‘If I could live one year forever it would be 2009’: Inside Parramatta’s last grand final journey

If you were after a sign that last weekend belonged to Parramatta, this was it.

The video started going around on Thursday night, roughly 24 hours before the Eels downed North Queensland to make their first grand final since 2009.

That was 13 years ago, which may as well be an eternity in rugby league. But one of their heroes from that magical season is still doing what he does best.

The Monday of grand final week marks Fuifui Moimoi’s 42nd birthday, and the former Eel is playing in England’s third division, but he can still run the ball with malicious intent, as he did when his Rochdale Hornets took on North Wales Crusaders last weekend.

The colours are different and Rochdale is a long way from Church Street. But squint your eyes and cast your mind back just a little bit and you’d swear you were back seeing Moimoi with blue and gold streaks in his hair, just like you did back in 2009.

It was that kind of season, the kind that lives forever in every Parramatta heart even if it didn’t end with the club drinking from the keg of glory for the first time since 1986.

Daniel Mortimer was right there, in the eye of the storm as a 20-year old rookie on the ride of his life. He won a premiership with the Roosters a few years later, and he treasures it, but 2009 was a different animal.

“Despite winning one in 2013, I always say if I could go and live one year forever it would be 2009. It was just manic, that’s the only way to describe it,” Mortimer says.

“Every time I run into an Eels fan they say, ‘How good was ’09?’ It’s like you shared something, you shared an experience even if I never met them before.

“I know what they were feeling and they know what I was feeling.

“That connection with people, with fans, it means we all look back on it fondly. I’ll always have that with me and the fans will always keep that with them.”

Mortimer and the Eels went on the run of a lifetime in 2009. (Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

Mortimer knows the story almost off by heart. He’s had to tell it enough times, because people never stop bringing it up, but he never, ever gets sick of it.

And why would you? How could anyone tire of telling the story of a team who were second-last eight weeks before the semifinals, but somehow won and won and won again to wake the dormant blue and gold horde and make them believe in miracles?

There were so many wonderful times in those furious days because Parramatta didn’t squeak home in their many victories in the back half of the season, they won with a fabulous, decadent style.

Journeymen like Joel Reddy and Jeff Robson, Todd Lowrie and Ben Smith, looked deep within themselves and found things perhaps even they never knew were there.

Enigmas like Eric Grothe Jnr, Krisnan Inu and Feleti Mateo tamed their brilliance with a consistency they never found before or since. 

Old heads like Luke Burt, Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and Joe Galuvao drank from the fountain of youth like it was a schooner at the leagues club during happy hour.

A group of rugby league players celebrate a try
The Eels found something special for those fateful few weeks. (Getty Images: Mark Nolan)

Everything came together, if only for a while. There was no offload too ambitious, no collision they could not win, and if anybody dreamed of feeling a moment of fear they’d have to wake up and apologise for it.

The Parramatta fans came in from the cold to be a part of it because for a few glorious weeks nothing was impossible, and they took the entire sport on the run of a lifetime where it was death to go in against an Eel when the game was on the line.

“My debut game we lost to the Sharks in round 12. They’d lost nine games in a row before that, and 18 games later I was playing in a grand final. I think we captured everyone’s imagination,” Mortimer says.

“It’s still a dream. To be part of that year and that team, who went from 14th in round 18 to making a grand final, it was almost a fairytale.

“Having that experience that year at Parramatta, I don’t think anything will ever match it.”

There is a pall that lingers over that season in the spectre of Jarryd Hayne.

There is no way to tell this story without mentioning Hayne. He produced arguably the greatest run of form the sport has ever seen and claimed the Dally M Medal as the player of the year.

Ongoing sexual assault charges against Hayne from an alleged incident in 2018, for which he served jail time before the conviction was quashed and a fresh trial was ordered, will come before the courts in March.

What happened in 2009 shouldn’t ever overshadow Hayne’s alleged actions. But what Parramatta players and fans shared that season was bigger than Jarryd Hayne. He is a part of the journey, but not everything.

A group of Parramatta fans celebrate a try
Long-suffering Eels fans rallied around the resurgent side. (Getty Images: Mark Nolan)

Mortimer was there every step of the way as the Eels won eight of their last nine to scrape into the finals in eighth spot before they knocked off the minor premiership-winning Dragons to keep their run alive.

A serious hip injury ended his night early against the Titans the following week, but with Parramatta winning again to set up a preliminary final showdown with Canterbury, he laboured round the clock to prove his fitness.

Until the day before the game he was gone, but finals footy helps men defy the pain. So Mortimer played all the same, and he’s been thankful he did every single day since.

In front of 74,000 howling fans, Mortimer scurried over for the try that sealed a 22-12 victory over the old rivals. Moimoi was magnificent in what was the best game he ever played in first grade. It was the kind of match you spend a lifetime dreaming into existence, one worthy of grand final stakes on its own.

But the biggest stage was still to come. Melbourne awaited in the grand final and the Storm, with Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis at the peak of their powers, surged to a 22-6 lead with not much time left.

But Parramatta, as they had so many times that season, rose again. First it was Joel Reddy who scored to narrow the gap. Then it was Moimoi pinning the ears back from 20 metres out for a death or glory charge to the line that ended with one of the great grand final scores.

“Fui beat six blokes and scored and I don’t know how many front-rowers have ever snuck inside the corner post but Fui did it,” Mortimer recalls.

“It gave us such belief, it felt like we were coming home and I could feel the entire crowd behind us.

“Some players just become that cult hero, that enigma, and that was Fui. He didn’t say much, but he had a heart of gold and even if he didn’t have that charisma we all followed him.

“The more he heard the crowd go ‘Fui’ the harder he went.”

Moimoi’s try narrowed the gap to 22-16 before a controversial penalty against the big man put Melbourne in position to kick a field goal which iced the game and killed Parramatta’s title dream.

A golden era was meant to ensue for the Eels, but it never came. In hindsight, it’s not so surprising. Lightning can’t strike twice.

Mortimer left at the end of 2011, and Moimoi was gone two years later, bound for the English leagues on an adventure that might never end.

Inquiries were made to Moimoi to talk about 2009, but he remained elusive. It was a big week in Rochdale — they were getting ready to play Doncaster in their fight for promotion to the second division, so there’s still some guys he needs to run over.

Moimoi has never been much for talking anyway, as Mortimer found out.

“I finished my career over at Leigh, where Fui was for a while, and I moved into a house that Fui was moving out of and his English had improved a lot because I finally had a full conversation with him,” Mortimer says.

“Back in ’09, I don’t know if he played it up, but he wasn’t talking much. They love him over there, I don’t know if he’ll ever come back.”

Mortimer spent time at a few clubs after he left Parramatta, including the Roosters, where he won that premiership in 2013, but he’s still an Eel at heart.

The current side have walked a far more conventional road to their first grand final since the 2009 crew came so close, and Mortimer can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

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