NRL news, as it happens.
As for previous articles in this series, I will attempt to put together a quality team for each NRL club made up solely of players since 1980 who never went beyond club level. The criteria for selection is:
– No representing at senior level: internationals, State of Origin, Prime Ministers XIII, City vs. Country or All Stars.
– Current players are excluded.
– Players are only eligible for the club they played the most first grade games for.
– For players who straddle the 1970’s and 1980’s, 30 games after since 1980 is generally the cut-off to qualify.
No less than eight players in this side have grand final experience, reflecting the club’s 1980s pomp.
There is some real quality here and few players that I was surprised to find were eligible. Not least the fullback:
Paul Taylor (157 matches) – 1981-1989. 116 wins 102 losses. 30 tries 6 FG. 15 finals 11 wins.
Paul Taylor is a Parramatta legend and life member of the club. Small in stature, but massive in importance to the 1980s Eels dynasty, Taylor was the glue that held that brilliant team together.
Taylor could and did play anywhere but fullback was his main position. He appeared in all five of the club’s 1980’s grand finals, winning four.
To show his versatility, at one point he held club records for both most tackles in a match (52) and most tries in a match (4).
Taylor stayed on with the Eels until 1989 when he was still doing whatever the club needed, playing hooker, halfback, fullback, second row and from the bench that year.
After leaving the club, Taylor played a season for Oldham in England and a few games for Penrith in 1990 before retiring. He now works at Uluru as a maintenance person.
Graeme Atkins (151) – 1975-1987. 102 wins 46 losses. 43 tries 22 goals. 18 finals 10 wins.
The 1981 grand final winger is the second life member of the club in this team. Receiving the honour in 2000. He played even more finals for the club than Paul Taylor, appearing two losing grand finals in the 1970s (well technically three if you include the replay in 1977) before receiving his premiership medal in 1981, where he scored a try in the grand final.
After appearing from the bench in the 1982 preliminary final, he did not get a run on grand final day. The same fate also befell Atkins in 1986, despite being the club’s top points scorer that year.
After a short time with Easts in 1983-1984 (making the final of the midweek AMCO Cup), Atkins continued to play for the Eels, although not always in first grade, right through to 1987. His son Grant Atkins is an NRL referee.
Atkins first ever appearance for the club was as a late call up for the 1975 play off for fifth position against Wests. It was his only first grade game for the year. He was the club’s Rookie of the Year in 1976.
Describing the scenes in Parramatta after their 1981 grand final win “The police couldn’t control the crowds, so they just joined them.”
David Liddiard (69) – 1983-1989. 41 wins 28 losses. 19 tries. 7 finals 4 wins.
David Liddiard was the Dally M Rookie of the Year in 1983 and finished the season as a premiership winner from the wing. He backed this up with a grand final appearance from the bench in 1994 and a preliminary final in 1985.
Liddiard left the club for Penrith in 1986 but returned in 1988 for two more seasons before finishing his 10 year NSWRL career with 3 seasons at Manly, appearing in their 1990 finals campaign.
Like a number of Australian footballers of the era, Liddiard spent off seasons in the English competition, turning out for Oldham and Hull FC. After retiring form the NSWRL he returned to England for 2 seasons with Hull Kingston Rovers.
Post retirement, Liddiard has been a passionate advocate for indigenous sports and received an Order of Australia Medal in 2014 for this work.
Ben Smith (152) – 2004-2014. 75 wins 76 losses. 37 tries. 8 finals 5 wins.
With Steve Ella and Michael Cronin domination the 1980s, we have to head to more recent times for our centres in this side.
Ben Smith played over 150 games as a one-club man for Parramatta, highlighted by winning the minor premiership in 2005 and his appearance in the 2009 grand final. He also won the Rugby League Players’ Association Rookie of the Year in 2005.
From Nathan Cayless: “He suffered some horrific knee injuries, and to be able to last as long as he had it just comes down to hard work and commitment. A lot of times he couldn’t train during the week and he had to do swimming or do the bike instead, but whenever he came onto the field he’d never let you down.”
“He had a great laugh … and the squint. Who could ever forget the squint! Squintsy as we called him, or Prince of Squince.”
Ryan Morgan (84) – 2011-2016. 31 wins 60 losses. 31 tries.
Ryan Morgan played 6 seasons for the Eels, coming through in a tough time for the club as they finished around the wrong end of the table in his first three seasons.
After leaving the Eels, Morgan played a season for Melbourne in 2016 (but did not make their grand final team) before heading to England, appearing for St Helens and the London Broncos.
In retirement Morgan is involved in his family cold storage company, has an online health coaching business and has a podcast.
