Thirty years ago Leeds rugby league fans were being thrilled by the try-scoring feats of unarguably the world’s best winger.
The 1980s were the final decade of winter rugby, when the English competition was played partly during the Australian off-season.
That meant the cream of Australian players were free to join English clubs for short stints between the end of their competition and the start of pre-season training.
Such cameos were controversial – often upsetting English players who found themselves dropped to the ‘A’ team to make way for an Aussie on huge money – but attracted massive publicity.
Some of the biggest names in the game graced the north of England during those winter days and there was no greater attraction than powerhouse Aussie winger Eric Grothe.
Known as Rolling Thunder or The Guru, Grothe scored 21 tries in 14 games on the Kangaroos’ 1982 tour of England and France – including a sensational touchdown against Leeds, when he ran over the top of Alan Smith – and made eight Test appearances from 1982-84.
At club level he starred for Parramatta as they secured Premiership triumphs in 1981, 82, 83 and 86. One of the world’s best and most exciting players, Leeds’ management hoped he would have a similar influence at Headingley.
Grothe was built like a prop-forward, but had a three-quarter’s speed and boasted a sledgehammer hand-off.
A crowd of 7,820 – more than turned up for the Boxing Day derby against Castleford – paid to see his debut against Leigh on New Year’s Day, 1985.
They were rewarded as Grothe became only the second Leeds player to score three tries in his first senior game, after Alan Smith, as the visitors were pulverised 38-5.
Leeds’ supporters and management believed Grothe could inspire a charge for silverware, but the Loiners lost to Hull in a John Player Special semi-final 30 years ago today, were beaten by Widnes in the Challenge Cup first round, finished fourth in the league and were pipped 15-14 at champions Hull KR in a Premiership semi-final.
That was Grothe’s 16th and final game for Leeds and he touched down for the 14th time.
He didn’t get the best service from his team-mates, but his commitment to the cause was undoubted and he demonstrated his defensive abilities with three try-saving tackles in a win over Castleford at Wheldon Road.
The weather wasn’t kind to Grothe, who had to contend with unfamiliar freezing conditions.
At the end of January Leeds were drawn at home to Bridgend in a Challenge Cup preliminary round tie.
Kick-off was delayed as the visitors’ coach struggled through a huge blizzard.
And when they did arrive Grothe – his shaggy beard caked in snow – scored a hat-trick of tries before being taken off suffering from suspected hypothermia.