There is no doubt that rugby league throughout the 1980s was a special time for the sport. An era that boasted some of the most profound talent and incredible teams throughout both the likes of Great Britain and Australia. Now, yes, I have mentioned in the past that although I did not live throughout such a culturally defining decade as the 80s and because of this it may be hard for me to pass any form of judgement but for me it is all about the stories you hear and from that you just know how special it was.
Over the course of the 1980s, the concept of Australian players coming over to England for short stints became somewhat more popular as time went on, with one example being Wally Lewis who may have only spent ten games with Wakefield but the impression he left behind is still spoken of today. However, there is another player who took the league by storm in such a short space of time and by many is considered one of the great overseas signings and that is Brett Kenny. The former Australian international may have only spent one year in British rugby league but his entire career speaks to more than just one stint and in honour of the rugby league great we take a further look into one stellar career…..
Born out of Canterbury, New South Wales, Kenny’s rugby league journey began as a Guildford Junior before making his debut in first grade debut in 1980 with the Parramatta Eels. Now, it is fair to say that luck has not always been on the of the New South Wales side over the years with them second on the all-time list for most wooden spoons in Australian rugby history believe it or not. However, an era that will live long in the minds of its fans will be the 1980s as the Eels put on the most inspiring run in the club’s history. A time that can only be described as the team’s golden years and mainly thanks in large to the presence and ability of Kenny.
After a sporadic first season in terms of playing time, Kenny was able to gather more minutes the following season in 1981 and put forth a great deal of impressive performances. A team that included a host of exceptional talent including, Peter Sterling and Mick Cronin captured their teams first ever NSWRFL title with Kenny scoring 14 tries in 25 appearances including two in the Grand Final.
That 1981 win providing the proverbial spark that lit the Parramatta bonfire and Kenny’s chemistry with Sterling at the scrumbase being crucial to the team’s success, Parramatta went on an incredible run of four consecutive Grand Finals between 1981 and 1984. Their ‘threepeat’ of Premiership titles wins in 1981, 1982 and 1983 stand today as the last team to accomplish this feat and shows to a full extent how special this team was. The threepeat of finals themselves providing the perfect platform for Kenny to showcase his big game mentality, becoming the only man to score at least two tries in 3 consecutive Grand Finals.
A staple of the Australian rugby league calendar has always been the State of Origin series, a powerhouse of an event and one tasty affair. It delivers its fair share of drama year in year out as NSW and Queensland take no prisoners in an all-out war. Now, as we live in a world where services such as Youtube make certain aspects of sport so easily viewable, you would probably find State of Origin moments of old and there is a good chance there will be several that focus in on Kenny. The slick five-eighth performances for NSW became the stuff of legends and his clashes with Queensland’s Wally Lewis over 17 State of Origin games became etched into the series DNA as ones never to be forgotten so easily.
As mentioned before it was starting to be a relatively common sight that players within NSWRFL made the long journey over to England during the Australian off-season. A host of players throughout the years have spent short and sweet stints in England but forever left an impression amongst its fans. If you look at the likes of Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga, two elite players who made the journey over and despite short stints they both made significant impacts at their respective English clubs. In 1984, Kenny looked to prove he could do exactly the same. If those three straight runs of NSWRFL premierships with Parramatta had not place the creative halfback amongst the top talent at the time, then his one season with Wigan would surely rectify that. As it happened the fans on this side of the world were treated to what can be described as the absolute best of Kenny as he became a key figurehead amongst a Wigan side that was already on the cusp of something really special.
The Australian’s energetic displays saw him become the first international player to win the Lance Todd Trophy for his man of the match performance in a Challenge Cup final thriller against Hull FC. A 28-24 Wigan win saw Kenny put on a performance of sheer quality with the Airlie Birds finding it near impossible to contain the Aussie playmaker. After such an outstanding season at Wigan that saw him score 19 tries in 25 appearances, he was able to secure the Golden Boot as the World’s best player.
A return to Parramatta followed, picking up right where he left off with another dominant season in 1986 that saw the Eels reach the Grand Final once again and this time against Canterbury. Despite a low scoring affair, Parramatta came out 4-2 winners and added another accolade to Kenny’s already impressive list of accomplishments.
Although his later years at the New South Wales club did not produce as much success as those earlier years, there may be three words that could best describe his time in rugby league and that is influence, impact and impression. A nothing but brilliant career came to its conclusion in 1993 and after a total of 14 seasons with Parramatta he had made 265 appearances alongside scoring 110 tries. The Canterbury born man’s list of achievements exceeds far beyond the regular as throughout his career he developed into one of the most gifted players of the modern rugby league era, possessing all the attributes that made him one of the most difficult five-eighths to keep under control.
The ability to pounce on his opponents and create chances out of thin air with his agility and cat like instinct becoming a forefront to his game. The Parramatta juggernaut over the course of the 1980s was a team that had star talent running throughout the course of its DNA. The likes of Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Ray Price, Peter Sterling and Eric Grothe were sequentially one of the most formidable units around. But there needs to be a glue that brings it all together, someone who connects the pieces and that man was Kenny. The Australian legend’s impeccable knowledge of the game combined with a lethal dose of playmaking saw him become not just a consistent player but one of the best. The biggest of big-match performers and as dazzling to watch as he was prolific.
Happy Birthday Brett Kenny!
PREMIERSHIPS: 1981-83, 1986
KANGAROO TOURS: 1982, 1986
CHALLENGE CUP: 1985
GRAND FINAL MAN OF THE MATCH*: 1982-83
LANCE TODD TROPHY: 1985
GOLDEN BOOT AWARD: 1985
RATED NO. 27 IN RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK’S TOP 100 PLAYERS: 1992
NAMED IN NRL TEAM OF THE 1980S: 2004