Jason Bell (106) – 1989-1999. 53 wins 51 losses. 23 tries 1 FG. 4 finals 2 wins.
Jason Bell played seven seasons for Parramatta in their post-golden years. He debuted in 1989 and played over 50 games in three seasons before moving on to North Sydney and then Souths.
After a decent three seasons with the Rabbitohs, Bell returned to Parramatta in 1997 and played another 50 games for the club, including the 1997 and 1998 finals series. In 1999 he captained the club’s NSW Cup side to a premiership.
Bell finished off with a season at Newtown in 2000, where he got a call up to the Auckland Warriors as an injury replacement.
In retirement Bell has coached the Cudgen Hornets in NSW Northern Rivers competition.
David Penna (78) – 1990-2000. 45 wins 32 losses. 13 tries 3 FG. 5 finals 3 wins.
David Penna played over 130 first grade games across 11 seasons in the 1990’s. He first played for Parramatta in 1990 as a 17 year old and appeared semi-regularly over the next four seasons, playing 22 matches. Penna’s career advanced once he left a joined South Sydney where he became a regular first grader, playing 56 matches in the myrtle and green over four seasons, including in their mid-week cup title win over Brisbane.
Penna returned to Parramatta in 1998 and enjoyed his most successful seasons at the club, reaching preliminary finals in 1998 and 1999 and playing over 20 matches each season. His career was unfortunately cut short after breaking his neck not once but twice during the 2000 season.
Penna moved into coaching after his playing days were over and in a long career has been an assistant coach at Canterbury, Souths and Manly.
Chris King (96) – 1991-1997. 26 wins 68 losses. 9 tries.
Brother of fellow NRL players Matt King and Andrew King, Chris was a one-club player with the Eels for 7 seasons in the 1990’s playing nearly 100 first grade games. King was a player with a high defensive workrate who regularly topped the tackle count, which was necessary during a pretty ordinary period for the club.
King was made a life member of the club in 1997.
A Casino Cougars junior, after leaving rugby league, Chris ran a pub at Lennox Head back on NSW’s north coast.
Cameron Blair (79) – 1992-1995. 23 wins 54 losses. 7 tries.
Journeyman Cameron Blair makes this side courtesy of 6 more games for the Eels than for Wests.
Blair played first grade for a decade in the 1980s and 1990’s across five different clubs. Blair got a taste of first grade with Penrith in 1986 in a drawn match against Manly.
He had to wait until 1988 for his next opportunity, with Wests and grabbed it with both hands, being named the NSWRL’s Rookie of the Year and then captaining the club for part of 1989.
Blair put in four seasons with the Magpies before joining the Eels in 1992. After four seasons with Parramatta Blair joined Super League and played a season each with the Western Reds and Adelaide Rams before hanging up the boots after a total of 183 first grade games.
In 1989 Blair received a commendation from the NSWRL after going to the aid of Parramatta’s Tony Cosatto after he swallowed his tongue on the field.
While at Adelaide early in 1997 an injured Blair was used to explain the rules to a rather confused crowd at the Adelaide Oval.
Steve Sharp (164) – 1979-1990. 109 wins 53 losses. 7 tries. 17 finals 13 wins.
Steve Sharp was a stalwart forward for Parramatta from the late 1970s, right through their gold period, up until 1990.
He was made a life member of the club in 1988. His career included appearances in the club’s three consecutive grand final wins between 1981 and 1983, plus their loss to Canterbury in 1984. All up Sharp played in 17 finals for the club across 6 consecutive seasons. He also had the honour of being the first try scorer at the new Parramatta stadium in 1986.
Sharp had a tenure as Chairmen of the Eels between 2013 and 2016 that was turbulent to say the least, being one of five club officials deregistered after the club was found to be making secret payments to players to breach the salary cap.
Paul Mares (73) – 1982-1987. 50 wins 23 losses. 3 tries. 8 finals 5 wins.
Paul Mares is another grand final winner in this team for Parramatta. I’m also going to go out on a limb and say he will be the only front rower on any team to have put up a bomb for a try in a rugby league grand final, which happened just after half time in the 1983 decider for Brett Kenny to score.
Mares came into the Parramtta side for the third of their premierships in the early 1980’s as a very talented 19 year old prop.
He also played in the 1984 grand final after enjoying his best season, before spending his last few years plagued by knee injuries. Mares finally finished after a handful of games for Easts in 1989, having missed the entire 1988 season. He was only 26 when he retired.
In retirement Mares found himself in the headlines again in the early 1990’s appearing before a royal Commission into the building industry to explain a long list of cash payments in his records list as ‘graft’. At least he was honest. In the 1980’s he had appeared in court with Eric Grother on charges of helping to set Eric Grothe’s car on fire after it had been reported missing.
