The Cumberland Throw

The Spotlight – Rugby League Dreaming

“Dreams come true. Without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.”

– John Updike

The NRL advertisement and its portrayal of a young Cameron Smith, and a young girl, and their rugby league aspirations, caused a moment of unexpected nostalgia for this rusted-on old fan.

Perhaps your recollections are similar to mine.

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As a young boy, like most others at that age, my father was my role model.

He loved his footy and in our home, there was only one team – Parra.

My parents were married at a fairly young age. Dad was 21 and Mum was one month shy of turning 18. I was the first born, but by then they had worked and saved for 11 years so that there was a home for a family to be raised in.

This also meant that my father’s time as a footballer had long since finished. He had played up to A grade as a halfback in the Parramatta district for a number of clubs.

The local A grade footy back in the late 40s and early 50s was much bigger than today. There were so many clubs playing A grade and A reserves in the Parramatta District Rugby League, that their competitions had to be split into geographical divisions.

Unfortunately, Dad injured his knee cartilage in his mid 20s, and in those days, that was significant cause to give the game away.

But by then he’d finally won a title with the East Parramatta club. It had been a big deal for him to play there, as Norm “Bubbles” Sivyer (later an Eels club legend in a variety of roles) was the boss and it required an interview with Bubbles to get a halfback spot in East Parra senior teams.

And the reward – a Premiership blazer.

So, as a young boy that wanted to emulate his dad, I used to sneak his blazer out of the cupboard and walk around in it – and I dreamed.

I dreamed of being a player, and of winning my own blazer. But it had to be in the Blue and Gold of Parra.

The Bear

Going to work with Dad only intensified that desire. He worked as a truck driver, and counted Parra legends like Bob O’Reilly and Barry Rushworth as mates at the depot. I was in awe when I’d join him in the lunch room and look around, and when Eels forward Keith Campbell bought dad’s old truck and came to our home to share a few beers, the die was cast for this lifetime affliction.

The dilemma for me was that truck driving brought long hours of work for Dad. As a consequence of needing to get myself to and from training, playing footy for me meant playing rugby union, not league, as it was the only walking distance option.

As time marched on it also became apparent that my poor athleticism, and the lack of dedication to improve it, was going to be a significant hurdle for me to overcome. I experienced title wins with my team, but I was playing front row in rugby union and my passion for that game waned each year.

So my dreams of playing rugby league and getting my own blazer faded. I was a realist about myself, but still I dreamed.

And the dream became the dream of watching Parra win the title – something that they had never done.

My mates would stir me relentlessly. Even though I grew up in the heart of Eels territory, my friends supported teams such as Manly, Souths, St George and Balmain. If you consider the time frame of the 1960s and early 1970s, it’s not too challenging to work out why.

A packed Cumberland Oval

Still, my support grew almost exponentially. Despite an anomalous finals appearance in 1971, the Eels languished near the bottom of the table in the early 70s. And in those times of premiership depression, my residency status at the Eels home ground, Cumberland Oval, was established. By the mid 70s my brother Grant and I had season tickets (cardboard in those days), and the early entry afforded to ticket holders would allow us to save places in the stand for the rest of the family, including my aunt and uncle and our much younger brother, Darren.

The 1976 season became the stuff of dreams. The success and popularity of the team brought big crowds to Cumberland. The grand final appearance was preceded by a Thursday night team parade down Church St. Remembering those scenes still gives me tingles. I’ll never forget Ray Higgs initiating a Parra chant when his float was blocked by the crowd under the rail bridge. Though reasonably studious in high school, I was so hyped after that night that I stayed home from school the next day.

Action shot from the 1976 decider. Picture by BERRY/MOXHAM (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Grand Final losses in 1976 and 1977 only served to heighten the dream of an Eels premiership. Being at the SCG on the big day was exhilarating. The old hill belonged to the Eels supporters, and there was nothing to compare to chanting and cheering for a team striving for its maiden title.

By the late 70s, my brother Grant, my cousin Scott and I were travelling to all away games on supporter buses – the organisation of that would have been a major operation in those days. On the odd occasion we were allowed to include young Darren. One memorable Sunday at Brookvale required a fleet of buses to transport over a thousand Eels fans. By the time they were joined by those travelling by car, it was difficult to determine the home team. Such days were not isolated as visiting Eels supporters often outnumbered home fans.

