The longest running rivalry in Rugby League boils down to these two foundation Clubs, formed just one week apart, within a virtual stone’s throw of each other in Sydney 107 years ago – the Rabbitohs and the Roosters. Now for the ninth year running, they will play for the Ron Coote Cup this Sunday.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters (aka Eastern Suburbs or Sydney City) hold a unique place in Rugby League, being the only two foundation clubs left in a game that has seen over a century’s worth of changes. But the colours, the traditions, and the long and fierce rivalry that comes as a result of not only their close proximity but their shared interest in playing talent, has come to define Rugby League rivalry – a rivalry that deepens with every season.
In 2014, the cross-town pleasantries reached new heights when the Rabbitohs, faced with the opportunity to make their first Grand Final since 1971, were pitted against the then-defending Premiers in a Preliminary Final tussle that had Sydney frothing at the mouth and spewing forward red and green, and red white and blue.
Incredibly, the Preliminary Final would be the first time since 1938 that the two sides would meet in a finals match. But despite the flurry of red and green support in the pre-game build-up, as well as having won the Ron Coote Cup, things didn’t go the Rabbitohs’ way immediately.
Two quick tries to Roosters halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney inside the opening ten minutes of the match saw Souths down by 12 points and staring down the barrel of a long night. But everything was about to change, as the Rabbitohs – in part inspired by the aggressive inclusion of Ben Te’o off the interchange bench – marched forth grinding out a 32-22 win to secure their place in the 2014 decider and ultimately go on to Premiership glory.
Before that though, the rivalry boiled over when the Roosters pipped the Rabbitohs in the final seconds of the opening round of 2012 when Anthony Minichiello crossed to deprive the red and greens of victory, breaking Souths fans hearts in the process. But few could have imagined what was to follow in the return (round 19) clash of that same season.
With the Rabbitohs seemingly out of the match, a quick try to Nathan Merritt just minutes before the bell, made both commentators and fans alike sit on the edge of their seats, wondering in disbelief if an upset was possible.
With victory now just a converted try away and a minute left, the cardinal and myrtles managed the unthinkable, scoring a long-range try on the first tackle to sink the Roosters in unbelievable fashion to spitefully return the favour for the round one loss.
Celebrating Ron Coote
Ron Coote is revered by both the Rabbitohs and the Roosters, having played for, captained and won Premierships with both Clubs between 1964 and 1978. The Souths Junior was also an accomplished representative player, having represented NSW (15 caps) Australia on 23 occasions (including World Cup matches) as well as Captaining his country.
But perhaps the greatest vindication of Coote’s talent came in 2008, when he was named in the Australian Team of The Century alongside the game’s greatest names including his former Rabbitohs Coach, Clive Churchill. Coote was also named in both the Rabbitohs’ Dream Team and the Roosters’ Team of The Century.
Known during his career as the ‘Prince of Locks’ – thanks to playing in the same era as the great Johnny Raper – Coote was a devastating runner of the football and an even better defender. Known for his text-book cover defensive style, Coote fast became the bane of opposition attacks with his ability to hunt down fast opponents, cutting them down from behind in decisive fashion often denying tries.
Coote began his first grade career in 1964 in a building South Sydney side that bore the seeds for one of the Club’s greatest eras.
The following year, Coote played in one of rugby league’s greatest ever Grand Finals when on September 18, 1965, the young forward ran out onto a Sydney Cricket Ground filled beyond capacity – the official figure being a ground-record 78,056, although estimates have it at being closer to 90,000 thanks to the thousands that scaled the walls of the SCG, perching themselves on the roof and inside the perimeter of the pitch.
The Rabbitohs took on the might and experience of the great St George side that would eventually go on to win 11 Premierships in a row. The experience of Saints held out, taking the match and the pennant 12-8, but Coote had made an impression on one of the game’s biggest stages and continued to do so throughout his long career.
Although most players are blessed to even get one chance to play in a Grand Final, Coote managed to play in a whopping nine across eleven seasons in the top grade – coming away with four Premierships with the Rabbitohs (1967-68, 1970-71) and two with the Roosters (1974-75).
Coote was also named Harry Sunderland Medal winner on two occasions (best player in an Australian team in a home Ashes series) – the first in 1970 as Captain, and again in 1974 and holds the rare distinction of becoming the first player to play 100 first grade matches for two different Clubs.
In retirement, Coote has been a successful businessman and is the founder of Men of League Foundation.
Where it all began
Souths first met Easts in round three of the 1908 Premiership on Saturday the 16th of May in front of 3000 people at the Agricultural Ground (now the oval at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park). Easts won the match by a single point, 13-12 despite Souths scoring four tries to the tricolours three plus two goals the only game the red and greens would lose in that first season.