Appropriately, in 2016 Mares bought a hotel near Tenterfield called the Lunatic Hotel.
Peter Johnston (69) – 1989-1997. 29 wins 39 losses. 7 tries. 1 final 1 loss.
Peter Johnston had a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in rugby league. Johnston played 9 seasons for Parramatta, Souths and Illawarra during the 1990’s. None of these clubs were a great success during Johnston’s time, but he did manage to play his one and only final in 1997 in his last ever first grade game.
Oddly for a prop forward Johnston scored at least one try in every single one of his nine seasons in the top grade. Maybe it was a speed thing, because he is the nephew of famous sprinter Betty Cuthbert.
From Gary ‘Whizz’ Freeman in the Courier Mail: “Peter Johnston knocked me unconscious three seasons in a row but when I ran around him for a try one year, I let him know all about it.”
Michael Moseley (92) – 1983-1989. 57 wins 34 losses. 6 tries. 5 finals 4 wins.
Michael Moseley was the Eels Hooker in the mid 1980’s and played in the club’s 1986 premiership win. He was made a life member of the club in 1990.
Moseley debut in 1983 off the bench and in 1984 played 10 games as he vied to replace Steve Edge as the club’s first choice hooker. By 1985 Moseley had got there and ended up playing nearly 100 first grade games for the club. He made a try saving tackle in the closing moments of the 1986 grand final to contribute to the Eels’ 4-2 victory.
From the Sydney Morning Herald at an eels 1986 grand final reunion: “I wasn’t Sterlo or Kenny or Cronin,” Moseley said, referring to the Eels’ galaxy of stars. “I’ve never taken it for granted that I played with 11 internationals.”
Scott Mahon (99) – 1988-1996. 39 wins 57 losses. 26 tries 40 goals.
Scott Mahon came into an Eels side in decline a year after representing Australian Schoolboys and after scoring a try on debut, played nine seasons for the club. Mahon topped the club’s point scoring in 1990 and was their top try scorer in 1993. He was made a life member of Parramatta in 1997.
After leaving the Eels, Mahon played for the Cowboys for two seasons. During his time at the Eels he also had a couple of off season stints in England, with Leigh and Salford.
These days Mahon lives on the Gold Coast and had a boating dealership.
Matthew Keating (130) – 2008-2013. 47 wins 81 losses. 9 tries. 4 finals 3 wins.
Matt Keating played 130 games for the Eels, including a grand final appearance in 1999, but is still likely best known for missing 6 weeks through a serious finger injury sustained when wrestling with his pet Bulldog in 2011.
After coming off the bench in 2008, Keating was the first choice hooker for the Eels for the next 5 seasons. Despite a career win rate of just 36%, he rode the Hayne Plane to the grand final in 2009, having played every single game in his first two seasons at the club.
After parting ways with the Eels in the Ricky Stuart purge of 2013, Keating moved to Queensland and played for the Burleigh Bears in the Queensland Cup competition and then took a coaching and development job with that club. Matt’s younger brother Kris Keating also played nearly 100 games in the NRL for Parramatta and Canterbury.
Nathan Barnes (69) – 1996-1999. 42 wins 25 losses. 20 tries 1 goal. 3 finals 1 win.
Nathan Barnes enjoyed a 9 season 123 game career across four NRL clubs in the 1990’s. The centre started with Penrith as one of the youngest players in NSWRL history, debuting in 1992 at just 17 years and 32 days old.
After two seasons with the Panthers, Barnes spent another two at Newcastle, playing 20 games each season and scoring plenty of tries. He then came to the Eels for 4 seasons and 69 first grade games, highlighted by a 25 game year in 1998 and finals matches in 1997 and 1998.
After leaving Parramatta in 2000 Barnes moved to Canberra but only played one first grade game for the club and never played at the top level again. He was just 25. Barnes later played for the Windsor Wolves in the Jim Beam Cup.
Brian Jackson (89) – 1985-1991. 44 wins 43 losses. 34 tries. 1 final 1 win.
Brian Jackson played 7 seasons for Parramatta during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Primarily a centre, Jackson debuted for one game in 1985 off the bench and then was a regular in the team through their 1986 premiership year, filling for the injured Steve Ella and Michael Cronin.
Unfortunately Jackson lost his spot in the top side after the major semi final win over Canterbury.
That would be only final Jackson played as the Eels declined over the next few years. Jackson was in and out of the side initially until enjoying his best season since 1986 in 1990, playing 19 matches and at one point scoring 11 tries in nine games. Jackson also spent a season with Wakefield in Britain in 1989/90.
Jackson moved to Souths in 1992 and played in the first four rounds before losing his place. Post rugby league Jackson has pursued a career in education.