Origin Legacies: Parramatta Eels
After 35 years of some of the most incredible theatre in world sports, it’s surreal to look back and remember that when the concept was first announced back in 1980 few gave it any chance of succeeding. Among the many misgivings held by critics at the time that players would be reluctant to line up against teammates from club level; they wouldn’t run as hard, wouldn’t tackle with the same intent, their hearts wouldn’t be in it. ‘Mate Against Mate’ is an Origin mantra, and it was Eel who set the tone for the decades to come.
Having previously spent over a decade representing New South Wales under the previous interstate format, the late, great Arthur Beetson took to the Origin concept like a duck to water, and nobody felt the full brunt of his ferocity more than his Eels teammates. His punch to the chops of Mick Cronin was all the proof fans needed to confirm that the game was no joke, while big Artie always insisted Blues hooker and fellow Eel Steve Edge copped it much worse in the scrums.
As the Origin concept grew in the 1980s so too did Parramatta’s standing in the game, and it’s no coincidence that the Eels’ new crop of stars were at the forefront of the Blues’ emergence as a force to be reckoned with. In five-eighth Brett Kenny, the Blues finally found a player who could go toe-to-toe with Maroons icon Wally Lewis, and it was Kenny who scored the try that sealed their first series victory in Game Two of the ’85 showdown. That followed the Man of the Match efforts of lock forward Peter Wynn in Game One, while the electrifying Steve Ella came off the bench to score the Blues’ only try in the dead rubber finale at Lang Park.
The following year, Kenny was joined in the Blues side by halves partner Peter Sterling, with both men claiming a Man of the Match award en route to leading New South Wales to their first ever series clean sweep. However, 1986 marked the end of both the Blues’ dominance as well as Parramatta’s golden era, with the fortunes of both sharply declining in the following years. The Eels did contribute to the successful Queensland cause of that period, though, with tough forward Bob Lindner emerging as a key player in a new-look Maroons side.
Following Lindner’s departure after the 1988 season, the club’s dire on-field fortunes were reflected in the Origin arena, with the Eels going an incredible seven years without producing a single Origin player. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Eels finally contributed to the series again, with Queenslander Jason Smith and Blues pair Dean Pay and Jim Dymock all featuring after joining the club from Canterbury as a result of the Super League war. The following year’s split proved the catalyst for an Eels revival, as they not only made the finals for the first time in over a decade but saw a further three players handed Origin debuts.
As the Eels developed into a competition powerhouse at the turn of the century, the club proved a consistent breeding ground for Origin talent, with Eels juniors Michael Vella, Nathan Hindmarsh, Andrew Ryan and Jamie Lyon all featuring regularly for the powerful New South Wales sides of the early 2000s. However, it was a Queenslander who became a part of one of Origin’s greatest stories, with five-eighth Daniel Wagon the unlikely halves partner for returning legend Allan Langer in the decisive Game Three victory of the 2001 series.
Since Queensland embarked upon their golden era in 2006, the Eels have been noticeably short on Origin glory, with the club struggling to compete in the NRL competition for much of that time. However, the incomparable Jarryd Hayne was always one of New South Wales’s best during that frustrating eight-year run, at times proving to be the one player to truly threaten the Queensland juggernaut. When the Blues finally broke through in 2014, Hayne was at the forefront, scoring what proved to be the decisive try in a Man of the Match effort in Game One and following up with a stellar defensive and counter-attacking effort in a gripping Game Two victory.
With Hayne now departed for a shot at the NFL and the Eels again struggling in 2015, it sadly looks as though the club will have little bearing on this year’s series. While outside back Will Hopoate and new recruit Anthony Watmough featured for the Blues in 2014, both have been well off the pace this year and are at long odds to win selection. However, while we may not see much from the club in the near future, history suggests they will bounce back eventually and give us another Origin legend to join the likes of Beetson, Kenny, Hindmarsh and Hayne.
Nick Fray, Origin Online