Saturday 19 August 2017 / 12:26 AM

THE RIVALRY: PANTHERS v EELS

Excerpt taken from Will Evans’ 2015 book, Rugby League Rivalries

A rivalry primarily built on geography, Penrith assumed Parramatta’s title of being Sydney’s western-most team when the Panthers entered the premiership in 1967, ending a troubled relationship from Penrith’s time as part of Parramatta’s rugby league district. The Eels have largely dominated this tempestuous derby, including resounding victories in two key finals match-ups.

 

Overall record (1967-2016): Played 93 – Parramatta won 55, Penrith won 37, draws 1; Parramatta scored 1,842 points, Penrith scored 1,486 points.

Biggest wins: Parramatta – 64-6 at Parramatta Stadium, 2002; Penrith – 39-6 at Parramatta Stadium, 2012.

Longest winning streaks: Parramatta – 10 matches (1975-79); Penrith – 4 matches (1969-71).

Finals: Played 2 – Parramatta won 2.

Most appearances (1980-2016): Nathan Hindmarsh (Parramatta) – 25; Luke Burt (Parramatta) – 19; Steve Carter (Penrith) – 19; Brett Kenny (Parramatta) – 18; Royce Simmons (Penrith) – 18.

Most tries: Rhys Wesser (Penrith) – 12; Michael Cronin (Parramatta) – 11; Brett Kenny (Parramatta) 10; Luke Burt (Parramatta) – 9; Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 9; David Simmons (Penrith) – 9.

Most points: Michael Cronin (Parramatta) – 181; Luke Burt (Parramatta) – 146; Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 101; Clinton Schifcofske (Parramatta) – 56; Preston Campbell (Penrith) – 54; Greg Alexander (Penrith) – 50; Michael Gordon (Penrith and Parramatta) – 50.

 

Penrith, 30 kilometres west of Parramatta, fielded teams in the Parramatta district rugby league competitions prior to the Panthers’ admission to the NSWRL premiership. But these clubs often felt neglected by the Parramatta district’s governing body. Ironically, it was the Penrith committee’s argument in 1966 that admitting a club from their area would have less impact on the Parramatta junior competition than accepting overwhelming favourite Wentworthville that ultimately got Penrith over the line. Nevertheless, the history between Penrith and Parramatta dictated that a feisty local derby had been born.

 

1967-74 – New derby evenly split between western also-rans

Three former Parramatta players – centre Ern Gillon and forwards Bill McCall and Ron Workman – featured in Penrith’s inaugural first grade line-up; Gillon went on to win the Panthers’ Player of the Year award in 1967. The Eels scored a crushing 25-2 victory in the first ‘Battle of the West’ midway through ’67, while the Panthers’ maiden victory over their neighbouring rivals was a 14-12 success the following season.

Besides Parramatta’s finals appearance in 1970, both clubs were among the competition’s lesser lights during the late-1960s and early-1970s, and shared the first 16 derbies eight wins apiece. Eels great and former Test lock Ron Lynch joining the Panthers in 1972 (among five ex-Parramatta players to head further west that year) and captained the club for two seasons. Ball-playing prop Bob ‘The Bear’ O’Reilly – a Parramatta junior and veteran of 16 Tests – was a high-profile signing for Penrith in 1976. O’Reilly’s two-season stay was a rank disappointment, however, and he eventually returned to Parramatta via Easts, while the Eels emerged as a title contender in the mid-1970s and dominated the Panthers for more than a decade.

 

1975-87 – Eels leave neighbours in their wake

Parramatta went undefeated in 18 straight games against Penrith from 1975-83 as the long-suffering club reached the Grand Final five times and won its first three premierships. A whopping six Eels – including former Test forward Lew Platz and outstanding utility back Mark Levy – joined the Panthers in 1981. Steve Ella scored a hat-trick in a nine-try, 46-8 drubbing early in 1983 as the Panthers remained the competition’s whipping boys. But the ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ turned the corner to competitiveness in 1984 and snapped a 10-year drought against the heavyweight Eels – who were missing five players on Origin duty – 22-10 at Belmore Oval. Agonisingly, an identical scoreline against them in a final-round clash with Parramatta robbed them of a maiden finals berth.

The derby heated up further in 1985. Two regular season encounters produced close scorelines and one win each, while the Panthers’ fifth-place playoff defeat of Manly pitched them into a watershed finals appearance … against the Eels.

