With the South Sydney Rabbitohs about to take on the Penrith Panthers in this season's NRL grand final showdown, BILL WATT reflects on more than 50 years of supporting the mighty Red and Green.
It was a Saturday morning - September 19, 1970 - and a young Scottish immigrant mum was hurrying her three kids along Botany Road in Mascot. It was shopping day and her husband, a shift worker, was slogging it out at ICI chemical plant East Botany.
As a nine-year-old I usually hated that shopping journey with Mum and sisters Susan (10) and Nicola (5). We got dragged to Mascot for the butchers, whose floors were covered in sawdust, the fruit and vegie shop, groceries, haircuts, school shoes, uniforms and what seemed like everything else. It was torture ... and then we had to cart it home again.
But this particular day was special. Our local heroes - the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team - had made their fourth grand final in a row and were to play later that day in the season finale against Manly at the SCG.
All the way from Wentworth Ave, East Botany to Mascot on the 310 bus we were passing houses and cars decorated in red and green streamers and balloons. It was party time in our local area and all everybody could talk about was the grand final. And, when we got off the bus at Mascot, for once it wasn't like purgatory. The shops were a festival of red and green with nearly all the stores decked out in the cardinal and myrtle of the local heroes.
I clearly remember my big sister Susan and I counting the cars with Rabbitohs streamers and forcing little sister Nicola to count the ones with Manly streamers. Susan and I won that contest. It was a kind of pre-match triumph for us, though a bit cruel for little Nicola. There were dozens of cars decorated in the red and green. I don't think Nicola got past single digits.
Nicola called me this week from Western Australia and cheekily asked if I wanted her to count the Penrith streamers bedecking the streets of the Perth suburb she calls home. Of course I said yes!
Anyway, that particular grand final was the day that Souths legend and club captain John Sattler had his jaw shattered minutes into the game by a wild swinging arm from Manly prop John Bucknall.
He stayed on the field in an incredible feat of bravery until the end of the game. He left it a hero at fulltime with the Rabbitohs 23-12 winners. Of course, it's the stuff of legend, and there is even a great song that takes me back to those glory days - The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw, by Perry Keyes. I've played it a lot this week.
I watched that grand final live on a tiny black and white TV at our flat (not an apartment!) in East Botany with my family and even Dad got home from work to see the glorious end. The TV was black and white but Mascot shops on that day will forever be full technicolour red and green in my mind!
We had arrived in Australia three years earlier, and it was a pretty tough environment for a skinny freckle faced kid with a Scottish accent. Part of a group of largely migrant families, we were known as the flat kids in the local area. It wasn't meant as a compliment.
It didn't help that Mum didn't let me play rugby league. She thought it was uncivilised. That from a person who told me to "punch in the nose" any boys that called me a pommy. There was barely enough boys at Pagewood Primary School to make up a senior and junior footy side, so me not playing league was a big issue. Nearly everybody else did. But Mum couldn't stop me from supporting a rugby league team. And there wasn't any choice there - it had to be Souths. From that one decision, came a creeping credibility among my peers that I was actually an Aussie.
I remember supporting Souths through 1969 and clearly recall losing to Balmain in the grand final that year thanks to questionable tactics from the Tigers and, of course, dodgy refereeing (a theme in my rugby league support).
A year after the Sattler's Jaw grand final the Rabbitohs took out their fourth grand final in five seasons beating the Dragons 16-10. Once again I cheered them on watching on our wee black and white telly. It seemed that I had really jumped on a winner.
THE LEAN YEARS
But then the doldrums hit ... and they lasted 43 years. As the Seventies rolled on the Rabbitohs fortunes failed to again hit the dizzying heights. Even some of my mates at South Sydney Boys High School lost the faith, swinging over to support triumphant Manly and Roosters teams.
Of course there was a hard core of us that never flinched. My schoolmate David, his brother Mark and I even attended the last game of the 1977 season against wooden spooners Newtown with 3000 others in the hope of seeing the fourth win of a miserable season. It didn't happen. That day at Henson Park was a sad low point when we handed the Bluebags their second win of the season 33-20. It was a short trip home, but it felt like the other side of the world.
It was a year later, with Souths pushing for a semi spot, that I realised my Rabbitohs romance could be a long and unforgiving ride. Redfern Oval - the Rabbitohs glorious (and much missed) HQ - was buzzing and I was with my schoolmate David again. The Rabbitohs bounced out of the traps to lead an ever improving Parramatta Eels 10-0. Here we go! But it wasn't to be ... and we slumped to a 50-10 defeat. No semis that year.
