Treebeard: Hroom, hmm, come, my friends. The Ents are going to war. It is likely that we go to our doom. The last march of the Ents.
I turn 30 at the end of the year. A significant milestone some would say. But next week, something far more momentous is happening. The South Sydney Rabbitohs will be playing in the grand final. Momentous because, in my nearly 30 years of life, this has NEVER happened.
People often ask me why I’m a Souths supporter. Truth be told I never wanted to be. For the vast majority of my life I have wished that I wasn’t. But supporting Souths isn’t a choice, it’s something you’re born with, it’s an innate core of your essence. Much like your sexuality, you can choose to embrace it, you can choose to deny it (for a brief couple of weeks as a child I had an affair with the Brandy Alexander led Penny Panthers) but you can’t change it.
I can’t stop being a Souths fan any more than I can stop being Australian or white. I was born this way. My father and uncles played for the red and green, my mother is the most passionate Souths supporter ever born. Her father, my maternal grandfather, is a life member and was as much a part of the club as the red and green benches at Redfern oval - both sadly lost to the ravages of time.
In short, you don’t choose to be a Souths supporter. Who in their right mind would?
Following Souths is pain. It’s disappointment and suffering and frustration, seemingly without end. The days as a child when I would run up and down the aisles while my father dutifully watched Souths and Wests flip a coin to see who would snatch defeat from the jaws of a bumbling victory. Jeremy Schloss’ shoes. The wicked affair of the two-year ostracism, where I would wear my Souths cap to school every single day to the cat calls and jeers and bullying of a rough high school (I was a fat nerd, I really didn’t need to be handing out any more ammunition).
Readmission was a massive win but it was never going to be easy. And boy it wasn’t easy. Coming back into the competition after the June 30 deadline meant there wasn’t a lot of cattle to choose from. There was the captaincy and almost immediate retirement of Adam Muir. Former rep players like Russell Richardson and Glenn Grief. The now infamous Paul “8 seconds left” Stringer. Chris Walkout. Owen “Jenny” Craigie. Nathan Debartolo, Duncan MacGillivray, Brad Watts. (There’s a story - possibly apocryphal - that has been floating around forums for over a decade that our recruitment manager at the time, a man of much merit in the league community and now doing well rebuilding another struggling club, went to see a scrawny fullback who was working as a trackwork jockey and trying to break into the Souths system. The recruitment manager thought he was too small to ever make first grade and arranged a trade with Melbourne for their seasoned backup fullback Watts. The rest, as they say, is history.)
There was the run in 2003/2004 when Souths had 26 consecutive video referee calls go against them.
These were times when you’d go along to every game hoping they didn’t get flogged. You’d never delude yourself with the thought of a win, not even Souths fans are that crazy. You just wanted them to have a good game and make the other team work for it. Sometimes, they did. Sometimes, two or three times a year, hell they even won.
There was the time when Noelene Piggins personally rang me to convince me to vote against Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court’s take over of the club. When I realised that one of the greatest figures of the club’s past did not have a place in it’s future.
There was the endless carousel of halfbacks, each and every one the magical panacea that would bring success. Brad Watts, Willie Peters, Wes Patten, Joe Williams, Mick Moran, Jeremy Smith. At times it felt like whoever held the lucky draw ticket would play halfback that week. Fans would turn up to the games with their boots, half-expecting to get a run.
There was Ashley Harrison, a player who Souths had turned into an Origin mainstay, the hard-running, try-scoring captain of the club who turned his back on us to join the Roosters. That one hurt.
Through all the darkness there were glimmers of hope though. You had to find joy where you could. Being a Souths fan means being possessed of the sort of delusional optimism reserved for religious fanatics and death row prisoners.
Nathan Merritt carrying the club single-handedly for the better part of a decade. One of the most gifted wingers to ever play the game. He was the competitions leading try scorer in 2006 and 2011 but the 2006 achievement is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in rugby league history. The entire year he was locked in a duel with Manly’s Brett Stewart (who was at the height of his ability) for top try scorer. In the end Merritt shaded him 22 tries to 21. Manly finished that year fifth. Souths ran last. Merritt scored 22 tries in a team that won only three games. When he retires at the end of this year he will enter folklore as one of the greatest players to ever pull on the cardinal and myrtle, fully deserving of his place in the pantheon alongside the likes of Sattler, McCarthy, Churchill, Treweek etc.
There were some great players in this period who will never receive the accolades they deserve, because they played for the red and green. Players of heart and soul and tenacity who sacrificed greater plaudits because they wore the red and green in the dark years.
Luke “Baz” Stuart, one of the best club men to ever lace on a boot. A man who got the job done. No flair, no flash, he just did his job and did it well. Stuart finished his career with a record of .5 missed tackles per game, his defence was that good.
Shane Rigon, a jack of all trades who covered so many positions. Like Baz he was ever reliable, he just gritted his teeth and got the job done. I maintain if we’d had 17 Shane Rigons we’d have won every game.
Scott Geddes was a great prop. Plagued by injury his whole career but when he was on the park he was devastating. A one club man who stuck through from readmission right through to his retirement, who would have played origin if he’d signed with anyone else. Possessor of the most enormous biceps I have ever seen on a human.
Jason “Doctor” Death (pronounced deeth, like teeth). Another who got the job done. A true club man and a South Sydney icon. I remember vividly and fondly that Death tried to retire from the game three times, each time the Souths fans would chant “one more year, one more year” and he did. But the third time was the charm and he faded into the mists of time.
Shane Walker, another hooker and a fan favourite, unlike his brother. When every vicious spray of vective against Chris Walker from the stands was followed by the caveat “sorry Shane”.
You learned to savour every small victory, because there sure as hell wasn’t going to be a bigger one.
I vividly remember one game (August 20th 2005) when Souths played the arch enemy, the Sydney Roosters. The penalty count was 6-0 in the 20th minute when Russell Smith finally blew the whistle in Souths favour. The fans went into rapture. Later the thug Mick Crocker was sent to the sin bin for a cheap shot (way back before he was Michael Crocker, Souths inspirational captain). Ben “Sandpit” Walker’s penalty goal hit the posts and bounced in to draw level. Later he would kick a stunning field goal to win 17-16. We celebrated like we had won the grand final. We still finished second last that year, but for that week I felt I knew what it might be like to win a grand final.
Now, against all odds, I might actually find out for sure.
There’s still a game to play. Souths haven’t won yet. They might even lose, but no fan base is better prepared for that. That’s normal for us, it’s the crazy winning we have trouble coming to terms with.
To put it in perspective, this is the first grand final in my entire life that I haven’t had to choose a side. The first time I haven’t had to work out who I liked more or who I hated more. This time, the choice is made for me - my team will be there at the big dance.
I’ve never been here. I don’t know what to do. There was a moment in the preliminary final when Souths were ahead by 10 points and the game had finished three hours earlier and I still thought they might lose. I don’t know how one is supposed to act when their team has a shot at the title. But damn if it isn’t exciting finding out.