It’s been 39 years since the Eels broke their inaugural premiership drought in 1981.
Teams had come close before. In 1976 they fell to Manly, in 1977 they lost to St George in a grand final replay.
1981 marked 34 years without a Premiership for the proud club. After entering the NSWRL in 1947, Parramatta had struggled in their early years before the arrival of Ken Thornett made them regular finals contenders. With his brother Dick and the likes of Denis Fitzgerald and a young Bob O’Reilly, the Eels began to show what they could be.
With Ken Thornett’s departure the side struggled before rising once again in the late 1970s under the stewardship of Terry Fearnley. Under Fearnley the Eels would recruit the nucleus of their 1980s championship sides.
Ray Price was brought over from rugby union. Michael Cronin recruited from Gerringong. Ron Hilditch came into grade alongside the likes of Peter Sterling, Steve Ella, Brett Kenny and Eric Grothe Senior.
Those players gave the 1976 and 1977 seasons a fair crack and were led expertly by halfback John “Bomber” Peard.
But something was missing. A few bits and pieces weren’t quite there. They didn’t stack up.
John Peard returned to the club in 1980, this time as coach following his retirement.
He managed to recruit a few more key pieces. The legendary Arthur Beetson arrived for a final season. Bob O’Reilly returned to the club and a hooker by the name of Steve Edge was welcomed into the Blue and Gold.
Edge was a seasoned campaigner when he arrived at Parramatta.
Debuting in 1973, Edge played for the St George Dragons, captaining the side to a premiership in 1977 and winning the competition in 1979. He racked up 103 first grade games before he made the switch to the Eels.
Joining the enemy
When Edge moved from St George to Parramatta, he was moving in with the enemy. The Dragons had faced off against the Eels in the 1977 grand final which was drawn and subsequently thrashed them in the replay.
In 1979 St George killed off Parramatta’s hopes of a maiden premiership by defeating them in the major semi-final and marching onto the premiership themselves.
As Edge puts it, the two sides were sworn enemies and it took time to win over the Blue and Gold Army.
“It was unfortunate that I had to leave the Dragons but when it came to coming across, being a Dragons person, it took a while to settle in. Certainly not with the players but more with fans.
“It’s a bit like Manly and Wests in that they also were arch-rivals. It’s just something that some clubs have and that still happens. Parramatta and the Dragons are still rivals… But there was a definite rivalry with it because after the ‘77 grand final, Parramatta hadn’t won one and we’d sort of snatched it away from them, Manly took one away from them in ‘76. That rivalry has always been there and it’s still there,” Edge says.
The hooker’s first season was spent under the tutelage of former St George teammate John Peard who led the club to its first mid-week tournament win as the side won the Tooth Cup.
The regular season however didn’t completely go to plan with the Eels finishing seventh, one point outside the top five and no finals football. Given how close they had been to a grand final the year previous alongside a minor premiership in 1976, the club was eager to break its premiership drought.
The arrival of “Big Jack”
With 1980 drawing to a close, the Eels were looking around for a coach who they believed could deliver long-awaited glory. At the time, Jack Gibson happened to be available after coaching the Eastern Suburbs Roosters to back-to-back premierships in 1974 and 1975.
The Eels swooped and Gibson joined the Blue and Gold for the 1981 season.
Edge says the arrival of Jack was greeted with some hesitation by the senior players given the coach’s reputation, but their fears were unfounded.
“Jack had his reputation and Peardy did a pretty good job in 1980. I thought he (Peard) was really, really good but I think that Parramatta was just so desperate to win one they, in the nicest way, appointed Jack over Peardy.
“Parramatta were just so desperate they went out and got the best coach at the time and off he went. Don’t forget the players. All of the experienced ones, we were all a bit hesitant too about Jack and you’d hear all different stories and he was probably without a shadow of a doubt one of the easiest going coaches I’ve ever had anything to do with. He said, “These are the rules, just obey them.” It was as simple as that.”
Edge’s relationship with Gibson, though, didn’t begin at Parramatta. It started when the hooker was in the infancy of his career, coming through the grades at St George.
“In my very first year at the Dragons when I was called up from President’s Cup for grade which was toward the end of the season. I got to play the first game, I think it was against Penrith out at Penrith and then the Dragons had three of their sides in the grand final. Unfortunately, we got beaten in all three grades.
“I didn’t get to play on the day (grand final day), I was on the bench and we got beat. Then Jack came over and said, “Okay, every one of you sit on the bench here for reserve grade as well because you never know, you might get a run.” Then he said, “After reserve grade, I want you across in the first grade dressing room to join the first grade there.” So to walk from the Sheridan stand, around in front of the whole crowd into the member’s stand was just one of the greatest things of all time. Then you walk in there and you’ve got Chang (Graeme Langlands) and Billy Smith and Peter Fitzgerald and all these guys you just always looked up to, all in there and so you knew Jack looked after his players and that was a big benefit to me.”
Former players of Jack Gibson’s all speak of his care for his team and the wider community. He was seen as a great man-manager who acted as a mentor to his charges and knew how to motivate them to be not only better players, but better men.
