Encounters between South Sydney and Parramatta were never fought with the bitterness of the Fibros and Silvertails – better known as 1970s arch-rivals Wests and Manly – but there was electricity in the air one Sunday afternoon at Parramatta Stadium as tensions ignited in 80 minutes of spite and mayhem.
The minor premiership was at stake but there was no hint of the drama that was to follow when the Rabbitohs and Eels met in a top-of-the-ladder clash three weeks before the start of the 1986 finals series.
Parramatta were chasing their fourth title in six years while Souths were enjoying a revival under coach George Piggins and the influential on-field direction of experienced back-rower Phil Gould.
Parramatta Stadium, officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II earlier that year, was bursting at the seams when Eels favourite sons Ray Price and Mick Cronin led their team onto the ground and the atmosphere resembled a semi-final.
The Rabbitohs’ plans to slow the pace of the game ensured that scoring opportunities were limited and guaranteed 80 minutes of tension.
Rugby League Week described the game as a “molotov cocktail of a match” and laid out a sorry sequence of events that unfolded, including “an all-in brawl, constant verbal abuse, gouging, flagrant breaches of the rules and a head-butting incident”.
It took only nine minutes for tensions to ignite when a scrum erupted in a flurry of fists and insults. When the dust settled and young referee Phil Cooley regained control, Parramatta halfback Peter Sterling, remarkably, was the only player sent to the sin bin.
By halftime it was one try apiece but the accurate boot of five-eighth Neil Baker lifted the Rabbitohs to a 10-6 advantage. Throughout the second half Souths continued to test referee Cooley’s patience by standing off-side in defence. Eventually Rabbitohs forwards Mario Fenech and Ian Roberts were sin-binned and the Eels took advantage when fullback Paul Taylor threw a dummy and slipped down the blind-side to score in the corner. Winger Steve Ella – deputising as goalkicker for Cronin, who left the field at halftime with a rib injury – was left to line up the conversion from the sideline. As Ella prepared to kick, Souths halfback Craig Coleman was sent off for obscene language. Ella rubbed salt into the wounds by landing the kick and propelling the Eels to a 12-10 lead.
For a time, Souths were down to 10 men, but they refused to submit and a minute from fulltime were awarded a penalty and Baker levelled to leave the game deadlocked at fulltime at 12-all.
NSWRL boss John Quayle reacted to the unseemly nature of the match by fining both teams $2,000.
In almost 65 years of contests between the clubs, the 1986 clash proved an aberration. With only minor exceptions, their meetings have been decided without a hint of spite.
Like in 1965, when they met for the one and only time in finals football. Parramatta had beaten the young Rabbitohs side twice during the regular season but in the opening semi-final, Souths ran hot. Bound for a grand final showdown with the mighty St George, the Rabbitohs’ team featured rising stars Bob McCarthy, Ron Coote, Eric Simms, Jim Morgan and winger Mike Cleary, who scored two tries.
In 1982, the Rabbitohs surged back from a 15-7 deficit late in the game at Redfern Oval to score two tries in four minutes. Souths’ five-eighth Ken Wright kicked a field goal a minute from fulltime to lift the Rabbitohs to a 16-15 victory.
On Monday night, the clubs will resume their rivalry at ANZ Stadium. The Rabbitohs, fresh from their miraculous comeback victory over the Dragons, will continue their push for the top eight while the Eels will be determined to arrest a succession of desperately close losses.