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1986 grand final rewind: Cronin, Price bow out with another title

Michael Cronin and Ray Price – a pair of one-of-a-kind players – said goodbye to the game as the Eels won a fourth grand final in six years at the expense of their great rivals.

NRL.com has gone into the vault to find footage of the grand finals from the pre-NRL era dating back to 1966 and will be showcasing these games, including a full replay, match highlights and great moments from the encounters.

In what remains the only tryless grand final in the history of the NSWRL and NRL, Parramatta scrapped their way to a 4-2 win over Canterbury at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The match, which also included Phil Sigsworth becoming the first player to be sent-off in a grand final, had everything but a four-pointer.

Canterbury were able to drag the match into the trenches, but Parramatta proved they too could win ugly.

Cronin, the legendary figure from Gerringong who retired as game's greatest point scorer with 35 Test appearances also to his name, entered the match after a tough season.

There were fears the detached retina he suffered during a pre-season trial at Cessnock would force him into retirement.

But after a lengthy recovery period, Cronin returned to an Eels side making the most of the new Parramatta Stadium. In that year, the Eels enjoyed the highest average crowd of any NSWRL side.

Match Highlights: Eels v Bulldogs

Once he returned, his goal-kicking was not what it once was. He entered the grand final with a 46 per cent success rate.

His first shot at goal in the decider sliced to the right. His second hit the post from right in front and the match remained scoreless.

Shortly after, Bulldogs winger Andrew Farrar hit opposite number Mick Delroy with a swinging arm, high tackle that would have likely resulted in a lengthy suspension in 2021.

Brett Kenny then came close to scoring a try but referee Mick Stone correctly ruled he had spilled the ball before placing it over the line following a leaping effort to capture it.

Eels prop Terry Leabeater then produced a superb tackle to prevent Canterbury five-eighth Terry Lamb from scoring. Scores remained at 0-0.

Bulldogs prop Peter Kelly was sin-binned for an extremely aggressive tackle on Ray Price.

Price found himself on the wrong end of many an overzealous defensive effort by the Bulldogs on this day.

Canterbury's tactic of conceding penalties whenever Parramatta were attacking inside their 10m line eventually came back to hurt them as Cronin landed a penalty goal just before the break.

Eels players celebrate the 1986 grand final win.
Eels players celebrate the 1986 grand final win. ©NRL Photos

Brett Kenny crossed the line again following a superb backline movement early in the second half only to have Stone rule a double movement.

After Peter Sterling moved into the path of opposite number Steve Mortimer and was rightly penalised, the Bulldogs levelled the scores via the boot of Lamb.

After another high tackle on Price, Cronin showed that his earlier kicking woes had been resolved when he restored his side's two-point lead. The penalty goal would prove the final points of the match.

Sigsworth's send-off for a high tackle on Kenny, who just had fielded a grubber kick, made a tough task all the more difficult for the team in blue and white.

Farrar was then forced over the sideline by half-a-dozen Eels defender a couple of metres out from the line before Lamb failed to land a difficult penalty goal attempt from the penalty that followed Geoff Bugden being sent to the sin bin.

Full Match Replay: Eels v Bulldogs - Grand Final, 1986

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Then, with the clock winding down and the 12-man Eels defensive line out on their feet, the final siren rang with Canterbury metres away from scoring.

As the dust settled on this epic encounter, Canterbury were denied a third-straight title and the Eels had a fourth premiership from the golden generation of players.

Thirty-five years later, Eels fans are still waiting for premiership number five.

Play of the day

The resilience shown by the Eels on the day was something else. The brutal Bulldogs' attempts to bash them out of the game took a toll, but men in blue and gold showed this day belonged to them when six players were on hand to deny Andrew Farrar what would have been a match-winner in the final stages. 

Best Player

Peter Sterling won the Clive Churchill Medal, but the toughness displayed by Ray Price in this match was something else. Canterbury launched many an attack, often in breach of the rules, in a bid to force him off the field. But Price kept getting up and going back for more. As far as final matches go, this 80-minute performance typified the spirit that was the hallmark of the career of one of the toughest men to have played the game.

The quote

"I wasn't Sterlo or Kenny or Cronin. I've never taken it for granted that I played with 11 internationals." - Eels hooker Michael Moseley to The Sydney Morning Herald at the 30-year reunion for Parramatta's 1986 premiership team.

The what-if moment

It was remarkable enough that Brett Kenny scored two tries in each of the 1981, '82 and '83 grand finals. If luck had been on his side he could have achieved that feat for a fourth time in this match. He dropped the ball over the line in the first half before being penalised for a double movement in the second. 

Extended Highlights: Eels v Bulldogs

The unsung hero(es)

You can't split Eels props Geoff Bugden and Terry Leabeater on this one. Good props in their own right, they headed into this match staring down the uncompromising duo of Peter Tunks and Peter Kelly. When you added the muscle of second-rower Paul Dunn and bench forward Geoff Robinson into the mix, there was quite the job to be done. Bugden and Leabeater stood up to the task superbly and played major roles in the win.

The following year

Both sides missed the finals. Canterbury finished sixth, one spot ahead of the Eels. The nucleus of the Parramatta team had simply reached the peak in '86 and the downhill slide started in 1987. They wouldn't reach the finals again until the split competition (ARL/Super League) season in 1997.

The Bulldogs, with Phi Gould at the helm, bounced back to win the 1988 premiership to join Parramatta as having both won four premierships during the 1980s.