Almanac Rugby League – Fans or brands, principle or product?


It was Round Two of the 2015 NRL season. Souths had already flogged St Helens in the World Club Championship, won the Auckland Nines and put the cleaners through Brisbane a week earlier. On that shiny Sunday arvo at the Olympic Stadium, none of us could have had any inkling of the Black September that lay in wait as the Rabbitohs came from behind to roll the Roosters 34-26. A pulsating game, it had everything – including a length of the field try to Souths’ Alex Johnston when the mighty GI gathered the ball in his own in-goal before beating a handful of defenders and sending the young winger away.


I was still pumped when I dropped into a Surry Hills café for my Monday morning caffeine charge. The bloke behind the counter – I believe they’re called baristas? – was wearing a commemorative T-shirt. A big white rabbit with ‘2014 Premiers’ on it. A man after my own heart. I beamed in solidarity.


“I’ll have an espresso, thanks, mate … and did you go to the game yesty?”


“Huh? … ?” It took him a beat to get my drift. “No, I didn’t. Who won?”


Who won???!!!


This is what it has come to. Hordes of punters mindlessly buying the merchandise of a fashionable footy team without having any connection to what it signifies. In the market place that is contemporary sport, it’s the ‘brand’ that matters, don’t you know?


Shoeless little boys in the Amazon basin gleefully celebrate their place as have-nots in the global economy wearing Chinese manufactured Barcelona soccer shirts with Lionel Messi’s name hugging their skinny shoulders. Kids in Tamil Nadu with not a pot to piss in are unknowing sponsors of the ever-widening gap that separates them from the demi-god Sachin Tendulkar and his trademarked moniker. It is exploitation on an unconscionable scale, and it’s why I haven’t renewed my membership of the South Sydney Rugby League Club – yet.


Signing up without hesitation has been a matter of course for me for a number of years now, but things have changed … or ‘moved on’, as the pragmatists of the world so sagely remind us. Well, maybe I’ve ‘moved on’, too.


I might so easily have become a Newtown supporter like my Old Man and my little brother, Lonno. Growing up in Tempe, Dad would take us to the Bluebags’ home games straight after lunch on Saturday in the days when there was only one match on Sunday. We’d sit on the Henson Park hill, opposite the George V Memorial Grandstand, shielding our eyes from the western sun as Newtown took regular and, when St George turned up, fearful beatings.


Then, one afternoon in the second half of the 60s, the debonair Jimmy Lisle led a South Sydney team of young up-and-comers onto the field – the dashing Michael Cleary, gangly Ron Coote, big Bobby McCarthy, a tough looking hombre with rolled-up sleeves called Johnny Sattler – and it was love at first sight. I was an instant convert to the Cardinal and Myrtle.


As a Rabbitohs tragic, I was finally motivated to take out club membership in response to the Murdoch-led putsch to have Souths permanently consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2002, with News Ltd’s ‘global vision’ surviving only as a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of the great unwashed who love the Game with naïve, bogan devotion, I was at the Sydney Football Stadium with thousands of other teary-eyed die-hards to witness the boys scramble home in the Charity Shield and grab a 20-all draw with the Dragons. My membership has not lapsed since then – until now, and I am in a quandary.


Having made the pilgrimage to the Olympic Stadium to witness Madge Maguire’s side break a 43-year drought and collect the club’s long-overdue twenty-first premiership, I should have been banging down the door with my subscription. But something happened on the way to the Forum. Something that I can’t shrug off.


It harks all the way back to when clubs started sending their players out of the sheds looking like running billboards for whichever business was at that moment willing to pour tax-deductible cash into their coffers. (Ironically, it was Newtown who led the way with ‘Paramount Shirts’ smeared across the royal blue of their simple jersey).


To my eyes, sponsorship logos on footy kits make a mockery of the supreme, gut-busting efforts of the men who wear them. How pathetic it was to see Paul ‘The Chief’ Harragon, showing scant regard for his own welfare, taking it up into the furnace of a waiting defensive line with ‘Henny Penny’ emblazoned over the proud red and blue of the Knights. And to see Mario ‘The Falcon’ Fenech schlepping ‘Smiths Crisps’ from Redfern to Brookie to Jubilee.


Then came the new-age, garish designs, ever-changing in order to skin ever put-upon loyalists. It’s shrewd merchandising, but can anybody tell me what Penrith’s colours really are?


As visual white noise, bludgeoning footy fans’ collective aesthetic, I thought I’d got used to the paradigm of the marketplace – until I logged on to the Rabbitohs’ home page to see what Madge’s team was for that Round Two clash with the Roosters. The latest innovation had resulted in each player’s name being preceded by an individual backer … “at number four, sponsored by Radar Animal and Pest Deterrents, is Bryson Goodwin”. Really?


Like I said, I still haven’t renewed my membership … nor have I called on Radar Animal and Pest Deterrents, honourable though I’ve no doubt they are.


But the hardest pill to swallow has come with the greasy embrace of James Packer. The son of privilege, a scion of the big end of town who entertains celebrities and plutocrats on a you-beaut yacht that has been paid for by the losses of mug punters at his gaudy casinos, Packer is the very epitome of what Souths don’t stand for. He is the antithesis of Rabbitoh lore and legend. At least Rusty’s old man worked as a panel beater on Botany Road.


Those who cherish the club and for half the year see the world through eyes of red and green, have been numbed by the line, force fed to us by financial consultants and strategists, that South Sydney RLFC can only flourish by involving the likes of Packer and similar clout-wielding knobs. Who am I to argue?  But do you think we’ll see Packer roaring his guts out with the rest of the crew in The Burrow?


Soon after his appointment as Souths’ new CEO, an ebullient John Lee put it bluntly, as though it were an unarguable tenet of the new footy fan’s faith:  “When you’re successful, people seek your product.” The Bunnies are my team – not my product, not my franchise, not my brand … or whatever other buzz word the suits and their running dogs in the media are smugly regurgitating.


When it all boils down to it, however, the suits win, because they’ve got me by the balls – and they know it. For all my ranting at their mercenary machinations, their glib platitudes, their breathless PR pronouncements and tawdry gimmickry, the suits are aware that the true believers – me among them – will never abandon the game we love more than any other and the teams with which we identify. To paraphrase the number crunchers, “it’s a sellers’ market”.


None of which matters come the pre-season trials and the shortening days as Autumn approaches. The primeval stirring starts to bubble up – you’d sooner stop the rumbling of Mount Etna than dampen a footy fan’s hunger for kick-off – and with it the eternal optimism that sustains us through every nerve-wracking game. It’s “the roar of the crowd, the smell of the liniment”, it’s the Colours, the eternal struggle of good against bad, and it’s that indefinable high I experience when the Bunnies get up. To not feel a part of it as GI sends AJ on another hair-raising sprint down the sideline would be for me, and thousands like me, out of the question.


I’m old school. I’m Souths forever, so of course I’ve renewed my membership. It was never really in doubt and, after all, there’s a twenty-second premiership to be won.


You can read more of John Campbell’s rugby league pieces click here.

You can view more of John Campbell’s artwork here.


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  1. You nail this in every respect, John – the hip barista with the brand cap about which he is clueless, the poverty-stricken skinny kids in their Messi or Ronaldo shirts. We’ve all seen them. And Henny Penny!?! Hadn’t thought of that one for ages. As Roy and HG would say, ‘It’s a joke!’

    And, as always, I just love the artwork.

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