The crowd in the last match at Cumberland in 1981. (Photo by Robert Pearce/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

In 1981 I learned that dreams do come true. On Grand Final Day, Grant, Scott, a couple of mates and I arrived at the SCG at around 6am. A number of fans had camped overnight but we still gained places close to the front of the lines. Excessive alcohol blurs some of the memories of that day – such was the price of celebrating dreams. I know that I shed a tear when  Brett Kenny wrapped up the match with the last try, and the day concluded with moments that can never be forgotten – the singing and dancing at Parra Leagues Club. Grant was refused entry so he attended the nearby bonfire.

That last title in 1986

Five Grand Finals and four titles in six years must seem like a “bizarro” world to Eels supporters born after 1986, but back then we probably accepted it as the norm. They were champion Parra teams, with legendary players. The entire family held season tickets at Parra Stadium. Mum was now more fanatical than Dad. I was present for every minute of every grand final at the SCG. Would those good times ever end?

Thirty-four years down the track, those good times are recalled as short lived. The wait for another title is now exactly as long as the club had to wait for its first Premiership. Just like 1981, the club has suffered two grand final losses during its wait. And just like then, supporters have lived a chunk of their lives without witnessing a lap of honour.

My father

There’s no way to avoid the passage of time. Mum turns 88 this year and Dad will be 91. He’s too frail to go to stadiums but he never misses a televised game. My parents remain passionate about the Blue and Gold.

My own passion led me to joining forces with similarly afflicted individuals to create The Cumberland Throw. Perhaps it’s your own dedication to the Eels which led you to reading this post on TCT.

With the new season about to kick off, I’ll once again be dreaming of an Eels title.

Like the young me in the 1960s, there’ll be many thousands of children (and those a little older) dreaming about a Parra victory lap on Grand Final day.

And probably, there’ll be thousands of my generation of supporters who’ll remember that first title – and they’ll continue to dream about witnessing great days again.

It all starts in the opening round this week. I’ll take my place in the Bankwest Stadium stands alongside Chanelle and my mates Rob and Rob. My TCT mates occupy the seats nearby.

How good is the footy! How good is it to dream!

Eels forever!

Sixties

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Colin Hussey
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Colin Hussey

Memories. From a family of eels supporters, Mum, Dad, sister in background only, cousins, godparents all fanatical eels supporters. Walking from Northmead to Cumberland oval a ritual as we had no car, trips to far flung grounds were not taken unless there was at a place where trains went, or bus connections. Climbing the fig tree at North Sydney oval to shout out against the bears, wow, how can an eel play against a bear? When season tickets were on offer, the 10 minutes early gate got you either in the stand or a close seat to the fence, searching… Read more »

Colin Hussey
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Colin Hussey

sixties, something wrong? with the subscribe link I get a subscription fault message

Parra Pete
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Parra Pete

“I have been to the top of the mountain, I have SEEN the promised land”

Gazzamatta
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Gazzamatta

A great read 60’s.
Could have been reading my own biography.
Fingers crossed this is our year. We all deserve it.
Gaz

Jeff Cooke
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Jeff Cooke

Another great read. Been a tragic since the early 60s myself. Dreaming here as well.

Big Derek
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Big Derek

Memories are special, I remember sleeping outside Grace Bros in 1981 on the pavement in a sleeping bag to get Grand Final tickets , got there at 7.30pm the night before the sale commenced. Was at least 50 people before me with an assortment of blankets, chairs, camp beds etc. The excitement was there for everyone, Eels in the GF! Someone gave out numbers so if you needed to visit the public facilities. no place was lost. Thermos flasks were there, the store opened and up we went and the tickets were bought, 4 per person, as we walked out… Read more »

BDon
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BDon

Good one sixties. I’ve just had to defend Rugby League…again…but when I read your story, I know why I do it. Great mug shot of the Bear, saw his first game, good looking dude…then a life in the front row.

Darryl West
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Darryl West

Great read, Sixties. Thanks for posting