 

Minor Preliminary Semi-Final, 1985 – Panthers punished on finals debut

Plucky Penrith’s historic introduction to finals football in the club’s 19th season ended in devastating defeat, with experienced local rivals Parramatta whipping the weary Panthers 38-6. The Eels had raced to a 22-0 lead by halftime and added three more tries in the second stanza before Brad Izzard’s sole consolation effort for the Panthers, who had just four days to recover from their epic extra-time playoff victory over Manly. Brett Kenny was at his spellbinding best, figuring heavily in multiple long-range team tries in the first half and finishing off a stunning second half movement that began with a trademark intercept by the pivot. 

 

The Panthers notched a remarkable victory over the Eels early in 1986. Despite having prop Paul Akkary sent off after just eight minutes, the underdogs outlasted the eventual premiers 16-12 in a gutsy display. Although the Eels dipped out of finals contention in 1987, they racked up two handsome wins over the Panthers.

 

1987-96 – Panthers get some traction but Eels punch above their weight

Parramatta endured a decade-long decline after its 1986 premiership, while Penrith emerged as title contenders in the late-1980s. But the western derby remained an evenly-fought affair. The Panthers won both matches in 1988, but despite their unprecedented top-three finish in ’89, they lost twice to the also-ran Eels. The Phil Gould-coached side had the better of it again as they reached the 1990-91 Grand Finals, but the Eels trounced the defending champs 20-0 in ’92, while a field goal by interchange half Tulsen Tollett – in his first game after joining the club from Penrith – snatched an 11-10 win in the opening round of ’93.

Several other players switched between the clubs: highly-regarded forwards Matt Goodwin and Paul Dunn, and Kiwi Test halfback Gary Freeman were lured to Parramatta from Penrith’s ranks; and former Wallaby fullback Andrew Leeds and brilliant but injury-prone centre David Woods left the Eels for the Panthers. Meanwhile, the Eels emerged from their finals-less decade (1987-96) with an 8-9 record against the Panthers.

 

1998-2002 – Heavyweight Eels rule the west

After a year on opposite sides of the Super League-ARL fence, Parramatta took charge of the derby, winning eight of the first 10 matches against Penrith under the NRL banner. In a late-season 1999 encounter, the sin-binning of Penrith forwards John Cross and Matt Adamson inside the final quarter for dissent saw Parramatta turn a six-point deficit into a 17-16 win, effectively extinguishing the Panthers’ finals bid. The clubs collided again during the 2000 post-season, but the result was all too familiar for the Panthers.

 

Semi-Final, 2000 – Patched-up Panthers overrun by young Eels

Penrith headed into its sudden-death semi without key forward trio Matt Geyer, Matt Adamson and Tony Puletua, while the loss of wily five-eighth and captain Steve Carter early on proved too big of a hurdle to overcome as the Panthers’ early 10-2 lead descended into a convincing 28-10 defeat to in-form Parramatta. The seventh-placed Eels built on their stunning upset of Sydney Roosters a week earlier, posting four unanswered tries as emerging guns Nathan Hindmarsh, Dennis Moran and PJ Marsh starred alongside experienced campaigner Jim Dymock to snare a preliminary final berth.

 

Runaway minor premiers Parramatta feasted on wooden spooners Penrith in 2001, winning 40-4 in the season opener and 54-28 mid-season; Eels lock Daniel Wagon scored three tries and Jason Taylor bagged 20 points in the latter thrashing. But that was a mere taster for the annihilation the Panthers would be subjected to in Round 1 of the following season. The Eels ran in 11 tries – three of them to centre David Vaealiki, while Luke Burt scored a club record 28 points (two tries, 10 goals) – in giving the Panthers a 64-6 bath at Parramatta Stadium. It was Penrith’s second-biggest loss and Parramatta’s second-biggest win at the time.

 

2003-14 – Derby rivalry ebbs and flows

Penrith regrouped and won five of the next seven derbies. A Rhys Wesser hat-trick and a 40-22 victory in the final round of 2003 secured the minor premiership for the Panthers, before they rolled on to win the Grand Final. The Panthers have 10 of 18 matches against the Eels in the last 10 seasons, neither side able to build lengthy dominance. Michael Jennings scored three tries and set up the match-winner for debutant Junior Tia-Kilifi in Penrith’s 38-34 win in a 2009 thriller that saw six lead changes. But the Jarryd Hayne-inspired Eels juggernaut pummelled the Panthers 48-6 later that season; Luke Burt’s scoring spree at Penrith’s expense continued with a 24-point haul.

As rivalries and derbies received more attention from the increasingly promotion-savvy NRL, the ‘Battle of the West’ began to ramp up in intensity. “I don’t hate the Parramatta players, just the team they represent,” Penrith’s gun centre Jennings said before a trial match in 2011. “If you come through the Penrith juniors, you’re brought up to hate Parra.”

