For the second time this year, memories of 1986 are back in fashion.

It was mere months ago that Kate Bush and Metallica were surging back to number one in the charts thanks to the nostalgic cultural impact of the latest season of Stranger Things on Netflix, set in the early months of ’86 itself.

Now, for the first time in over a decade, the Parramatta Eels have earned an opportunity to end a premiership drought stretching back just as far – all of 36 years.

But of course, the history and romance of rugby league folklore is incomparable to some meagre pop culture binge offering, no matter how popular, right?

Especially not after the Eels defied an eight-point deficit in the second half to beat the Cowboys in Townsville in a miraculous comeback performance to resurrect dreams of a 1986 revival.

And when all hope seemed lost, with their backs to the wall, who came along to save the day?

Number 11. With a shaved head. Shaun Lane.

Eat your heart out, Millie Bobbie Brown.

The Eels have become a viral sensation too, judging by the incredible attendance at their open training session on Monday. The crowd was joyous and so overwhelming that makeshift fences came down a few times as fans scrambled to catch a glimpse of their favourite players.

There was no malice, no one was hurt, but it was a rock star reception – the personification of the passion that flows through these Parramatta fans.

“That’s why there’s pressure, because the fanbase is so loyal” admitted co-captain Clint Gutherson.

“They love their game and they love their team, they give us that extra leg up.”

According to Gutherson, the best way to deal with the burden of history is to not give it a second thought.

“1986 is always mentioned by the media and the people outside the club. But as a group, and with what we’re trying to achieve, we haven’t spoken about it at all.”

They may not acknowledge it, they may not have been around for it (and neither were most of the fans), but there’s something inarguably timeless about the passion and unity on display among the blue and gold faithful as they approach another iconic moment in club history.

The facilities, roster and style of play have changed immeasurably in three decades, but the emotions they’ll feel on grand final day will be just like the ones they felt in 2009 and, had they been around for it, 1986.


Regardless of what happens on Sunday evening, the thrilling success of last week’s preliminary final win over the North Queensland Cowboys should go down in Eels history.

If they’re ultimately victorious on Sunday, it should be viewed as a defining moment.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27: Reagan Campbell-Gillard of the Eels celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the round three NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Cronulla Sharks at Bankwest Stadium on March 27, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The Eels had started brightly, but between the 20th and 40th minutes they made six errors to help the Cowboys back into the contest and the ascendancy. With 25 minutes to go they were trailing by eight.

In previous instances this season, the blue and gold have capitulated, letting frustration get the better of them – but this time was finally different.

Despite the extreme conditions they were facing in the arena and on the scoreboard, they stayed cool and proved that they could handle the most intense pressure they’d experienced all season.

“To be calm in a situation like that, it’s a credit to each individual knowing how to handle themselves and what they need to do – which is nothing more than their job,” back-rower Isaiah Papali’i told Zero Tackle.

“At the start of the year it might have gone the other way, but we’ve really built towards that (effort).

When the heat and humidity really kicked in as the Eels defended their line against wave after wave of Cowboys attack, when things seemed their hardest, the back-rower says the team could fall back on an almost psychic bond.

“I’ve been talking to the boys about it since… we weren’t even saying a word, just giving each other the look (that says) ‘I’ve got your back, come with me’,” Papali’i recalled.

“After so many weeks going through that fatigue and stress, you start to build that muscle memory and it kicks in when you’re just about to faint, which was definitely the case.”

It was a full-circle moment for the Eels, with the seeds for the challenges ahead planted back in a hellish pre-season.

While bonds are formed in more ways than one, hindsight has helped some players realise that a siege mentality is best built through collective adversity.

“It’s a massive reason teams do well, it’s built up in pre-season,” said five-eighth Dylan Brown.

“You go through the tough times, getting absolutely rattled. You get into a dark head space when you’re training and you’re there with the same boys you’re playing with now.

“I think it’s a massive thing (to go through together), to get team bonding right.”

“It becomes about appreciating who you’re around and what you’re playing for. When you know that, and you know how important it is to them, then you step up and do what you have to do.”

