JACKSON Garlick was a five-year-old when he rode on the shoulders of his father Sean in Sydney’s biggest peace-time rally to protest the expulsion of the Rabbitohs from the NRL.
A few months ago, his father watched proudly as Jackson made his debut for South Sydney’s Toyota Cup team. “It’s hard to believe he was there with me that day and now he’s playing in the under 20s,” Garlick said. “It makes you feel so proud.”
Souths back-rower Jason Clark was also among the 80,000 people who marched from Redfern Oval to Sydney Town Hall, where speakers such as Phil Gould, Andrew Denton and Alan Jones joined Rabbitohs patriarch George Piggins in declaring war on News Ltd over the decision.
Now Clark is on the verge of playing in only Souths’ second finals campaign since 1989, and possibly the club’s first premiership team in 41 years.
“My dad and I … we went through the march,” Clark said. “I loved every bit of it and I am glad just to be able to say that I was there.
“To think that South Sydney could be in a grand final, I think the streets would be red and green for a long time to come.”
That is what people such as Sean Garlick, who was club captain when Souths were kicked out of the NRL at the end of the 1999 season, current chairman Nicholas Pappas – the lawyer who dared to take on the might of the Murdoch empire – and, of course, Piggins, fought so hard for.
“Mate, it will be a bigger party than when Sydney had the Olympics if Souths were to win,” said Peter Basha, who was the life-long fan seen jumping for joy with his wife Anali in footage of the moment it was announced on July 6, 2001 that the Rabbitohs had won their court battle for reinstatement.
“I reckon the whole city would have to go into lockdown. What a great story that would be.”
For Russell Crowe, who along with Peter Holmes a Court owns 75 per cent of Souths, the story of how the Rabbitohs have gone from being kicked out of the competition to now being on the cusp of winning it would make a better script than any movie he has starred in.
Even without much recent on-field success, Souths are the sole Sydney club to produce an operating profit, are second only to Brisbane in membership numbers (22,000) and are set to announce new two-year sponsorship deals with DeLonghi and Kenwood that will take the value of the Rabbitohs jersey to $2.6 million.
Yet if News Ltd had got its way, the NRL’s oldest club would be extinct.
Souths were the only club not included in any form – including a merger or relocation – in News Ltd’s original Super League proposal and, once it was agreed to reduce the number of teams to 14 as part of the compromise with ARL to reunite the two competitions, the Rabbitohs had no hope.
“When it was announced on October 30, 1999 – I still remember the date – there was this absolute sense of disbelief and a real sickening feeling in the stomach that maybe it was all over,” Pappas said.
“But we realised that we either took them on or we put the jersey in the case, so we decided to battle on and that was very much motivated by George’s resilient character.”
Garlick added: “It was exasperation, it was futility, it was what else do you do.
”When you march in the streets, it is because you have got to the end of your tether. But to get so many people was a real vindication of what we were doing, and the supporters weren’t just from Souths. They were from Newcastle, they were from Parramatta and they were from rugby league areas that just fundamentally disagreed with what was going on.”
Among those who marched on November 14, 2000 was Souths great and former NSW sports minister Michael Cleary.
“I thought it was the end, I thought there was no chance,” Cleary said. “I really thought that George, with all of his dedication, was wasting his time but when he put that march on to Sydney Town Hall, and so many people turned up, I thought something is going to happen out of this.
“I thought News Ltd will just have to bend, they couldn’t stay in the way of that sort of determination to get Souths back into the competition.”
Basha was also at the rally, which drew a bigger crowd than the protests at the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, and he recalls two seasons when he did not have a team to support.
“I honestly didn’t follow the footy for two years,” he said. “I wasn’t interested and I wouldn’t buy any Murdoch papers. I used to drive around with The Sydney Morning Herald on my dashboard just to show my defiance. A lot of people felt the same way and I knew that public sentiment would get us back in.”
However, winning reinstatement was just the beginning of another battle the Rabbitohs have had to overcome to get where they are now.
Fans who the Herald spoke to for this story all said they had expected success to come much quicker but, with just months to prepare for the 2002 season, no players and no money left from the costly court battle, Souths were always going to struggle.
“You can never over-estimate the impact that exclusion from a competition for two years, and a very draining court battle, has on a sporting club,” Pappas said.
“Despite the help that Phil Gould and others gave us to field a team and scrape together the best we could find, we knew that 2002 and 2003 were going to be very challenging years on and off the field.
“In fact, I remember saying to Andrew Denton and Michael Whitney that maybe the battle was only just starting – in the sense that it was going to be very draining for everyone and was going to produce tensions that no one wanted after the euphoria of victory in the courts.”
Those tensions are still there, as evidenced by the letter Piggins wrote to Souths supporters, which was published in The Sun-Herald last Sunday, in which he accused Crowe and Holmes a Court of using private investigators to spy on him in the lead-up to the historic members’ vote in 2006 that gave the pair control of the club.
Piggins, who has not attended a game since, was staunchly opposed to the privatisation of the club, which occurred after a boardroom compromise with Pappas three years earlier in which he relinquished his role as chairman.
“My longer term vision at the time was to look at ways of getting some form of private investment into the club, but getting the club on a stable footing first, which we did over 2003, 2004 and 2005,” Pappas said.
“There was also a vision of de-politicising the club.
”We realised that the cycle of annual meetings was so hotly contested that it took everyone’s eye off the main game.”
That game is winning an elusive 21st premiership and, since Crowe and Holmes a Court took over, Souths’ aim has been to rank consistently in the top-four NRL clubs – both on and off the field.
“We want success on the field and most of the planning we have done is to ensure that we are able to capitalise on it when it comes and we are in a good space to do that,” Souths chief executive Shane Richardson said. “We do have the big end of town, and we have got the sponsors tied up for the next couple of years on our jersey, which is probably the most profitable in the game, and our membership is only second to Brisbane.
“We passed 22,000 last week and, over the next three years, we want to get to 35,000.
“But you don’t jump from habitual wooden spooners to where we are over night.
“It involves the changing of the roster, the changing of the guard and the building of a winning mentality. We were terrible, then we became poor, then we became average and then we became competitive.
“The next step is to become top four. If you are a top four club every year, you are a chance of winning the premiership.”
Pappas was reluctant to describe what winning the premiership would be like, but he said: “We have a whole generation that don’t know success.
”It has been a long time and our kids need another round of success. We believe that if we are consistently in the top four, a premiership will come.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.