The Cumberland Throw

Remembering John McMartin

Back in February 2018, the passing of John McMartin did not receive acknowledgement on TCT.  It may be almost 12 months later, but it’s important for an Eels supporter site to pay tribute to the contributions made to the Parramatta club by an Eels legend.

The Parramatta Eels only recently turned 70 years old. Given that first grade rugby league is a young person’s sport, we’re probably reaching the point when we will lose names that are more and more familiar to supporters. Whenever possible, I want to pay respect to them on The Cumberland Throw.

There have already been fine eulogies to John McMartin on sites such as the Men of League Foundation. You can read how they honoured him here

I wanted this tribute to be from a supporter’s perspective.

The classic foot card of Macka.

John McMartin was one of my early player favourites. When I first started following the Eels (and being genuinely aware of individual players), Parra were not a team to feature in finals football. 

“What’s new?” I can almost hear those words being uttered as that last sentence is being read.

In that period from 1967 to 1975, McMartin was one of only a handful of consistent, high quality footballers to wear the Blue and Gold. Alongside Bob O’Reilly, Dennis Fitzgerald and Keith Campbell, McMartin bridged the period between the Eels 1960s heydays and the mid 1970s coming of age. Greats such as Dick Thornett and Ron Lynch were reaching the end of their careers.

Possession in those days was determined by contested scrums, and a good hooker was a valuable commodity. John McMartin was a noted ball winner. One of the best.

Like The Bear, Boof and Fitzy, Macka was a local junior too. Although he hailed from Richmond, now Panthers territory, Penrith were yet to gain Premiership status when he came through the grades. His twin brother, Mal, would ultimately debut with the Panthers.

Apart from an anomalous finals appearance in 1971, the Eels were also-rans from 1966 to 1974. They were the dark days before the 1975 resurgence under Norm Provan.

The headline says it all.

From about 1971 onwards, the media took an interest in McMartin and his continued omission from representative teams. Outside of his capacity to win contested scrums, he was noted for his involvement in general play and his pace. He’d made the decision in his junior days to switch from halfback to hooker, so just winning scrums would never be enough for him.

 Almost every year a journalist would extol his virtues and lay blame for his representative omissions on the Eels lack of success.

(The images of featured stories, courtesy of Parrathruandthru, make for interesting reading. There’s a funny recount in one of a caper in McMartin’s junior days when he swapped jerseys with his twin, Mal, after being ordered out of the scrums by the referee.)

The call up finally came in 1975, his last season with the Eels, when he was selected for City and NSW.

An interesting fact that I was unaware of until his passing, was that McMartin was probably the first player to sign a TPA! When he moved to the Sharks for the 1976 season, a local business paid a significant part of his contract. Didn’t that change the landscape of our game.

After 167 games with Parramatta, McMartin was 32 years old when he joined Cronulla. He would go on to play 92 games with them, including the 1978 Grand Final, before retiring in 1979. 

Although the Eels had a new breed that had made appearances in the 76 and 77 deciders, with tough as nails Ron Hilditch  at hooker, I lamented that McMartin was not still part of the team. He had toiled for so many years in Parra teams that didn’t feature in finals footy but by the late 70s they were regulars at the SCG. It didn’t seem right.

John McMartin gave back to the game that he loved, staying involved with coaching and administration in tertiary rugby league for over 30 years. Included in his honours were six rugby league life memberships, including Parramatta RLFC, and an Australian Sports Medal (2000) for services to rugby league. 

Outside of footy, John became well known for his other passion – harness racing. He was a trainer, driver and breeder of harness racers, and trained over 70 winners, including his 2005 winning drive on Krysta in the Franco/Australian Trotters Final at Harold Park.

It was a life well lived.

Thank you John McMartin.

Additional Acknowledgement

Another former Eel, Robert Cowie, also passed away in 2018. Robert was a firebrand prop, part of a young generation of talented Eels to progress through the lower grades before debuting as a 21 year old in 1981. He only played two games that year before signing with the Roosters. He played eight games with them over the 82/83 seasons.

