Almanac Rugby League – There’s always next year

“What we do tonight echoes in eternity”

With those immortal words, the Gladiator Russell Crowe fired up his band of underdogs to bravely take on the might of the Romans.

The Gladiator of course now owns the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who with a last premiership win way back in 1971 could be put in a similar underdog category to those gladiators from the Roman era.

But on Friday Night Football on 2 September 2011 there weren’t any Romans.  There weren’t even any Lions.  There was, however, an atmosphere at Ausgrid Stadium in Newcastle with surely no less fever pitch intensity than would have been found at any Roman Coliseum on Man v Wild night.

In addition, the prize on offer to this long suffering Rabbitohs fanatic seemed no less precious than the freedom fought for by those brave gladiators – a place in the NRL finals for 2011.

The Emperor of the Knights is Australia’s richest man under 40 years old, the mining magnate, big Nathan Tinkler.  Tinkler has made his money on the back of the Chinese Lion economy, perfectly suiting his role as the enemy of The Gladiator on this massive night of rugby league.

Although the Newcastle Knights of 2011 proved to be more than worthy opposition for the Rabbitohs, even more concerningly was that next year Tinkler will have at his disposal the greatest coach in the history of rugby league in Wayne Bennett in addition to a star studded squad lured no doubt by megabucks and the chance to play under the Supercoach.

In my 30 years of passionately following the Rabbitohs there has been the fine season of 1989 and………ahhhh….1989.  That was the year when we dared to dream that maybe David’s team of Mavin, Longbottom, Serdaris and Djura could beat Goliath’s star studded squad of Meninga, Clyde, Daley and the appropriately named Lazarus. As history tells us, sadly it would have taken more than a slingshot to stop the Green Machine, particularly in the case of Meninga where even David in a Sherman tank may still not have been enough to stop the man mountain.

 

Since 1989 South Sydney has made the finals on only one occasion. Once. That is once in over 20 years when half the teams every year make the finals.  You don’t need a mathematician to tell you that ain’t a great return on your passionate support.

 

Th only shining light in the past 20 years was 2007 when the red and greens somehow snuck into the finals.  I duly made the trip up from my home city of Melbourne, proudly decked out in my circa 1988 Smith Crisps sponsored Rabbitohs jersey.  For what turned out to be one of the worst nights of my life at Brookvale Oval when Souths were trounced 30 – 6.

 

But enough of past failures.  This night offered the chance to right recent wrongs, to continue an incredible run of form that surely reached its peak in Round 24 when the Rabbitohs season was all but over against the Cowboys but somehow a miracle win ensued.

 

The winner this epic in the making would finish the 2011 NRL season in eighth place, the loser would come ninth and would be forced to dream of what could have been. Rarely has a final round match carried such do or die tension for both teams involved.

 

Somewhat ominously, the Rabbitohs arrived at Ausgrid Stadium as the Knights prepared to farewell club legend Adam McDougall, the man known as Mad Dog.  Mad Dog may possibly have earnt his name due to his pre match routine of addressing each of his thighs in turn, each carrying a separate name to which Mad Dog would direct aggressive pre match directions.

 

Much like Mark “Spud” Carroll who would down at least a dozen potatoes before every game, it would be a brave man who would question a rugby league player on why he prepares the way he does to play the toughest sport on earth.  They do what they have to do, and we as fans are lucky enough to just be able to sit back and enjoy the greatest game of all.

 

I have long admired Mad Dog, a man who takes less backward steps than Tony Abbott and who also possseses the grace, power and determination required to reach elite status in the game of rugby league.

 

I have also always been a fan of the passionate city of Newcastle, which, much like Geelong, is a city of football fanaticism where only one team rules the roost.  The city of Geelong even has billboards as you enter the city stating that Cats fanaticism is “in our DNA”.  No doubt any genetic tests conducted on any resident in the city of Newcastle would return similar readings.