But Souths would atone for the loss in the best possible way just three months later. On Saturday the 29th of August, Souths faced Easts in the game’s first ever Grand Final, scoring four tries to the Tricolours two (14-12) a victory that would forever cement the red and greens as Australian Rugby League’s first champions.
Souths went on to dominate the early years of the Premiership, winning the first two deciders before being named runners-up to Newtown in the 1910 Grand Final despite the game being a 4-4 draw. However, the Roosters dynasty was just about to begin, when the side claimed their first Premiership in 1911 before going on to win the next two.
Souths claimed the 1914 Premiership before going on to win seven more, culminating in 1932, while the Roosters endured some lean years, only managing the Grand Final of 1923. But their luck was about to change and it would come at Souths’ expense.
1935 would be Easts year. Boasting a side with the likes of the record-breaking Dave Brown who scored 35 tries and 65 goals in the season Easts snatched the Premiership decider from Souths 19-3, Easts beginning a run of virtually three seasons without a loss. However, Souths would be a constant thorn in the Tricolours side, with the red and greens handing them an 18-11 loss at the SCG on June 2nd (round 8) Easts only loss during the period. Easts would go on to win the 1935, 36 and 37 Premierships.
The next golden era would well and truly belong to Souths, the Club winning nine Premierships between 1950 and 1971 to take their total Premiership tally to 20.
Easts would not threaten the competition again until the year 1972. For many Souths fans, it’s at this point that the real rivalry began.
The Golden Era
In 1971, boasting a team brimming with internationals, South Sydney won the Premiership while Easts ran a disappointing ninth (out of 12 teams). But all that was well and truly about to change for the Roosters, and the catalyst would come in the form of two key members of the Rabbitohs’ Premiership-winning side.
In a difficult move for Souths fans, Souths Junior and Australian Test Captain, Ron Coote, would play out the rest of his career at Bondi beginning in 1972. He was joined by Rabbitohs hooker Elwyn Walters and the two would prove vital to the Tricolours’ ongoing success.
The pairs’ impact was immediate, lifting the side to the 1972 Grand Final against a Manly club bolstered by their own pair of Rabbitohs enforcers in the form of John O’Neill and Ray Branighan. Easts narrowly went down to the Sea Eagles 19-14 in front of 54,357 fans, while a depleted Souths – missing their former strike power – still managed to come a respectable fourth. But the 1970s would eventually prove to be a forgettable decade for the men in red and green on the back of such player losses, while the Roosters would continue to rise.
Easts would go on to win the 1974 and 1975 Premierships while the Rabbitohs would crash to the 1975 wooden spoon despite starting the season strongly. Ironically, it was Ron Coote who in some ways put the nail into the Rabbitohs 1975 coffin.
After winning four of the first five matches of the 75 season, the Rabbitohs were looking good. Two losses served to slightly derail the red and greens before the side would have the chance to atone by meeting the Roosters at Redfern Oval in a derby match that will live long in the memories of those who witnessed it.
In a torrid encounter, Souths led 4-2 with just one minute to go in the must-win match. But with Souths fans prematurely celebrating a season defining win, Roosters fullback Russell Fairfax threw a long pass out to a rampaging Ron Coote, who busted through in typical fashion to score in the corner, sinking his former team, and mentally ending Souths season.
The Lean Years
The lean years for Souths continued well into the nineties, despite winning a Minor Premiership in 1989. The Roosters went on to beat Souths a whopping 13 consecutive times between 1994 and 1999 including a 62-0 drubbing on Anzac Day of 1996, and things would get worse before they got better.
Upon Souths’ re-inclusion to the NRL, it was fittingly the Roosters who would line up against a newly-formed Rabbitohs side in round one of 2002. The Rabbitohs went down 40-6 in round one and 42-6 in the return match later in the season to re-ignite the strong feelings between the teams and their supporters.
The Rabbitohs managed the odd win against the Roosters during the 2000s, including a heart-stopping single point win in 2005 that coincided with Rabbitohs fans unveiling the now famous ‘Forever In Our Shadow’ banner but until recent years, it was all one way traffic, and it was all in favour of the red, white and blues.
The 107 year battle continue this Sunday when the Rabbitohs and Roosters – both coming off emphatic victories in round one of the competition – line up for the 211th time in their histories.
With some of the best Rugby League talent in the world set to take centre stage in the match, such as Greg Inglis, Mitchell Pearce, Adam Reynolds, James Maloney, George Burgess and Jared Wearea-Hargreaves, this Sunday afternoon’s clash will be another one for the ages.
It’s the reigning Premiers and World Champion Rabbitohs up against the former holders of both those titles from the previous season in the form of the Roosters, and you can be there to experience it live at ANZ Stadium!
The Rabbitohs will take on the Sydney Roosters in their first home game of the season at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, 15 March at 4pm. Tickets are available now through Ticketek.