Nearly 25 years ago to the day, the South Sydney Rabbitohs completed one of the greatest underdog stories in Rugby League history in the same town they will play in this weekend.
Season 1994 was a bright spot in an otherwise dire time for the Club, with financial pressures and the birth of professionalism in the game. Kicking off the year was the Tooheys Challenge Cup - a pre-season knock-out competition that would see the winner take home a prize of $200,000.
The Red and Green were outsiders throughout the whole competition, taking out Western Suburbs 16-10 in the first round in Port Macquarie, before disposing of St. George thanks to a last-minute intercept try to David Penna. Balmain were the next victims, with the Rabbitohs winning 16-4 in the semi-final.
The Rabbitohs would take on the NSWRL’s reigning Premiers - the Brisbane Broncos - in the final, with nearly 15,000 people packed into Lavington Sports Ground in Albury to witness history.
A true David and Goliath battle was on - the Broncos boasted premiership-winners with the likes of Allan Langer, Steve Renouf, Glenn Lazarus, and Kevin Walters. The Rabbitohs, on the other hand, had a relatively unknown side filled with youngsters that brought a breath of fresh air to the side, led by head coach Bob McCarthy.
McCarthy, having played in the championship Rabbitohs sides of the 1960s and 1970s, is no stranger to success, and reflected on his young side’s ride to the final.
"We scraped into the final after beating a couple of sides that had been in the semis the year before,” McCarthy explained.
“We were on a bit of a high and we had a lot of players that were no-names.
“We played against the Broncos who, if memory serves me right, just came back from winning the World Club Challenge, so they were world champions.
“We played them down in Albury-Wodonga, and we just thought we’d go out and give it our best.”
We played every quarter, we didn’t try play the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons that saved us.
Despite being given next to no chance to win, the exciting young crop put on a show - at one point leading 23-10 just past half-way on their way to the biggest upset of the 1990s.
The Broncos, however, had other plans, and with fifteen minutes left, led 26-23 thanks to a hat-trick of tries - but it wasn’t until a Craig Field try in the 72nd minute that saw the Rabbitohs record a historic 27-26 victory.
Being a pre-season competition, the format of the match was split into quarters as opposed to the regular two halves of football, which is what McCarthy believes is what helped to bring his side home.
“We played every quarter, we didn’t try to play the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons that saved us,” McCarthy said.
“Every time the Broncos were going to come over the top of us, the quarter came up and it gave us a bit of a respite where we could recoup and regather our thoughts, and then attack the next twenty minutes.
“I remember we came in at half-time and the players were really elated and I just told them ‘Look, these boys are just like you; they bleed. Just keep playing the way you are.’”
It was a very different sort of atmosphere to what I had been used to, but the main thing was that South Sydney won another competition
“I remember in the last quarter, Dean Schifilliti our captained said ‘What should I tell the players?’ and I just said ‘Just keep telling them the way they’re playing, just keep playing the way they are’.
“We just rode that last 20 minutes and they kept shooting everything at us barring the kitchen sink, and we were able to finally get the win.”
With jubilation in the air after the full-time siren sounded, the celebrations continued throughout the night in Albury.
As Bob’s players went into town to party all through the night, the four-time premiership winner decided to take a different route and retire to the team motel - finding himself in an unfamiliar yet equally memorable moment.
“It wasn’t like a normal South Sydney win because we couldn’t go back to the League’s Club!” he said.
“I remember I went back to where the guys were going to some party or dance in town. They were all kids and I thought ‘I can’t handle this’ so I went back to the motel we stayed at.
“Instead of celebrating the win like we would have in the old days, with all the people back at Redfern celebrating at the League’s Club, I celebrated in the bar of this motel we stayed at with a bloke who was talking about sheep and cattle and the guy who owned the motel.
“It was a very different sort of atmosphere to what I had been used to, but the main thing was that South Sydney won another competition.”
This time around, the Rabbitohs will be playing a combined Riverina side, and although there isn’t any prize on offer, the memories of the 1994 Tooheys Challenge will live on for both the Club and the residents of Albury.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 27 (Jeremy Donougher, Tyran Smith, Shane Wilson, Paul Mellor, Craig Field tries; Jamie Corcoran 3 goals; Duncan McRae field goal)
Brisbane Broncos 26 (Willie Carne 2, Steve Renouf, Kevin Walters, Terry Matterson tries; Terry Matterson 3 goals)
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