 

Newcastle and the Rabbitohs origins in Redfern have both long carried reputations as blue collar areas.  Somewhat ironically, since the arrival of the Gladiator, the blue collar battlers the Rabbitohs have traded in their working class roots and now get about in Armani suits and attend A-List celebrity outings with their Hollywood owner. Surely, however, the downside of such privilege is that you cannot proceed so quickly from rags to riches without losing at least some of the fighting spirit that true battlers possess.

 

I waited for kickoff with a sense of excitement not felt for many years – a feeling that the livewire Chris Sandow could spark some magic, that Dave Taylor could continue to run with the force of a Pamplona Bull, and hopefully that our homegrown hero Nathan Merritt could continue his freakish recent run of try scoring form.

 

And then the fun stopped.

 

Right about when the opening whistle blew.

 

Within 15 minutes the Knights had scored three tries and even the free scoring Rabbitohs team of NRL 2011 looked to be right out of the contest.

 

It was all over quicker than you could utter that old phrase that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  But in this game that old dog, the irrepressible Mad Dog, needed no new tricks to again prevent South Sydney and their long-suffering fans from entering the promised land of finals football.

 

In his curtain call McDougall was exactly as every Rabbitohs fan nervously approaching this game feared he would be. His bullocking runs, brilliant passes and the type of vision only gained through experience ensured that Mad Dog was best on ground. At least he would have been until the winger on his outside, the Fjian flyer Akila Uate, decided to make a greater imprint on one game than has perhaps been seen for many years.

 

Uate scored the last four tries of the game, single handedly killing off the inevitable but ultimately futile South Sydney comeback.  Uate made a very impressive debut for NSW in State of Origin this year and was once described by the legendary Andrew Johns as being the finest athlete he had ever seen.  Fine praise indeed but on this night certainly well deserved.

 

It must be admitted that South Sydney entered this game without their superstar centre Greg Inglis, their best forward Sam Burgess and their captain Roy Asotasi but great teams overcome such adversity. This year’s Storm lineup started the season with more unknowns than Albania’s Got Talent but just this week they collected the minor premiership, a tribute to fine coaching, committed players and a self belief sourced from a winning culture.

 

South Sydney have always been famous for their fighting spirit and on this night they showed a typical fightback, but only once the game was already over and the Knights were already looking ahead to week one of the finals.

 

Unfortunately, nothing that the Rabbitohs showed tonight will, in the immortal words of their owner The Gladiator echo into etermity, or even at least into the 2011 NRL Finals.  Sadly, the only noise that emanated from Newcastle on 2 September 2011 was a spirited but ultimately hollow echo that looks like reverbarating for seasons to come.

 

My good friend and fellow Rabbitohs fanatic William Gotsis, who would drive to Ayers Rock to watch the Bunnies if they put on a match there, has reminded me in true time-honoured South Sydney tradition that “there is always next year”.

 

That type of attitude is typical of us long-suffering South Sydney fans who are nothing without our faith.  It has however now reached the stage where we wouldnt mind trading in some of that faith for some of the “Glory, Glory” from our famous theme song…

 

Critics have already written off the Knights’ chances in Melbourne against the Storm this weekend in week one of the finals.  Ironically on what was seen tonight it may well be the Knights who are in fact playing more like the inspired troops of The Gladiator, rather than the Armani clad men in red and green.

 

Venue: Ausgrid Stadium, Newcastle  

 

Crowd: As many as they could fit in

 

South Sydney Rabbitohs  (Tries: Corrigan 19m, Merritt 56m, McQueen 64m, Merritt 74m Goals: Sandow 4/4)

 

Newcastle Knights  (Tries: De Gois 7m, Kaufusi 11m, Houston 15m, Uate 27, 35, 50, 80m Goals: Gidley 5/6 McDougall 1/1!!)

 

Votes: 3- Uate (Newcastle)    2- McDougall  (Newcastle) 1- Merritt (South Sydney)

 

 

 

 

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