By any measure the 2001 Parramatta Eels stand out as one of the greatest teams in the NRL’s history.
With 20 wins in their 26 games played, and an outrageous +433 points difference. The 839 points scored still stands as a record for points scored over a 26 game season. Thats an average of 32.27 points scored per game.
The Eels led the league from round 16 onwards and won the minor premiership by 5 points over the second placed Canterbury Bulldogs.
The Parramatta Eels were a club that became famous in the 1980’s, winning 4 Premierships with a star studded lineup of players who would become household names. The 1990’s however were a very lean period for the club. A team many saw as a powerhouse of the competition become a punch line for jokes.
The club became famous for never being able to secure the right halfback. After the retirement of Peter Sterling in in 1992, the club went through a long list of halfbacks that they had high hopes for, but who never delivered.
The Eels struggled with one rebuild after another, including a famous incident where the club took advantage of The Super League War to sign a number of veteran players from their greatest rivals, the Canterbury Bulldogs in the mid 1990s’.
As the stars from that team started to retire, the club shifted its focus to relying on juniors coming through the Eels players development system.
When 2001 rolled around the club had a very experienced coach in Brian Smith, a young, exciting team of players headlined by the likes of Luke Burt, Jamie Lyon, Nathan and Ian Hindmarsh, Daniel Wagon, David Vaealiki, PJ Marsh, David Solomona, Michael Vella and Nathan Cayless, while experienced halves in Jason Taylor and Michael Buettner helped lead the team around the park with hooker Brad Drew and fullback Brett Hodgson,
This Eels team was primed for success, not just in 2001, but for many years to come.
It’s hard to explain just how good the Eels were in 2001. They were fast, mobile, yet they had players in their pack who loved getting through defensive work. They has game breakers right across the park, including in their forward pack, and off their bench. They had depth at pretty much every position, and as the season rolled on the Eels simply looked unstoppable.
The Parramatta Eels were so good that by seasons end coach Brian Smith was taking a player from the field in their last few rounds of the season and not replacing them, just so his players were use to handling defending with 12 players on the field should a player get sent off in the finals. The club was looking to prepare for every eventuality.
The NRL finals series seemed to cement the fact that the Eels were a class above everyone else. Their week one win over the New Zealand Warriors was a 56-12 demolition job which earned them the second week off, and booked their place in the preliminary final. There they faced the reigning premier’s in the Brisbane Broncos, and beat them 24-16 to book a place in the Grand Final.
It was supposed to be a coronation of this great Eels team. They lined up in the 2001 Grand Final against the Newcastle Knights, a good team, but a flawed team. One led by Andrew Johns, who was the best player in the world at the time, but many felt his greatness had seen the Knights achieve far more than they should have that year.
Andrew Johns, Ben Kennedy and the Newcastle Knights played a game for the ages in the 2001 Grand Final. As the Knights best players stood up to the occasion, it was very clear that the likes of Jason Taylor were wilting under the pressure.
Taylor had a reputation as a very astute playmaker, a tough player, a great goal kicker, but a player who never performed when it mattered in the finals. Similarly, Brian Smith had a reputation for being able to build great teams, teams who were very successful. He was a great tactician who left no stone unturned to prepare his side, but he never tasted premiership success.
The young Eels players played well in their first Grand Final, but they just could not overcome the experienced Knights side, who had been there are there about for a number of years beforehand, and Andrew Johns who was one of the games great big game players.
The Eels 30-24 loss to the Knights in the Grand Final was a hammer blow to the club.
The following season the Eels finished in just sixth place, and they were bundled out of the NRL finals series in week one with a 24-14 loss to the Brisbane Broncos. In 2003, the Eels missed the finals altogether, finishing in 9th place.
This young team that looked set to reign over the NRL for many years to come fell apart very quickly. Players lost form, others lost confidence. Departures, changes at the club, they all took their toll.
Everyone that was around to see the Parramatta Eels in 2001 will never forget that team. They were so good. They set the Rugby League world alight with dazzling football. They looked set for so many great things.
They are one of the great cautionary tales in Rugby League as well. You never know what lies around the corner. You can think your best days are ahead of you, and then all of a sudden, it’s all over.
The heart break Eels supporters feels about the 2001 season is understandable. It remains the best chance the club ever had to rekindle the glory days of the 1980s.The 2001 Parramatta Eels