Robert had been living and working in England for an extended period prior to his passing last January.

I worked with Robert’s brother, Colin, for about a year back in 1984/85. There was no shortage of laughter in that workplace.

On behalf of TCT, I extend my belated sympathies to the Cowie family.

Eels forever!


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35 thoughts on “Remembering John McMartin

  1. Gazzamatta

    Also a great favourite of mine 60s. As average as our team was in those early days, Macca could always be depended upon to give his all and was so excited when selected to play for his state. I was devastated when he moved on later in his career.
    Without looking at his numbers, I’d suggest he rarely missed a game. Extremely durable player. A great number 12 and definitely an Eels Legend.
    RIP Macca.

    1. sixties Post author

      Yes, 167 games over 9 seasons when the Eels played 22 games a year – that’s outstanding numbers for an era without interchange or sports science training and recovery methods,

  2. Phil Mann

    Very sad to hear that Robbie Cowie passed away. We played a lot of footy in Maley park (across from your old school Sixties). We were neighbours and our dads were very close mates. Robbies dad “Jock” was a firebrand Scot and Dad reckoned he was always a good mate to have around when things turned sour. No doubt that’s where Robbie inherited his aggression. Colin was tough but not so aggressive. Merrylands High had a pretty formidable team back then with Robbie Cowie, Mick Pattison and Jason Bell.

  3. colin hussey

    I rate John Mac as probably the best hooker this club has had, I can remember seeing Billy Rayner (barely) who worked for Hardies at Camllia and was also considered highly. However for me Maca was the tops, his abilities in winning scrums against the feed and raking the ball in the play the ball, are/were 2nd to none, only one I believe to come close to him was George Piggins from the bunnies.

    I hurt big time when Maca went to the Sharks, one can understand the decision as it was money but also the way the club was managed at that time. The recruitment of Steve Edge set us up with a wise and shrewd hooker and captain which it showed for us.

    Mal was never in the same class as John, but he had a fair turn of speed and used mostly on the wing with some matches at centre, as for being twins, well Mal showed he was not part of the cauliflower & pugnose brigade which was reserved for the forwards of that time though as he kept his good looks.

    Robert Cowie another name from the past, an honest toiler on the paddock as a prop, and one of the first IIRC that had long (neat) hair and a vicious looking well kept beard. I cannot remember reading about his passing but, I also would like to extend my condolences to his family.

    1. sixties Post author

      Really appreciate you sharing your recollections Colin. Ron Hilditch added a different dimension to hooker in 1976, but I always wondered what if – especially as Manly won that Grand Final on the back of scrum penalties.

      1. colin hussey

        Sixties, I know Ron from the old days & went to school with his brother and another mate of both of us, Ron was and still is a top block, sad the way he had to leave the club board but I know his reasons and it made a lot of sense.

        When I first saw him play for the eels in the hookers spot, I thought what the! I based that on his overall size and felt him better suited to a props spot, and some of his early dummy half work was a bit off, he did not seem to have the same skills in the scrums that others like Macca had but in all of that Ron actually added to the team as he bulked up a bit.

        That bulking up added a heck of a lot to his ability and it did not lessen his agility either, he was always the one to put his hand up for the tough yards, can’t remember what they called it but he volunteered in one memorable game to be part of a scrum that was to push the other side into the in goal and Ron was the primary ramming player assigned to score, it was reported far and wide but sadly it did not work.

        While he may not have been the best rake, he was up there with all the eels forwards and a very dedicated eels player and supporter before and after his RL career. Need more of them methinks.

          1. colin hussey

            How on earth did I forget that, remember that it was a Rah Rah move, only other area I can think of is that I heard someone say it in regard to a couple of John Hoppoate ploys when at Manly.

  4. Rocket

    I regard John Mcmartin as our greatest rake. Not sure if this is true. I heard he was supposed to receive a bonus for making representative side which wasn’t paid and that is how he ended up at the Sharks. Disappointed when he left.