Papali’i couldn’t agree more.

“The tough days in pre-season really get you through those moments and you don’t even realise it,” the back-rower said when reflecting on the closing stages of the preliminary final.

“It’s a credit to our trainers, who pushed us daily when we might not have seen the light at the end of the tunnel or understood what they’re doing.”

Like most well-told stories, it’s all made sense in the end.


For the lack of similarities between the Eels of ’86 and today, it’s felt like three decades since the club has had a settled halves pairing, and it’s no coincidence that stability has led to improved results in recent years, culminating in this Sunday's grand final appearance.

Long gone are the days of the revolving No.7, with Mitchell Moses looking more comfortable every year. While he hasn’t morphed into a carbon copy of Peter Sterling, he’s provided a healthy mix of stability and flair to the jersey that had been lost for so long.

To miss the birth of his first child says a lot about the commitment Moses has to the club, and though he’s still prone to the occasional error they’re becoming fewer and further between.

His output and influence on the team is undeniable and a big reason he’ll become a millionaire if the Eels pull off a premiership win.

Then there’s Dylan Brown, who’s taken a different path to his maiden grand final appearance in just his fourth NRL campaign.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 29: Dylan Brown of the Eels Is tackled by Luke Keary of the Roosters during the round three NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on March 29, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Handed his chance at NRL stardom by Brad Arthur as an 18-year-old following the departure of Corey Norman, Brown has grown into the perfect foil for Moses. But while he looks back on his NRL debut fondly, there’s a much earlier moment that stands out as far more crucial for the five-eighth in his journey to this moment.

“I look even further back, to making the decision to come from New Zealand and leave my family,” Brown admitted.

“You don’t leave your whole country and go to a team ‘just to try’, you’re putting every single thing you can into it.”

“For me to make a grand final after that, let alone the NRL, is just unreal.”

While this mix of determination and self-belief has seen the team labelled arrogant by those on the outside, to those inside the circle it’s an endearing sign of the commitment this group has for each other, and a great way for the halves to instil that confidence in those around them.

“Mitch and Dylan are up there with the great halves combinations in the game,” Papali’i said.

“They’re a talented duo, but for me it’s more about the swagger they have.

“That’s what I like about them, how confident they are. If we win on Sunday they might be nudging at the top spot (in club folklore).”

He might not be seen as iconic a figure of Eels’ glory as Brett Kenny and his moustache might not be as hefty, but Brown has the same deceptive step and the ability to show-and-go of the club’s iconic No.6.

Moses might not receive the awards and critical acclaim that Sterling did in that last premiership campaign, but his influence on outcomes is directly comparable.

They might not be farewelling one-club veterans like Mick Cronin and Ray Price, but the Eels will still be saying goodbye to a host of players who they couldn’t have succeeded without, led by Reed Mahony and Papali’i himself (although that remains to be seen).

There are enough parallels if you look for them, but this team just wants to be itself.

“We’ve met (the ’86 team), they’re great people who’ve done massive things for the club,” Brown said.

“The game has changed and they realise that, but they’re definitely behind us and encouraging us.

“We appreciate them and everything they’ve done for the club – but it’s our turn now.”

The big question this Sunday isn’t whether this Eels team can emulate a bygone era of success, but whether they can succeed with their own brand that refuses to compromise, built on passion and camaraderie and blessed with natural talent.

They’ll have to do it the hard way – beating the best team in the competition, a club on the cusp of a dynasty and one of their most fierce rivals.

But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best - and they know they can, which is half the battle.

They may have lost in the first week of the finals, but the hero of a narrative must always be defeated before the final act, so they can find a little more within themselves and realise their fate has been in their own hands all along.

Just like they did in Townsville.

Whether you see the Eels as the heroic kids of Hawkins or the villainous Vecna at this point depends on little more than how far west of the Cumberland Highway you live.

They’re the only ones left to stand in the way of Penrith’s relentless machine, and for some that’s enough reason to throw their support behind the blue and gold.

But can they actually do it?

Stranger things have happened…