I confess, I’m a Parramatta Eels rugby league tragic. Nothing beats following the greatest football team God has put on this earth.
How tragic? I remember on a balmy February night in the early ’80s I was so desperate for a fix of my team I went to watch them at Redfern Oval in a pre-season trial match played in hurricane conditions against South Sydney Rabbitohs. “Are you mad?” my new bride said as I walked out the door. “Wouldn’t you prefer to cuddle up and watch a movie?” she pleaded.
Twenty nine years later and my hunger for the Eels has not subsided. That they are contesting the grand final against the Melbourne Storm on Sunday is in itself a miracle. After losing nine of their 16 games up to round 18 they were struggling big time.
Their form reversal came in round 19 against the Storm where they upset last year’s grand finalists 18-16 at Parramatta Stadium. After that they won 10 of their last 11 games to — pardon the pun — storm into Sunday’s big game.
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Despite living in northern Sydney, I have always followed the boys from out west. I love their blue-and-gold colours and I love the way their supporters get behind their team. Bulldog and St George supporters love their teams but nothing matches the passion generated by an Eels supporter.
The AFL has a dream about moving into Sydney’s west. Forget it Andrew. I can tell you that 99% of the kids out there love their rugby league. They call Aussie Rules aerial ping-pong, a term handed down from generation to generation.
Take my own son, Jason. He plays for Parramatta’s under-18 SG Ball representative team. Despite living far away in the bushland shire of Hornsby, he travels to school out west and now plays football for his favourite team (something else that was handed down through the generations).
He loves Parramatta and wants to play in the NRL with them one day. He’s done so well they put him on contract for next year. It’s not a king’s ransom but it will mean a lighter load on my pockets for a while.
The Eels look after their juniors. They provide great coaching and my son loves all the free gear. He leaves on Monday for a week’s football trip to Queensland where they will play the Gold Coast Titans 18s in a trial match. Times have changed. The only footy trip I ever went on was to Wollongong!
So who the hell is this Melbourne Storm mob? Well we know they are owned by News Ltd, which also owns half the NRL. It was reported earlier in the year that the Storm spend $5 million more than they earn. That shortfall is funded by News Ltd.
They have made the past four grand finals and their talent comes far and wide from NSW, Queensland, New Zealand and England.
This season their under 18s contested the national under-18 competition for the first time and made the grand final. On Sunday their under-20 team will play the Wests Tigers in the grand final of the Toyota Cup, the curtain-raiser to the big game.
Both these teams are chock-a-block full of contracted talent from outside Victoria. Everyone in Sydney is asking how the hell do they stay under the salary cap? Melbourne chief executive Brian Waldron deflected any such concerns earlier in the year when he said: “Others can speculate but we know where we are at with the salary cap.”
I was also embarrassed as a rugby league supporter last week when the Storm could only muster 27,687 fans to the second most important game on the NRL calendar where they hosted the Brisbane Broncos at Etihad Stadium for a final.
Compare that to the 74,549 that attended the other final between the Eels and Bulldogs at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium. Promoted as the battle of the west it had everything that makes rugby league great — passion, tribalism and loyalty.
From my point of view it is important that Parramatta win on Sunday. It will be a victory for the rugby league heartland and tribalism over the corporate dollar.