Hallas proud of place in Eels history

Former Leeds centre Derek Hallas has a unique place in the history of both the Leeds and Parramatta clubs as the Australian side celebrates its 75th anniversary this weekend.

The Parramatta Eels entered the Sydney Rugby League Competition in 1947 after an 11-year campaign by a group of locals came to fruition.

Pressure in the area for a local club to participate in the New South Wales Rugby League Premiership began in the mid-1930s with a formal proposal put to the NSWRL in 1936.

It was rejected and put on hold during World War II, before being proposed again in 1946 when the Club was successfully admitted into the Premiership.

Just 16 years after their formation, the club signed their first English player in the shape of Hallas. The former Roundhay Rugby Union player had switched codes to join Keighley in December 1953 before signing for Leeds in January 1959. He would go on to play a pivotal role in the Loiners securing their first ever Championship in 1961 with two tries in the win over Warrington at Odsal in the Championship Final.

However, it was a tour match for Leeds against Australia in September 1959 that ultimately led to Hallas moving his family 10,000 miles for a new life Down Under. Leeds put up a good fight in the first half against the Tourists but the star studded Kangaroos pulled clear in the second half to win 44-20 however two tries from Hallas caught the eye of Parramatta founder Jack Argent.

Derek takes up the story, “Ken Thornett was playing at Leeds at the time. He was known as ‘The Mayor’ in Parramatta and he would eventually return to the club to play and coach them alongside his brother Dick. The Parramatta President Jack Argent spoke to me after I scored two tries against Australia. He approached me about a move and I said I was interested. I was told at the time that I was the first Englishman to be transferred to an Australian Premiership club, some lads had gone over and played country before but not in the Sydney competition.

“The club had not been going long. I enjoyed the experience of living in Australia for six years, three of which were at Parramatta. It was a strange at first because all the teams were in Sydney. You didn’t need a team coach to take you to games as everyone drove their own cars. There were only 18 games in the whole season, not like back at Leeds where we had the league, the Yorkshire Cup and the Challenge Cup, in contrast we played 42 games at Leeds in my last season.

“Another former Leeds player was our coach, Ken ‘Killer’ Kearney. He was a hooker in his playing days and he coached his side in his own image, which was very forward orientated and, to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of the style we played with during that time. We had a good pack of forwards and that was a big part of the game then but at Leeds we used to love playing some rugby on attack and that wasn’t something they did at Parramatta,” added Hallas.

The centre had a baptism of fire in the Australian game as he made his debut for Parramatta against Western Suburbs at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of over 30,000 fans in the match of the day fixture. He remembered, “The pitch was rock hard, like concrete. When I had left Cookridge, there was still snow on the ground. I had travelled via Hong Kong to Sydney and then went in for my first game. We ran out from the old Pavilion, which is still there now, onto the pitch and I remember some local fan shouting ‘Where d’ya get them legs Hallas?’ It was then that I realised my legs hadn’t seen the sunshine for quite a while and were bright white compared to the locals!”

Hallas kicked two goals in a 15-4 win before Parramatta went on to achieve a fourth place finish and a place in the Finals. Hallas recalled, “We did well and beat Balmain at the SCG in the minor semi final but then came up against St George in Preliminary Final in front of 60,000 fans. We had a good pack but St George had the Australian Test pack in their side. Reg Gasnier was the star of their side. I had played against him for Leeds in that game against the Kangaroos and he was the best player I ever played against. We only lost 12-7 but that was a close as we came.

“Ken Thornett replaced Kearney in my final season and he tried to change our style of play, which was good. My day job was working on schools Rugby League organising festivals. I also coached the Parramatta Marist Brothers school team, which I enjoyed.

“After leaving Parramatta, I was approached to coach a team in Inverell. My wife Barbara and I love our time at Inverell. When I arrived we were bottom of the league but we managed to have some success and I was working for Goodyear tyres whilst I was there too.”

As well as being part of the first Leeds team to win a Championship and Parramatta’s first ever English player, Hallas also has another claim to fame at Parramatta in that he was part of the only Sydney-based team to play South Africa. The Springboks toured in 1963 and Parra were chosen to play them – winning at Cumberland by 39-18 before a crowd of 6,000.

As an Englishman abroad, Hallas admits there were some testing times as well but he said he enjoyed it and always gave as good as he got. He recalled, “I remember playing against Wests one day and Peter Dimond broke away down the wing. I came flying across and I admit that I took him high. Ned Kelly, the Magpies and Australian Test front rower, came over and said ‘Send the Pom off Darcy!’ Darcy Lawler was the referee and he promptly shouted for my attention saying ‘Come here you Pommy b*****d!’ I thought my time was up but thankfully I managed to stay on the pitch,” laughed Hallas.