Fantasy Match: Eastern Suburbs Roosters (1975) vs. Parramatta Eels (1982)
Anything pre-1995 is when Rugby League was really Rugby League.
When it was at its most visceral, raw and primal. Players were still people; they played for the love of the game. They weren’t athletes, they were superheroes.
The shirts were baggy, the shorts were long and the ball was heavier than a small child. But the tackles were brutal, the feuds were strong, and strength and conditioning was going to the gym after work.
Which is why today’s Fantasy Match Request has really piqued my interest.
Here we have two teams led to victory by arguably the greatest coach in Rugby League history, Jack Gibson.
Gibson produced amazing feats with each club. In 1974, he guided Eastern Suburbs to a drought-breaking premiership. In 1975, The Roosters went back-to-back, with a season considered one of the most dominant in Rugby League history. At Parramatta, Gibson went one better, steering the Eels to an incredible three consecutive premierships between 1981 and 1983 – the last side to achieve such sustained dominance in Australian Rugby League.
Gibson was known for his laconic wit and it seems fitting to mention that he coined one of my favourite quotes ever:
There is nothing in the contract that says a football coach has to be sane or a good loser
Which is true of every good coach I’ve come across in my lifetime.
The Home Team: Eastern Suburbs Roosters 1975
As I mentioned earlier, this side is often regarded as one of Rugby League’s most dominant teams. They managed to win 20 of their 22 regular season games, with a 19-game winning streak to boot. They amassed over 430 points, whilst conceding fewer than 200 for the season.
And if there was any doubt about who was the best team in 1975, it was emphatically put to bed in the Grand Final when the Roosters orchestrated a 38-0 whitewash of the St George Dragons.
Back in a time where players were working normal jobs alongside training and matches, this was an incredible feat. And this was their second season at the pinnacle of Premiership success.
Arguably the mould for which we now look for forwards from, the late Arthur Beetson was a true Rugby League Legend. He only scored 17 tries in his tenure at Easts, but he brought more to the team than statistics: physicality, leadership, ball skills and a quick turn of pace. Beetson revolutionised forward play with his sublime ability to offload in the tackle. His peerless skills eventually saw him crowned as one of Rugby League’s Immortals.
He could do it all on the football field and he could sell tickets. He was an entertainer and a great player.
– Jack Gibson on Arthur Beetson
A former South Sydney hero, Ron Coote joined the Roosters in 1972 and, alongside Beetson, led one of the most dynamic forward packs of all time. The rangy forward was best known for his dynamic running game and his copybook defensive technique. Aside from his exceptional playing ability, Coote brought invaluable big-match experience to the Roosters squad, having played an astonishing nine Grand Finals in 11 years. In 2008, Coote was named in Australian Rugby League’s Team of the Century.
Johnny Mayes had a rollercoaster career, experiencing the highs of playing for Australia and the lows of being relegated to reserve grade on more than one occasion. 1975, however, was his finest hour. After winning the 1973 premiership with Manly and the 1974 title with the Roosters, Mayes dominated the 1975 season, finishing as the competition’s leading try scorer. The diminutive number 7 was a constant threat, particularly inside the opposition’s 20-metre zone. Mayes’ record of playing for three consecutive Premiership winning teams at different clubs has not repeated since (although Glenn Lazarus did manage 5 consecutive grand finals at Canberra and Brisbane in the early 1990’s).
Schubert made his debut in the 1975 season at just 19 years of age. He started the year on the flank, but was quickly shifted into the #1 jersey when star fullback Russell Fairfax broke his leg. Schubert went on to produce one of the most memorable debut seasons ever, notching 14 tries and laying on countless others. He was named man of the match in the Grand Final annihilation of St George, a performance that led to his selection in the Australian team for the 1975 World Cup.
You can find the full squad and a summary of results here.
The Away Team: Parramatta Eels 1982
This was The Eels second in a trinity of premiership titles and arguably their most dominant season. They finished as comfortable minor premiers, 8 points ahead of their nearest rivals. Like the Roosters of ’75, the Eels defence was virtually impenetrable, conceding, on average, a miserly nine points per game. Their attack was where they really shone though, scoring almost 24 points per match (in the era of 3 point tries).
The post-season wasn’t all fun and games for the Eels, losing 20-0 to Many-Warringah at home in the major semi final.
However, as all champion teams do, the Eels bounced back furiously. They dominated their next fixtures, comfortably accounting for the Roosters (33-0) in the preliminary final and giving Manly their comeuppance (21-8) when the two met in the Grand Final showdown.