Later that year, the clubs engaged in arguably the greatest and most dramatic of all western Sydney derbies.

 

Round 19, 2011 – Panthers ruin Hindy’s party in controversial finish

Parramatta led Penrith 22-16 in the dying stages of captain Nathan Hindmarsh’s 300th match, when Jarryd Hayne attempted to put in a clearing last tackle kick for the Eels. The ball rebounded off a Panthers player and was cleaned up by Luke Burt, who took the tackle 10 metres out from his own line with 10 seconds remaining. But the referee ruled the ball had not been charged down and ordered a turnover, controversially calling time off. The Panthers played the ball with two seconds on the clock, desperately flinging the ball from one sideline to the other and back again before the ball landed in Michael Jennings’ hands. The quicksilver centre evaded several Eels defenders, then put in a grubber kick which was pounced on by Penrith fullback Lachlan Coote – 20 seconds after the siren had sounded. Travis Burns’ conversion locked up the scores and halfback Luke Walsh’s field goal with four minutes of golden point left secured an extraordinary 23-22 win for the Panthers.

 

The Eels gained some revenge with golden point success of their own in 2012, halfback recruit Chris Sandow piloting over the match-winner in extra-time to snatch a 19-18 result. The following season, boom fullback Matt Moylan produced on the finest NRL debuts in years in Penrith’s 44-12 win. The progressively bitter rivals enjoyed a big win each over the other during much-improved campaigns respectively in 2014, while the Eels notched two derby wins in 2015 for the first time in a decade.

The teams produced an absolute cliff-hanger in Round 5 of the 2016 premiership – which saw former Penrith stars Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon in blue-and-gold jumpers against the Panthers for the first time – with a Bryce Cartwright try on the buzzer snatching a 20-18 result for the underdog Panthers.

 

Individual rivalries

Peter Sterling v Greg Alexander: Greg Alexander was the brilliant halfback prodigy in the mid-1980s, while Peter Sterling was the established champion – and Eels maestro Sterling won all five matches the linchpins directly opposed each other in the No.7 jumper. Between them, ‘Sterlo’ and ‘Brandy’ won seven of nine Dally M Halfback of the Year gongs from 1983-91, while they toured together with the 1986 Kangaroos, Sterling as the first-choice Test halfback and Alexander as the versatile ‘dirt-tracker’.

 

Prominent players for both clubs

Ron Lynch: ‘Thirsty’ played 194 games in 11 seasons at Parramatta (1961-71) and represented Australia in 12 Tests. The rugged lock joined Penrith for the final two years of his career, captaining the battling club in 44 straight matches.

Bob O’Reilly: A burly, tough and creative prop for Parramatta from 1967-75, 16-Test veteran O’Reilly’s career stagnated during a two-season stint at Penrith. After regrouping at Easts, ‘The Bear’ returned to the Eels and featured in their maiden Grand Final win in 1981, finishing with 216 appearances in blue and gold.

Mark Levy: Versatile Parramatta junior Levy, best suited to fullback, debuted with Balmain but played 87 games for the Eels (1976-80). He linked with Penrith and was one of the rising club’s best, playing 99 games from 1981-85. Levy was later an assistant to Eels chief executive Denis Fitzgerald before taking over as the Panthers’ chief executive.

Neville Glover: Lamentably, Glover is chiefly remembered for dropping the ball with the try-line wide open in Parramatta’s narrow 1976 Grand Final loss to Manly, but the winger represented Australia two years later and scored 54 tries in 121 games for the Eels. He joined Penrith in the twilight of his career, but his one-season stay in 1983 was disappointing.

Paul Dunn: A Grand Final winner at Canterbury and Penrith – both under Phil Gould – former Test forward Dunn spent two seasons with the Panthers before joining the Eels in 1993, captaining the blue-and-golds in 49 of his 60 games for the club.

Gary Freeman: Long-serving New Zealand captain Freeman built his reputation as a dual Grand Final halfback at Balmain and won a Dally M Medal at Easts, but gave excellent service to Penrith in a two-season stay, playing every game in 1994-95 and playing the last of his 45 Tests. The fiery, combative No.7 produced a strong swansong season for emerging Parramatta in 1996, skippering the club in 11 games.

 

Coached both clubs

John Peard: After carving out an outstanding playing career at Easts, St George and Parramatta, former Test five-eighth ‘Bomber’ Peard endured an unsuccessful foray into coaching with both the Eels and Panthers. Parramatta missed the finals for the only time in a 12-season period in his sole season in charge (1980), while Penrith won just 16 games in two seasons under his direction (1982-83). Peard’s brief stint as NSW coach garnered the Blues’ first-ever 3-0 series loss in 1988.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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