Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Eelation Will Come

Shattered, dejected, empty. These are but a few words that describe how I was feeling on Sunday evening, walking from ANZ Stadium after the Parramatta Eels went down 23-16 to the Melbourne Storm in the 2009 NRL Grand Final. A few weeks ago, Eden wrote an article entitled Don't Gamble With My Emotions! The Plight of the Sports Fan, and I can relate to it on another level after Sunday’s game.

This season has been a great one for the Parramatta club, don’t get me wrong, but stumbling at the final hurdle hurts even more than not making the top eight altogether. They were struggling to stay off the bottom of the ladder mid-way through the season, and a 10-13 loss to the last-placed Cronulla Sharks saw the Eels drop to second-last on the ladder. An inspired win the next round over the Knights in Newcastle was a surprise to many, as the Eels showed glimpses of the season to come. A standout in that game was a young Daniel Mortimer, son of Bulldogs legend Peter Mortimer, who at the age of 20 was playing in only his second NRL game.

The Eels struggled through the next four games with only one win, and were looking more likely to finish on the lower end of the ladder for season 2009. There was one thing, or rather person that turned their season around. His name is Jarryd Hayne. After being the standout player for NSW in their 4th consecutive State of Origin series loss to QLD, Hayne looked unstoppable. In round 19 it was do or die, the Eels needed to win 7 out of their last 8 games to finish in the top eight. What came next is history; the boys from Parra went on a barnstorming run of wins to beat teams such as the Storm, Bulldogs, and the Tigers, all in virtual knockout games to carry themselves to an unlikely finals berth.

Their style of play was a breath of fresh air not only to Eels fans, but to Rugby League fans alike. The attraction of seeing Fuifui Moimoi crash through the defensive line with lightening force, and the weekly brilliance of the Dally M Player of the Year - Jarryd Hayne, drew larger and larger crowds to Parramatta games. I was lucky enough to be there for a round 24 game, in which the Eels played the Wests Tigers in front 34,272 people at the Sydney Football Stadium. After the game (in which Jarryd Hayne scored an electrifying try to seal the win in the 77th minute) I was reminded why I love Rugby League. To be amongst thousands of screaming people, all out having a drink with friends, watching these guys who are the best in the world at what they do is simply the best.

In the first week of the finals series, the Eels came up against the Minor Premiers, the St George Illawarra Dragons. It was a re-match from the week before, in the last round of the regular season in which the Eels got smoked by a red-hot Dragons side, proving their dominance in a 37-0 victory. The next week history was against the Eels. Only one team before them had beat the Minor Premiers from 8th spot since the McIntyre Finals System was introduced in 1999; it was in 2008 when the Warriors beat the Storm. The Eels played a near perfect game, turning their fortunes around from the previous week to down the Dragons in a thriller at Kogorah.

In week two of the finals the task was the 3rd placed Gold Coast Titans. However, the Eels secured a home final, so naturally some friends and I travelled to the SFS to see a clinical win from Parra, 27-2. This win set up one of the most talked about games in recent times. The Eels were set to play the Canterbury Bulldogs in the Preliminary Final. The reason this game was so huge was that both teams had amazing turnarounds from 2008 to reach this point. The Eels failed to make the top eight last year, and the Bulldogs came dead last. Both teams had new coaches in 2009, and were looking more like the family clubs they used to be. Additionally, these teams had a great rivalry during the 1980s, playing each other in the 1984 and 1986 Grand Finals, and out of the 10 titles on offer each club won 4 each.

So the stage was set, and I had my tickets. In front of 74,549 fans the Eels came back from 12-6 down at half time to secure an unlikely Grand Final berth, for a shot at their first Premiership since 1986. The next day the Storm destroyed Brisbane in the other Preliminary Final, with stars like Billy Slater and Greg Inglis showing impressive form.

I had to go to this game. The Eels were playing in their first grand final since 2001, a game in which they were favourites to win the title but were taken apart by an Andrew Johns inspired Newcastle Knights. Who knows when they will make the big one again, so I payed a large sum of money for my brother and I to go to the game. The spectacle of a Grand Final was awesome, but the result not so much. The scenes after the game were very sour, thousands of Eels fans with disappointment on their faces. Even though they were not expected to reach the big one, losing isn’t easy to take, and I’m not even on the team. I can’t imagine how Eels stalwarts Cayless, Hindmarsh and Burt are feeling after playing with the club for over 10 years and coming up short once more.

People often say “don’t worry, it’s just a game”, and I can see how this is true; but in many ways it’s not just a game, it’s important. Placing your happiness on a game of sport may seem silly, and when put in words it does, however I still do it anyway. It is similar to supporting your country in the Olympics, the only common factor between you and the athlete is that you are both born in the same place; but you feel as though you are living their dream with them. This is how I felt on Sunday, as though my own dream was crushed.

I’m not going to let sport get me down in life though, because that is where a line is crossed. Admiring the beauty of real-life drama is one thing, but to let it affect your overall wellbeing is unhealthy. In saying that, I will never stop supporting the Eels, because they are my team. I’ve chosen them (or rather been born into their fan-club) and they are here to stay.

Year 2010 is looking promising for the blue and golds, but favouritism doesn’t mean anything in Rugby League. There is a fine line between winning and losing in sport, and sometimes the pressure of gaining the W can be too much. (See: “Choking”).

So there it is, another year of NRL gone by. Overall, it has made me happier, as having something you are passionate about can only be a good thing. And to maintain that passion through the good times and the bad is character building, it shows loyalty and pride. Let’s hope that next year is a more successful season for the Eels, and they can go one better to claim their first title in 24 years. But more importantly, I hope that the dreams and aspirations of the blokes that run out wearing the blue and gold jerseys are realised, because this is their life, and I would love to be around to see it.

- Russell


  1. Great stuff Russ. Your passion for the Eels even sucked me in these last few weeks. They showed everything tht is great about league and sport and being a fan. It was a shame they couldn't pull off what would have been one of the great comebacks. Always next year, although you'll have to watch those chooks

  2. I feel like I'm becoming a fan now. It's basically due to watching the game in the flesh, feeling the atmosphere and passion of 75,000 fans and knowing that your watching the creme de la creme of a sport. Nice article Russ.