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Why my beloved Rabbitohs can't die

Author: Ray Martin
Date: 03/10/1999
Words: 1335
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: News
Page: 69
Rugby league without the mighty Rabbitohs? It would be a tragedy and a sin, argues a passionate Ray Martin, who's spent many seasons barracking for his favourite team. RUPERT Murdoch has never been to Redfern Oval. It's the wrong end of town. Why would he?

Rupert's never caught the train to Central on a Saturday lunchtime, either. Lunchtime, so you could watch all three grades.

Rupert's never made the long trek, through the back-street heart 'n' soul of Surry Hills, to sit on the ragged, wooden seats in an open SCG stand with his dad. Getting absolutely soaked. And loving it. Why would he?

I promise you, he doesn't know what he's missed. Rupert's never wrapped his beloved club scarf around his throat and then screamed himself hoarse.

Rupe Baby has never hugged complete strangers. Never recited the South Sydney mantra: "That's why they call 'em The Mighties!! The Pride of the League. Oh Mate, they're bloody marvellous, aren't they? How good are they!" And other rubbish that normally sane people, wearing red and green, shout at each other.

Why would he?

Rupert doesn't know what he's missed. I promise you.

We know because footy has been a big part of our lives. We love it. At home, round the barbie, down the street or round the coffee urn at work. Doesn't matter whether you followed the Eels, the Bulldogs, the Tigers . . . whoever.

I could never give up being an Australian and I could never give up South Sydney Football Club. I married a Cronulla fan. My kids go to school in North Sydney. But the Rabbitohs make me bleed. Certainly they did in the last six weeks of this year. And the decade before that. But, I love 'em.

Rupert doesn't know about that. How could he?

He's never seen the ghosts of The Little Master, like quicksilver through Saints' defence. He's never seen Bobby McCarthy's rampaging runs. In the days when half the Kangaroos team was made up of South Sydney regulars, I had a scrapbook, crammed with my Rabbitoh heroes.

I would steal the family radio, a bright yellow, Bakelite HMV and take it to bed with me, listening to the early morning static of a Test Match against the Poms, until mum would spring me and drag the HMV back to its rightful spot on the kitchen bench of our fibro Housing Commission place.

How could Rupert know such simple pleasures?

He's never had the privilege of sitting alongside those Aboriginal women at Redfern, down the Mascot end of the ground. They'd seen every home game, every grade (including Jersey Flegg) for a couple of decades. Or more. They knew more about league, its niceties and its nuances, than the best commentators from Frank Hyde to "Rabbits" Warren and back. They never missed a chance to bark at Les Davidson.

"You dropped the bluddy ball at training on Thursdee, Davo . . . haven't you learnt anything, ya' big girl?" They'd laugh and blow him a kiss and the crowd would laugh, too.

Much the same with Mario, or Spud Carroll or Matty Parsons in more recent years.

These women slavishly followed Souths. Because the Mighty Rabbitohs is where so many Aborigines like Simms and Longbottom and the great Clive Churchill all played.

Rupert Murdoch doesn't have that culture. How could he know such truths? It's not his fault.

Ask social workers and psychologists who help patch up the trouble corners of the district.

Ask the mayors. Ask pollies, like Laurie Brereton, who know where every vote hides and where every Labor body is buried. They'll tell you that this is much more than just a football club.

It's a social safety valve for kids, white and black. Playing for Souths has always been a way out of the back streets, a chance to escape the cycle of under-privilege. You could never be a newspaper mogul but you could make it by playing for The Mighty Rabbitohs.

EVEN if you didn't play for the club, you went to school with a kid from Matraville or Erskineville who did. Sport has always been a ladder. None greater than South Sydney.

There's no need to name all those working-class boys who've gone on to glory - or got on with life - by pulling on a red and green jersey. Ask Tugger Coleman, he'll tell you.

With a lock-up-your-daughters, kick-off your suspenders, red-blooded Tina Turner marketing blitz, the ARL had stuck it right up the other footy codes. Rugby league was showing them how to satisfy the fans. Until a media jugger- naut called Super League rolled down Phillip Street filled with gold bullion. Or so it seemed at the time.

Kerry Packer and Channel 9, which had a long-term TV contract with the ARL, told teams to hold the line and threatened a legal blitzkrieg against any lily-livered, footballing foot-soldiers who blinked. Any club that capitulated, they were warned, was headed for the courts.

What happened next is now business and football folklore.

Some of the best clubs and finest players took the money and ran off with Rupert. And, good luck to them - especially the players, who saw a chance to cash-in on the conflict. Wars have always made rich men out of those fit and ready to seize the moment.

Off went Laurie and Alfie and most of the Kangaroo side. Off went Canberra and Cronulla and the Broncos.

But others showed loyalty to the ARL. Old clubs with old-fashioned, outdated values that had given their word to Kerry and Arko and couldn't be bought. Old clubs led by truck-driving hookers like Georgie Piggins, who were brought up believing that a handshake was your word. That you never broke your word. Old clubs that had helped pioneer rugby league and had played a major role in making it truly . . . the greatest game of all.

I'm talking about old battling clubs such as Souths and Norths, Wests and Balmain. Old clubs going through a new golden era such as Manly and Easts and St George. Along with newer franchises such as Newcastle and Illawarra. They all held the line. And look what's happened to most of these loyal AFL clubs. Here's your choice, fellas: amalgamate or die! That was never a choice.

Now, I don't wish Rupert Murdoch any ill-will. I've got huge respect for the man and his media accomplishments.

I keep reading that Rupert lost about $400 million over Super League. But, for businessmen like Rupert, big risks bring big rewards.

The fact is nobody asked Rupert to bankroll Super League. It was always going to be a risk venture.

Rugby league is my passion. And, it's our game. The biggest shareholders in the business of rugby league are the fans. That's you, not News Ltd.

As shareholders, when do you get to have a say? Maybe never. But the arrogance of those who run Super League and have tried to gut South Sydney and the other old-fashioned, old-favourites clubs will - like Jeff Kennett - feel the pain of protest.

ORDINARY Aussies who know my one-eyed loyalties keep asking me: "The Rabbitohs aren't really gonna' go, are they?"

Like me, these are footy fans who just can't believe you can have a rugby league competition without South Sydney. Without "the pride of the league".

Every great sport needs its tradition and its culture. You can't just dump 92 years of Sydney's sporting history because you've lost money on a business venture or because a club refused to jump into bed with you, for old-fashioned moral reasons. That's not what the glory of the game is about.

I'm going to make the trek one more time, from Eddy Avenue, up through the edge of what used to be the "red light" lanes of Surry Hills, across the park to the SCG. I'll do it for Clive Churchill, Jack Rayner, Johnny Sattler, Georgie Piggins and the rest. Just as I did in the 50s with my itinerant old man, when I was nine. But this time I won't go inside the football stadium. I'll take my nine-year-old son, Luke, to see the Sydney Swans. I'll wear my Rabbitohs jersey when we go fishing up near Kempsey.

That'll do me.

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