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.
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.
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.
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.