How the Eels kept French away from six rival clubs
PARRAMATTA fans might not like him, but they should take a moment to thank Ricky Stuart.
When six rival NRL clubs were bidding for Bevan French's signature, it was the then Eels coach who made the greatest impression on the star in the making.
So much so, French even had a "Ricky clause" inserted in his deal. If Stuart were to leave the club, French was free to break his contract and follow him.
Funnily enough, the ink wasn't even a few months dry on the paperwork when Stuart left for Canberra.
Fortunately for the Eels, French stayed.
But it all started with Stuart. Well, actually it started in a small country town in NSW.
A scrawny 17-year-old French was running around in Coonabarabran with the No.15 on his back for Tingha when Eels recruitment officer Anthony Field spotted him.
He knew nothing about him other than the fact he wanted to sign him. In 20 minutes he saw French play fullback, centre and halfback. He'd scored a try using his speed and set up another with a slick cut-out pass.
While no deal was signed that day, the courting process had begun and over the next month the Eels weren't alone in their pursuit as French starred in the NSW Combined High School selection trials.
With the backing of Field and former head of recruitment Peter Nolan, Stuart was on board.
So much so, he made sure French knew just how respect they had for him.
"I came in on captain's run and they stopped captain's run for everyone to come over and say hello to me," French told foxsports.com.au.
"That made me feel comfortable."
That was just the start of Stuart's bid to land French's signature.
The following day he was a VIP guest for Parramatta's clash with South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
The club had initially organised tickets for him and his mother Tiffany to watch the game from the stands, but Stuart upped the ante.
He invited French to join him in the coach's box.
While his mum enjoyed the game as part of the crowd, French spent the entire match sitting behind Stuart and his coaching staff.
"I'd never been to a game before and when I came down he took me into the coach's box for the game. That's something I'll never forget," French recalled.
"I went from never being to a game to sitting in the coach's box.
"You see them on telly having their dummy spits and he blew up a couple of times. You see it on telly but to be in there is a different thing."
The following week he boarded a plane for Melbourne.
There he met Craig Bellamy and Storm football manager Frank Ponissi.
The tour was pretty simple. They looked around the Storm's AAMI Park training base in the afternoon before settling in to enjoy the game.
"It was everything you read about with Melbourne," French recalled.
"I went down and met with the coaching staff. They took me through (the club) and there was a game on that day. We were watching a bit of Billy's (Slater) game and how much I could learn.
"They were plain and simple. Hard work and what you give is what you get out."
Melbourne wasn't alone in its pitch to French, with Newcastle, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast also making bids.
"It was always going to be Melbourne or Parra," French said.
"From what my manager said, development-wise I was going to learn a lot more coming through these two clubs. I think Parra was a bit closer to home. When I first moved here I struggled a bit with homesickness.
"I had to take into consideration the depth they had with Billy Slater down in Melbourne so I weighed up all the options."
Ultimately he signed a modest deal with the blue and golds with his "Ricky Clause" inserted into the contract.
A few months later Stuart announced he was leaving the Eels to sign a three-year-deal with the Raiders.
But French never gave activating his option a thought.
"That clause said if Ricky was to go, I could go as well," he said.
"I came down here and I had family down here. I had my uncle living close.
I've seen a lot of rural kids, young indigenous kids come down for the opportunity and they're great players but they just miss home too much and end up leaving.
"That was sort of also what got me over the line, knowing my uncle was five minutes by and the development side of things. It all worked out pretty well."
As we know, Brad Arthur came in to take over.
Having spent four years at the Storm, Arthur was with Manly as an assistant coach when French was weighing up whether to join the Storm or Eels.
The fact they hadn't previously met was irrelevant.
It was Arthur who gave French his NRL start and is backing him as their No.1 and a vital cog in the future of the club.
"I'm glad I chose to come to Parra," French said.
"I think BA has brought a bit of that from Melbourne anyway. He was an assistant there. He's been good and made us very professional."