During the 80s on the Central Coast a young Blake Solly - now CEO of the South Sydney Rabbitohs - would run around barefoot with his red and green jersey and a football his dad gave him. His father and grandfather were proud Souths supporters and his mother was a Magpies fan - you couldn’t escape rugby league in that household.
The dinnertime conversations back then would be about footy; who they liked, who they didn’t, what excited them, and a young Blake would often find himself heading to Sydney on the weekends to watch games with his family. Things haven’t changed much in the Solly household in almost 40 years, this weekend he’ll still head back and talk footy with his mum ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Canberra Raiders at Central Coast Stadium.
In 1982 Blake was called to the dinner table by his mother and the family conversation was an especially exciting one due to the emergence of two NSWRL expansion teams; the Illawarra Steelers and the Canberra Raiders. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Canberra Raiders would prove to be an especially difficult team for the Rabbitohs over the coming decades. The became a frustrating team, and as Mark Courtney puts it in the Book of Feuds: “an absolute pain”.
“Most of my childhood memories revolve around rugby league. I grew up on the Central Coast which is fitting given this game is going to be played up there. All day, night, dinner table, breakfast table was talking rugby league. My grandparents were huge fans, my parents were huge fans, my sister didn’t really have a choice she just had to go along with the flow,” said Solly.
“I know for one thing - when I got back to the Central Coast and have dinner with mum, either the night before the game or the night of the game we’ll still be talking about football so there are some things that never change in 35 years. I think the game itself is going to be fantastic - over those 35 years we’ve built up a great rivalry with the Raiders so all those big games, like the ’87 game, like the ’89 game, like our 2002 game have built now a rivalry that we can’t wait to play against them. We can’t wait to get up there on the Central Coast and rip in."
“[When] the Raiders and Illawarra came in, most people didn’t really know what to make of it. Watching [the Raiders] grow from a new entrant, through the 80s, to be an absolute powerhouse by the end of it - the ’87 grand final, ’89 grand final - they went from being a team people would look at quizzically to being a team that people would admire because they were so strong and so good,” said Solly.
“In some ways you hated playing against them because they were so good and I know they broke our hearts a couple of times; the farewell to Redfern, then in the ’89 preliminary final. You went from not really sure about them to respecting how good they were then also being frustrated because they were so hard to beat.”
Time passed on the Central Coast and Solly found himself more entrenched in rugby league. When he was finishing high school in 1995 his hopes for an incredible season of football, off the back of a highly entertaining 1994 season, were dashed by the emergence of the Super League war - a war that saw the Raiders defect to the rival code and destabilise the game.
“’95 was my last year at school and ’95 was the first year the Super League war broke out. I think ’94 was probably the best season the game has had in 50-60 years. Origin series had been fantastic, the whole competition had been brilliant, the Kangaroos tour had been a huge success, so everyone was really excited about 1995 and then it kind of, in some ways all that optimism, was extinguished when the Super League war broke out,” recalls Solly.
“The Raiders moved to the Super League and I think from that moment on if you were a fan of Souths or any ARL club - Wests, Balmain - you felt like the dice was loaded against you and you were fighting very hard for your survival whilst those clubs who had aligned themselves with News Limited had a softer run, an easier run, whether or not that was true I’m not sure but certainly as a fan that’s what you perceived that those clubs that had moved over to Super League and News Limited initially were going to be protected and that the rest of us were all scrapping around for survival.
“It was immensely frustrating. It was always interesting to hear guys like Nick (Pappas) talk about a very fleeting discussion about the Raiders and Rabbitohs merging at one stage that didn’t last very long but that was about as close as the Raiders got to having any pressure on them. As where, unfortunately for the Rabbitohs and other clubs that aligned themselves with the ARL, they were always being discussed as a merger option with any number of teams. So it always felt there were a protected set of species and the Rabbitohs, and to an extend the Tigers and Magpies, weren’t one of them.”