“I remember he used to buy cars for young kids who couldn’t get to training on time and stuff like that. The drug rehabilitation centre out at Windsor. You’d see something in the Telegraph or the Mirror, “Parramatta team buy car for charity”. And sure we all put in our winning bonus which was $2,600 or thereabouts and the car cost probably $10,000 and of course no one knows but Jack was the one who put in the extra dollars. That was the type of bloke Jack was.”
Edge explains, that when Gibson arrived, he changed the training schedule of the team so they could spend more time with their families. At the time, even the best players didn’t earn enough to support their families, so they had full time jobs during the day and trained at night.
“He was easy going and very much a family man. I remember at the time we used to train four nights a week. We get across there (to training) and Jack said, “No, no. Tuesday night, Thursday night and Saturday morning is when we train. The rest of the time you spend with your family.” So he was fantastic.”
The Eels dynasty
Despite Gibson’s easygoing nature, he had a drive and passion to see his sides at the top every season. In 1981 he had a tough nucleus centering on Bob O’Reilly, Ron Hilditch, Ray Price, Edge and Mick Cronin.
Hilditch was captain in 1980 but Gibson promoted Edge to the captaincy in 1981, a move that was questioned by the Sydney media at the time, but not by the players.
“I was very honoured, at the end of 1980 to be made captain of Parramatta. That was a huge honour when you consider the personnel in the team. But that happened and it was a great success.
“Certainly, the players accepted me immediately. I remember the night I was over at Parramatta, Pricey was leaving the club as I was entering and he said “You beauty” with a big smile on his face. I was very much accepted by the players initially.”
The Eels had won the mid-week Tooth Cup tournament in 1980, but it was a mere appetiser for what was to come with the club sweeping to three consecutive premierships. A feat that has not been accomplished since.
“It was a good starter (Tooth Cup) and we just went from there. Bang, bang, bang. It was fantastic. In those days Parramatta was looked upon as a very working-class type area and I remember John Brown saying it was fantastic that they now had the best rugby league team in the world and it was great to be part of it.
“To be the captain of the first Parramatta Premiership was awesome. Absolutely wonderful. It was just an honour to be made captain with some of the guys in the team like Pricey and Cronin and those guys. Pricey and Cronin got to captain one Premiership as well (In 1986).”
Edge says the competitiveness of the team and sheer refusal to give in were the driving forces behind their dominance from 1981-1983.
“It’s competitiveness. There’s no way in the world that you go out there. You can’t go out there without wanting to win. That’s just inbuilt. I think the more you’re winning, the more you want to win. That wasn’t an issue. It really wasn’t. Everyone just wanted to win. It was just an in-built thing in you. You’ve got to put in the hard work. If you don’t, then you don’t win.
“Young kids like Ella, Kenny and that, who absolutely thrived under coach Gibson. Sterling, he just got better and better. We were lucky to have the older heads there too that the guys looked up to in the Bear (Bob O’Reilly) and Pricey and Ron Hilditch.”
“Ronny’s a classic, he’s probably one of the greatest players I ever played with. I don’t think he gets the recognition that he deserves. I’ve lobbed, taken his position, he’s moved to prop and then I’ve been made captain. You could understand a guy being a bit down on you for it but he was the exact opposite. Great mates. Always have been, always will be.”
1984 marked the end of Edge’s career and unfortunately for him, it ended in grand final defeat at the hands of the Canterbury Bulldogs.
“I wasn’t ready to finish in ‘83 but I was ready to finish at the end of ‘84. I knew I was right for one year. I was enjoying it. Certainly not something that you would want to give up but by the end of ‘84, I’d made my decision very early that year, that it would be my last year so it wasn’t an issue and it was time.
“I got out at the right time. I was still playing well, I could’ve gone for another year but it was just time. I’d had 14 years. So it was family time.”
By the time he had retired, Edge had played 11 grand finals in all grades, ran out for 221 first grade games, won five premierships captaining four of them and remains the only player to captain two different clubs to premiership victories.
The 2020 Eels
In a form of eerie similarity, 2020 marks 34 years since Parramatta’s last premiership – the same length of time between their establishment and first premiership. They’ve played in two grand finals (2001 and 2009) and won two minor premierships.
Generations of players have come and gone. False dawns have been witnessed and hearts broken in the cruellest of ways.
Running his eye across the 2020 squad, Edge says there are some similarities in the attitudes and resolve of this team compared to the sides he captained to glory.
“I think Brad Arthur’s done a great job with them. They certainly have a full plan but I get back to Jack Gibson and Jack used to say, “We’d have a plan but if you really think something is on then have a go at it and we’ll talk about it later.” Players need that. They need to have a little bit of their own leverage if something is seriously on.
“I think Gutherson is very good at that. He’s the fullback but he’s pretty much in everything whether it be attack or defence and I think Moses, his game has improved enormously. (Dylan) Brown has been terrific.”
He also saves special praise for the Eels’ current hooker, Reed Mahoney, who has become one of the competition’s best number nines and has his name being considered for Origin honours, although it would come in Queensland’s Maroon and not the Blue that Edge wore in 1980.
“They’ve got one of the best hookers, I think, playing at the moment. He works very hard at dummy-half and he does things I could never do. He can actually kick. I don’t remember kicking a ball in my entire life.”