Dymock helped to educate the young Eels forwards and set them on the path to regular finals appearances. He was rewarded with Origin and Australian selection during his time at the Eels.
The Special Mentions
18. “I Love Yous All” – Jeff Fenech
This icon of Australian boxing shocked the sporting public by signing on with the Eels during the 1989 season. Parramatta was his favourite team and Jeff had played junior football through the Newtown club. Fenech (sporting black head gear) debuted off the bench in reserve grade at Parramatta Stadium, much to the delight of the crowd. Although he only played a couple of games in reserve grade, he is a world champion who’s worn the blue and gold.
19. Yes He Did! – Paul Kent (1 game)
In retrospect, what an interesting year 1989 turned out to be! For those who weren’t aware, journalist Paul Kent was a graded rugby league player and in 1989 he made his only first grade appearance with the Eels. Hope you didn’t blink!
20. Most Courageous – Paul Taylor (150 games)
He was the size of a half-back but fearlessly tackled the biggest players in the game. Taylor was often listed at fullback but alternated positions with Peter Sterling, thereby spending long periods in the middle of the park. In one memorable match, Taylor registered a then record 52 tackles. Many pundits credit him with taking the defensive workload off “Sterlo”, allowing him to more effectively guide the Eels attack. Sterling probably agrees.
21. Follow Me – Nathan Cayless (259 games)
In an astounding NRL record, Nathan Cayless captained the Eels in 217 matches. Although undoubtedly earning his stripes in the top 17, the Kiwi international deserved special mention for this extraordinary achievement. Cayless was a tough prop forward who led by example both in the NRL and in internationals for New Zealand. His fine leadership skills remain valued by the club as he currently guides the Wentworthville Magpies in the Intrust Super Premiership.
22. Crowd Favourite (Version 1) – Mark Tookey (40 games)
The Parramatta faithful just love a big man barrelling into the defence. Over the ’98 and ’99 seasons, a chorus of “Tooks” echoed around the stadium with every hit up. This bloke was never a star, but he was one of the great characters to grace Parramatta Stadium.
23. Crowd Favourite (Version 2) – Fuifui Moimoi (201 games)
“Fuuuuiiii!” The chorus was loudest at Pirtek, but it accompanied every Moimoi charge at every game. The Kiwi and Tongan international was more than just a cult figure to Parramatta fans. His try in the 2009 decider is regarded as one the most memorable in grand final history. Moimoi’s interviews were few and far between, but his fearless charges were innumerable.
24. Not So Private Dancer – Mark Riddell (86 games)
Parramatta Stadium, Round 23, 2005 – it was a night to remember. Firstly the Eels trounced the Bulldogs in a one-sided affair. We also bore witness to the disco moves of Piggy Riddell as he celebrated a long range solo try. Words don’t do it justice. Check Piggy Jiggy Jiggy on Youtube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=no1W1f8RvQ0
25. The Biggest Hitter – Peter Johnston (69 games)
In a career bookended by stints at the Eels, Peter Johnston earned the reputation as one of the most feared defenders in the game. The impact from his shoulders would rattle the bones of the toughest opponents. Johnston was a genuine enforcer with arguably the best technique seen at the stadium.
26. Fastest Eel – Lee Oudenryn (50 games)
In a close call over Shane Whereat, “Leaping Lee” gets the nod by virtue of his match race victory over Martin Offiah. This race was the prelude to a 1992 tour match between Great Britain and Parramatta at the stadium. Oudenryn got an early jump on the British speedster, and held his lead over 100 metres. The Eels would go on to defeat Great Britain later that night.
27. Happiest Hooker – Michael Moseley (88 games)
A premiership winning local junior, Moseley was a busy rake and noted defender. Sitting between the “bookends” in an era when backs wouldn’t dare put their head in a scrum, Moseley was always in the thick of the action. Speak to Eels fans from this era, and they will recall this bloke’s joyous celebrations with seemingly every Parra try. He was a real team player.
28. Greatest Second Generation Player – Eric Grothe Jnr (131 games)
Imagine carrying the name Eric Grothe onto the rugby league field – especially at the same club as your famous father. Guru Jnr climbed this mountain and created his own legacy through NSW and Australian representation. By doing so, the Grothes became the eighth father/son combination to play for their country. With similar pace and power to Eric Snr, Junior scored a bag of spectacular and important tries over ten years with the Eels.
29. Greatest Kicker – Jason Taylor (26 games)
With both Cronin and Burt as contenders, this may seem an odd selection. However, in his solitary season with the Eels in 2001, Taylor amassed 265 points and reached 2107 career points, a then NRL record. His goal kicking helped the Eels to their highest ever season total of 943 points.
30. Youngest Eel – Luke Burt (264 games)
At the age of 17 years and 9 months, Luke Burt made his Eels debut in front of over 100,000 people at Stadium Australia in the 1999 season opener. He finished his career as a one club player and the second highest points scorer in Parra’s history with 1793 points. A modern Eels legend, he continues on with the club as coach of the NYC team.
With this publication on our TCT site, you now have the opportunity to offer an opinion on my selections or maybe add a couple of your own.
I look forward to reading your thoughts.
Images courtesy of NRL, Parramatta Eels, Getty Images, Daily Telegraph and various uncredited inter