  5. Trapped in the 1970's

    John McMartin was a real favourite. Those lightning fast feet of his and I recall him beating George Peponis 13-2 in the scrums one day at Belmore only for the eels to lose and another day when he sprinted what seemed 75 mtrs to score at Lidcombe (during that period when the eels always came up empty handed there) having lost one boot along the way.

    Great player, tough as teak. He was so good in that run through 1975 and I was so sorry at the time that he left at seasons end, as did The Bear.

    Much too young for Robert Cowie to have passed. He was a tough young forward I recall. I think he may have blotted his copybook which brought about his move to easts. Sad news.

    1. sixties Post author

      Great Macca memory there Trapped!
      My recollections of Robert was that he was a tough, old fashioned prop – didn’t mind mixing it up in the middle.

  6. Seth hardie

    A truely great eel. Macca was fast, tough and a great bloke off the field as well. He would be a sensation today. Vale John.

  7. rowdy roddy

    Macca was one of my favourite Parra players of that 60’s – 70’s transition era. What can one say about a bloke who bled blue n gold? He was, along with numerous other Parramatta stars at that time, tough, talented, skilful and resilient with a very good turn of pace when in the clear or chasing done a runaway opposition player.
    I recall him coming up surrounded by some giants of the game who were in the Parra pack. Moby Dick Thornett, Thirsty Ronny Lynch, and later joined by a young Bob the Bear O’Rielly, Fitzy and Ratbag Ray Higgs.
    A belated Vale John McMartin. Thanks for the memories.

    1. sixties Post author

      Over that era we had some quality forwards, but just couldn’t quite match teams in the backs. Macca certainly provided the possession.

    2. rowdy roddy

      The point that I was making in reference to the other great players around John McMartin during his career was simply. Clearly they helped his development as a 1st grader. “How much might he have assisted his mentors during that dry period to keep their representative jumpers”?

  8. BDon

    60’s/70’s/80’s was my going to the game each week period. John McMartin hung around in scrums when plenty of scary characters did the same. He was consistently reliable, durable and all round good. It was a buzz to buy the program and look at the names for the 3 o’clock game. John McMartin always belonged there. RIP.
    Well done sixties.

      1. BDon

        On that theme, I noted that Neville Hornery passed away last year. A hookers nightmare that bloke!
        Also, in the 1975 team photo, John Vincent must have played in the centres that day(assuming it’s a match day photo).From memory, he occasionally did?

        1. colin hussey

          Bdon, IIRC John Vincent played more in the backs than forwards in much of his career, same with Brett Atkins who the eels got from Canberra as a second rower but ended up on the wing mostly, and did a good job there

        2. sixties Post author

          I have a mate who knew Nev Hornery well who has shared stories with me about how tough Hornery was.
          As Colin noted below, I remember John Vincent switching from back row to wing.

          1. colin hussey

            sixties I believe that John made a pretty good fist of his switch to the backs, he like Brett Atkins had a good turn of speed as well as size to help them as well..

  9. Steeleel

    Mate, John Mcmartin was one of my favourites. His brother Mal was a good player as well. Later, Michael Moseley married my mate’s sister. Then he was a fav

    1. sixties Post author

      When Mal joined Parra, I remember thinking that he belonged with the Eels. It felt wrong to have Macca’s twin playing at another club.

      1. rowdy roddy

        Funny I felt a similar “he’s back where he should be” about Mal also. I think that I thought them both to be Parra juniors at the time. Clearly they were not from your report sixties.

  10. Ted Freer

    Macka was a great golfing friend of mine as well as both of us having 1/5 share in Keelhaul a very handy racehorse that won many Sydney races.A great bloke.

    1. sixties Post author

      Ted, I watched Macka play but never had the honour of meeting him. I’ve met his twin Mal who is still playing footy. At least he was 14 months ago when I met him.

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