BRETT Kenny and his Parramatta teammates were no strangers to big games.
Their squad included some of the all-time greats – Kenny, Peter Sterling, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe, Peter Wynn and Bob Lindner among them – and when they arrived at Newcastle’s International Sports Centre on March 5, 1988, there was a sense of excitement rather than anxiety.
Most of these men had won multiple grand finals, represented their states in the Origin cauldron and worn the coveted green and gold of Australia.
For players of such calibre and experience, it was just another day at the office. A chance to open the season with two premiership points.
Next door in the home-team dressing room, the atmosphere was not quite as calm and assured.
For the nervous unknowns assembled by rookie coach Allan McMahon, it was not just the biggest day of their lives, it was a historic occasion for Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.
Not since 1909 had a team representing the region competed in the toughest rugby league competition of them all.
Now Newcastle were back, wearing an imposing blue-and-red strip and boasting an equally formidable name, the Knights.
And given that they had beaten premiers Manly 24-12 two weeks earlier in a glorified trial match known as the Herald Challenge Cup, there was a sense of expectation among the 26,340 patrons who flocked through the turnstiles on that warm, sunny Saturday afternoon.
They say you only get one chance to create a good impression, and this was it.
One of the Newcastle pioneers that day was five-eighth Rob Tew, who recalled this week how McMahon and his coaching assistant, Allan Bell, had stressed the magnitude of the moment to their little-known troops.
‘‘Allan McMahon and Allan Bell had a pretty good sense of history and occasion, so you can be pretty sure in saying that they were well aware and imparted to us the significance of the game we were playing,’’ Tew said yesterday.
Tew kicked two penalty goals that day, the first points in Knights’ history, and joked yesterday that ‘‘they were from 60metres out’’.
But Parramatta ran in four tries, and Ella landed six goals, to win 28-4 and send the Novocastrian faithful home disappointed.
If Tew’s memories have faded slightly over the past quarter of a century, the same can also be said of the man he marked in the game, champion five-eighth Kenny.
The former Test star, who won four grand finals during Parramatta’s heyday of 1981 to 1986, told the Herald the Eels had not really known what to expect when they arrived at the ISC to face the NSWRL new boys.
‘‘Obviously it was always going to be a big occasion for them, being their first-ever competition game, and there was a big crowd, I can remember,’’ Kenny said.
‘‘That was one of the good things about playing in Newcastle. It was always a good crowd and good atmosphere.
‘‘Back then, in 1988, we still had a very experienced team. It wasn’t such a big occasion for us, but we were aware that they were going to be lifted by the crowd, so I guess in that way it helped us to lift a bit, too.’’
Kenny’s recollections were that the scoreboard probably flattered Parramatta, who clicked into gear in the second half.
‘‘I don’t think we got away to a real good start or skipped away early,’’ Kenny said.
‘‘I think we were just always in control of the game, just through experience.’’
Newcastle’s team sheet included names like Butterfield, Boyd, Stewart and Miller, all of whom were great contributors during the club’s foundation seasons.
‘‘If you had a look at that team, there were a lot of fellas who played a lot of first-grade games for Newcastle,’’ Tew said.
And as Kenny was happy to vouch, those inaugural Knights may not have boasted big reputations but they were sure eager to dent some.
‘‘I think the way they built their side was to have a very good forward pack,’’ Kenny said.
‘‘There were some guys there like Butterfield and Stewart, who played representative football.
‘‘It was always tough against Newcastle because of their forwards.
‘‘In that first game, it probably took us a while to get on top, but once we did it wasn’t too much of a problem for us to go on and win it.’’
Twenty-five years on, these two old rivals will renew acquaintances at the same venue tomorrow.
It will be their 42nd meeting – the most games Newcastle have played against any opponent.
This time the Knights are expected to start hot favourites, but given cellar dwellers Parramatta upset premiers Manly last weekend, nothing can be taken for granted.
‘‘Last week was a big improvement, but I guess when you think about it they [the Eels] had plenty of room to improve,’’ Kenny said.
‘‘But I think they’ll need to play better this week. Manly were pretty ordinary last week, I thought.
‘‘Newcastle can play a lot better than they have been, especially at home, and if Parramatta don’t lift their form, I can’t see them winning.
‘‘It’s good that they had a win, and they’ll take some confidence out of it, but I don’t think the form was good enough to say they’ll kick on from there.’’
Rd 1; Saturday, March 5, 1988
International Sports Centre
EELS 28 (M Erickson, E Grothe, P Wynn, S Ella tries; S Ella 6 goals) KNIGHTS 4 (R Tew 2 goals) at ISC. Crowd: 26,340.
Referee: Graham Annesley.