I sit back in my Melbourne room, with cold feet and a wind howling outside feeling slightly unbelieving. For the previous three days I had felt like I’d witnessed something truly momentous. It’s a rare feeling. Being part of something properly important and truly bigger than just you. From the shared anticipation and anxiety beforehand to the beeps, smiles, hugs, high-fives, disbelief and never ending stream of euphoria and shouts of ‘go the bunnies’ afterwards, it was a result that seemed to touch almost everyone I came across, and united and excited a whole community like nothing else ever has.
It was a game and result that has generated innumerable stories. And so it should have, the South Sydney Rabbitohs have existed for 106 years. Its history looms over the game of rugby league like no other side. Success, pride, slide, execution, and the slow and then star-studded and spectacular return and rise to its day with destiny in 2014.
Most of us have only gotten to experience the last fair few tumultuous chapters, the preface and opening pages of the club’s history, all yellowed and sepia-toned in another time to ours. We have the near miss of the SmIThs CrISps and gobbledock era of the all conquering minor premiers of 1989, who went missing come spring, and bundled out of the finals and into ignominy by finishing last the next year.
Taking out the Tooheys Challenge in 1994 was one of the few highlights of the 90s, as the club faded into extinction by the end of the decade. But out of this darkness stepped some heroes, and new legends of the club, as we bounced back and returned. It all just made this win much more important and weighty. A team back from the brink, having new glory days after crawling back from the badlands. Making every crushing defeat, ill-advised recruit, daft pre-game entertainment, in-house politicing or short-lived coach that came before it, all but fabric in the fibre of building character. Shared experience that bonds you enough to spark up a chat or a gesture with any fellow cardinal and myrlte clad person that crosses your path, and makes your seatmates and fellow suffering supporters much more than a tribe, but a kinship.
The day itself was the tensest and most nerve-wracked I’ve felt. Could barely speak, think or anything much. Didn’t dare to dream of winning, and couldn’t ponder the despair of losing, especially after witnessing the swans pitiful efforts a week previously. I think it actually hit home as we were watching the Under 20s grand final at the pub in our former stomping grounds of the north west. Seeing the jubilation and desolation out on the field spurred the quote “Grand final day is usually just for watching other teams”. It was surreal that we would be watching our own team on that same field later, playing to go down in greatness, to create their own history. The beers became more frequent, and the conversations and thoughts more reserved, held back by preoccupation. The journey in saw us in a carriage full of false bravado and the rowdiness of youth, caped in flags, tatts and apps in abundance, probably too young to be too scarred by the debacles of the previous decades. The walk from station to stadium seemed to be painfully precise and pensive, not exactly charging headlong towards destiny. I parted with my pals with the almost pleading wish of “hopefully next time I see you we’ll be premiers” and ascended the round ramps to the (not actually very) cheap seats up amid the roof.
The entertainment and that muppet toned-and featured ground announced only served to fray already taught nerves. The glimpses into the boys warming up only making the reality of the occasion settle in. The bell got rung, and the stadium shimmered with sound. The Rabbitohs ran out to the loudest sustained roar I’ve ever heard. The Bulldogs kept them waiting, gamesmanship perhaps, but it didn’t work. It was the most solid start I’ve seen for a while, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Sam Burgess fractured his cheek on the scruffy, steel-like head of the dogs captain in the first hit up of the game. The physical pressure was brutal and I spent most of the game with my hands either holding, clasping or shielding my head in some way. The score and wash-ups will all show a convincing win, but it was only the last five minutes that it was clear that history was unfolding on ANZ stadium. The screen flashed up an image of Sam Burgess crying on the field, Greg Inglis had some damp lids himself, as I’m sure did many in the stands. The South Sydney chant went up, and roared, a last minute try allowed ole Sammy a sideline conversion fairytale finish, and eruptions of ‘Glory Glory’ rang out around the ground as elation and disbelief competed against sheer joy. We cramped into a crowded train and wandered thru the overspilling bars and street screaming masses of Redfern where a gathering on the corner near where the club used to be was just getting giddy. We walked fruitlessly with many other a-thirsty Rabbitoh in the search of beer, but it is Sydney, and lockout and Sunday so there was very slim pickings. Decamped to watch the replay and we all only lasted til half time, but we’d get many a chance to see it all again. After 43 years of waiting, no one is likely to get sick of Souths just yet.
I feel really lucky to have been guided into Rabbitoh supporting by, and privileged to share the day with my dad, who used to play for the Mascot two-blues and souths junior rep teams back in the day. And happy for the extended family of friends and characters that supporting them has introduced me too over the decades. It’s been great hearing everyone’s story this week – here‘s a particularly great one – and while I could add my own here too, it’s best just to enjoy the present than look too far back… and walking around the South of Sydney over the past few days had made me realize it means a hell of a lot more to an area and a district I am no longer a part of or tied to, and am just chuffed to be one of the many that 13 blokes all wearing the same striped jumper have come to inspire, and enliven in some way ever since 1908. And thrilled to be a part of history.