And there have been plenty of standout failures since. For example, I was at the SCG when the otherwise talented Steve Mavin dropped the ball three times in a finals clash with Canberra and was hooked after just 16 minutes as the Raiders crushed us 46-12.
It even got to the stage where I would go to the games with my young boys and my old mate David and his three kids and before the game we would boldly state: "The score's irrelevant". But, there was always some truth in that statement ... the important thing for us was being at the game, donning the red and green, and cheering for our boys, no matter what the result.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
But, even that simple delight was challenged in the most dramatic way. I was in the last days of long stint working at The Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1999 when word broke that Souths were going to be axed from the NRL competition. Along with tens of thousands of others, I was devastated.
It was a very small consolation that my farewell present from the Telegraph staff was a Rabbitohs jumper signed by the players on what might have been the team's last ever training session. I'm pretty sure that of the players that signed the jumper, only Craig Wing once again pulled on the red and green in an NRL strip ... and that was after years starring for the hated Roosters.
Heroically, South Sydney, its fans and much of the rugby league community, led by club stalwart George Piggins, stood up to the bullies that had ejected Souths and conjured up our return. I couldn't march in the massive pro-Souths demos but, in my new role at The Sun-Herald, helped engineer the printing and distribution of posters for those attending the rallies.
It was a Friday night of mixed emotions at the Sydney Football stadium on the Ides of March in 2002 when the Rabbitohs returned to their rightful place on an NRL field. There was the joy of cheering on the red and green, the anger that those who tried to destroy the club were now publicly lauding the club's history and the despair of losing to the Roosters 40-12.
LIGHT IN DARK PLACES
It would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to mention a few of the brilliant moments in the doldrum decades that preceded our grand final win redemption in 2014.
Like the 1984 preliminary semi where we sank to an early 14-0 deficit against Manly. I was working in Melbourne then amongst a bunch of people that labelled legue players "bumsniffers" (Ironic considering the subsequent emergence of the Melbourne Storm as a rugby league force). So, I sat up in my little Brunswick flat alone. The 12 inch portable black and white TV perched on the arm of my lounge with me at the other end.
14-0 down felt like the end of the world, the only consolation was that no-one in Bleak City cared. But redemption came swiftly. The Rabbitohs made a stunning comeback with big Bill Hardy crashing over for two tries and cult hero Ziggy Niszczot scoring another. We won 22-18 and a knock on the door from a neighbour to check I was OK is testimony that I was rather loud and pretty excited about it all.
Then there was a the run that took us to the 1989 minor-premiership, although we were tossed out backwards in the finals series with losses to the Tigers and Raiders.
And, who can forget the Monday night at ANZ Stadium when we were losing to the Chooks by 10 points with two minutes to go, and got up 24-22 on the last play of the game with a brilliant try finished by a young Adam Reynolds.
Its also worth honouring the oft forgotten magnificence of my Rabbitohs heroes who never tasted premiership success with the Rabbitohs ... like Terry Fahey, Mario Fenech, Lindsay Johnston, Nathan Merritt, Roy Asotasi, Paul Mellor, Craig Coleman, Mark Spud Carroll, Ziggy Niszcot, Rocky Laurie, Ian Roberts, Les Davidson and so many others.
43 YEARS OF PAIN ENDS
I remember the last time tears left these ageing eyes ... it was about two minutes from full time in the 2014 Grand Final against Canterbury Bulldog. I was sitting at ANZ stadium with my two sons, Daniel and Callum, who had no true idea of what it was like to endure the ups and downs of a 43-year premiership drought. Suddenly I realised that the Rabbitohs' 21st Premiership was in the bag, and the tears started to flow. Just for a second or two mind you ... then it was back singing Glory Glory To South Sydney, and revelling in the success of a new breed of Rabbitohs heroes ... GI, Johnny Sutton (my all-time favourite player), the Burgess brothers, Adam Reynolds, Alex Johnston etc. A 30-6 grand final win - what a moment!
It's been seven years since that landmark victory and my son Callum this week was talking about the need to end the pain of a seven-year drought with victory over the Panthers. I just sighed.
I can't get to this year's grand final against Penrith to support our team with family and lifelong Rabbitohs mates thanks to the bastard Covid pandemic. But it won't stop me cheering the red and green on loudly and passionately. At least the television coverage will be in colour, and my television is substantially bigger than the screen on which I once saw John Sattler break his jaw all those years ago.
GO THE MIGHTY RABBITOHS!