Parramatta’s halfback and general, Sterling’s ability was such that, 30 years later, many fans claim the club is still searching for his replacement! The Eels number 7 was known for sublime passing, great hands and astute kicking game. A crafty playmaker and master tactician, Sterling provided the critical link between the Eels’ rugged forward pack and their slick backline.
Arguably the Eels’ most influential player, Kenny was a supremely talented pivot, widely considered among the greatest five-eighths of all-time. Blessed with blinding acceleration, a deadly swerve and brilliant hands, he was the man Parramatta looked to when the game was on the line. In 1982, Kenny’s form was so impressive that he relegated Rugby League Immortal Wally Lewis to the bench on the end-of-season Kangaroo tour. The dynamic five-eighth scored two tries in each of the Eels’ three consecutive grand final wins.
Eric Grothe Sr.
In an era where wingers were typically lanky and built for speed, Grothe’s size and power was one of Parramatta’s greatest weapons. ‘Guru’ became the prototype for future outside backs; a precursor to the likes of Mal Meninga and Rugby Union’s Jonah Lomu. Best known for his destructive running game, Grothe now ranks among rugby league’s greatest ever wingers. The brilliant flanker scored 16 tries in 1982 and was a constant threat to opposition sides.
A tireless lock forward, Price was a pivotal member of Parramatta’s vaunted pack. ‘Mr Perpetual Motion’ was famous for his phenomenal work-rate, courage and toughness. Fans from the era will fondly recall Price streaking down the field after each Sterling kick, applying pressure to the opposition at every opportunity. Price’s incredible work ethic would define the lock-forward role for the next two decades, inspiring the likes of Wayne Pearce and Bradley Clyde. In 1982, Price was awarded the coveted Dally M Medal.
You can find the full squad and a summary of results here.
The reason Parramatta was successful is because we combined together as a unit. That is how that side played. [We] played as one.
– Ray Price
Here we have two sides coached by one of the all-time greats. Both teams dominant to the end, completing a clean sweep of everything there was to be won.
The Eastern Suburbs team sits in history as one of the all time greats. The club where the Supercoach made his name. They delivered a season of sheer dominance, which is still talked about by older fans to this day.
The Parramatta team sits as the jewel in the crown of their coach. They could put points on the board, keep teams to less than 10 points on a regular basis and played with unison that seemed almost symbiotic.
Which, makes for an easy decision, eh?
Both teams racked up incredible numbers offensively, whilst conceding remarkably few points defensively.
They both set league records that are still in tact to this day: Easts’ 19-game winning streak and Parramatta’s 23 wins in a season.
Both teams were brilliantly balanced – there was little reliance on individual players, a common trait of any team Gibson touched.
The Roosters back row duo of Beetson and Coote both went on to be named in the Team of the Century. The Eels halves combination of Sterling and Kenny is arguably the best there’s ever been.
The match ups are salivating: Grothe marking Bill Mullins. Coote and Price colliding through the middle. Mark Harris and John Brass opposite Steve Ella and Mick Cronin. Hookers Steve Edge and Elwyn Walters going toe-to-toe.
So, what then, will be the result between these two teams?
I think the winner has to be:
Parramatta Eels, 1982
The Parramatta Eels of 1982 were a truly remarkable side. The squad boasted an astonishing 5 players who would later be named amongst Australian Rugby League’s 100 Greatest Players.
The Eels’ forward pack, while not as dominant as Easts’, was tough enough to hold their own. However, it was the Parramatta backline – one of the greatest of all time – that sets the teams apart. Players with the talent of Sterling, Kenny, Cronin, Ella and Grothe usually only come together in representative matches, but the Eels managed to cram them all into one incredible side.
They also managed to maintain their dominance for much longer than Eastern Suburbs. The Eels played in five grand finals from 1981-1986, winning four titles. They learned and grew together as a team.
In many ways, Eastern Suburbs were equally brilliant. They dominated the 1975 competition; they even won the grand final without two of their major strike weapons in Russell Fairfax and Mark Harris. Yet, they didn’t quite have the same attacking firepower as the Eels. Easts fell away after their second year at the top, mustering fourth place on the ladder and losing their only post-season game. Despite being one of the most dominant teams to ever grace the pitch, they just couldn’t hang on.
If this were to be a real game, there would only be one try in it. But, Parramatta’s creativity and longevity seals the victory for me.
What do you think? Have I made the right call? And who would you like to see matched up next week?