Tonight’s top of the table blockbuster at the Sydney Cricket Ground isn’t the first time that the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles have come together on the holy turf of the SCG to exchange fur and feathers, in what has proven to be one of the game’s greatest rivalries. Few matches though come close to the 1984 Preliminary Minor Semi Final at the SCG in terms of mental and physical toughness.
After finishing equal fifth on 30 competition points in the regular season, Souths were thrown a mid-week play-off with Canberra to decide who would advance to the semis.
Current Rabbitohs Football Manager, Mark Ellison, had made his debut earlier that year and was part of the side that took on Manly on that fateful 1st of September in ’84 – the Rabbitoh fondly speaking of that season and the match that has become a part of South Sydney folklore.
“I remember playing on the Tuesday night leading into it,” remembered Ellison.
“We’d played on the Sunday, played again on the Tuesday night and then again on the Saturday.
“I think Manly were three to one-on favourites to win the game and Ron Willey, our coach, was interviewed after the Tuesday night game and they asked him ‘what do you think about Saturday’s game?’ He said ‘the only thing I can guarantee you is we’ll turn up’.
“We won the play-off on the back of momentum, and I think by the time Saturday came around, our bodies were just in a state of disrepair.
“But once we got moving, got into the game and got rid of the soreness, we started to play well.”
Chris Close crossed for the first try of the afternoon early on the back of a long backline movement, the big centre jinking inside before crossing. Tony Melrose converted to make it 6-0.
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Some poor defence from Souths allowed a Manly set-play to pay dividends when Des Hasler broke through before passing back on the inside to Kerry Boustead, who raced in under the sticks right in front of the Churchill stand to make it 12-0 with Melrose’s conversion.
Melrose then added to the Sea Eagles’ tally through a penalty goal to make it 14-0. From the ensuing kick-off, Melrose knocked the ball on to put the Rabbitohs in good attacking position for the first time in the match, but failed to come up with points until just before half-time.
Ellison then cited the turning point for the Rabbitohs came in the form of a scuffle that served to put Manly off their game.
Sensing that Manly fullback Melrose was suspect under the high ball, Five eighth Neil Baker began to exploit the weakness by targeting the fullback with towering bombs. The tactic paid dividends when Rabbitohs second rower Bill Hardy came down with the pill in the in-goal to open Souths’ account for the day.
Not long afterwards, a penalty to Souths for a late and high tackle from then Manly player Phil Blake on Baker, allowed the Rabbitohs five-eighth to post an extra two points from close range to make it 14-8.
With the clock winding down on the first half, Souths looked to have the ascendency and the point was proven when Craig Coleman put a bomb up into the Manly in-goal only for Souths winger Ziggy Niszczot to come down with it to remarkably level the scores at 14 apiece going into the sheds as the sun came out – a timely hint for Ellison that luck was on Souths’ side.
“Once we got to 14 all, the sun came out – I’ll never forget it,” said Ellison.
“It was a gloomy day and all of a sudden things seemed to be changing for us.”
After the break, Souths came back into the match the way they finished the first half. Keen to exploit Melrose’s weakness again, the Rabbitohs again went to the air with Niszczot again getting to the ball first, but was unable to get the ball over the line. The Rabbitohs winger threw the ball back over his head before it was spun out to Bill Hardy, who crossed for his second out wide for Souths to take the lead for the first time in the match in the 44th minute.
A massive break from Mario Fenech kept the Rabbitohs on the front foot, but was tackled by Phil Blake. However the Manly half put a second attempt in on Fenech with referee Chris Ward awarding the red and greens a penalty – Baker calmly slotting it to take the score out to 20-14.
A late try to Manly’s Steve Hegarty briefly put the Sea Eagles within striking distance, but another goal to Baker proved to be the clincher – the Rabbitohs coming out 22-18 victors with Grand Final-like celebrations breaking out at the SCG.
“It was a fantastic feeling, particularly when you consider where we’d come from that season, and for me to be playing alongside local juniors like Tugger (Craig Coleman), Mario Fenech – as a young kid you dreamt about playing at the SCG, and to win in those circumstances was just trememendous,” said Ellison.
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