When Roy Asotasi signed with Souths for the 2007 season he had a vision to help restore the club to its glory days. But when Willie Mason, Roy’s teammate at the Bulldogs, publicly declared that Asotasi will never play finals football again at Souths… It lit a fire.
It was an exciting time for Souths; privatisation had brought financial stability, a massive recruitment drive was in the works, they had signed a new coach for next season, things were looking up despite the club’s on-field fortunes at the time.
Asotasi’s announcement came in July of 2006. Souths had just been beaten by the North Queensland Cowboys in round 17 and were glued to the bottom of the ladder with just a single win. Asotasi’s signing was a big show of faith from the New Zealand international prop and helped give hope to the Rabbitohs supporters that the club was building something behind the scenes.
Then came Willie Mason’s comments. Rabbitohs devotees were fuming as they read his sledge at Souths and, despite still being teammates with Mason, Asotasi vowed to himself he would prove Mason wrong.
“He'd want to cherish this year  because it will probably be the last finals series he plays until he retires,” wrote Mason.
Asotasi set a goal after reading Mason’s jibe - Souths would play finals football in 2007. It became the Kiwi prop’s driving motivation under the revolutionised Rabbitohs team.
“I heard that and I felt like I had something to prove. My whole mentality was to prove this guy wrong and get us to play some finals football. Finals football became one of the big things I wanted to do and achieve when I was at Souths - Despite our reputation then I didn’t come to Souths and plan not to play finals football,” remembers Asotasi.
It was a similar experience for Nigel Vagana, who had announced his signing two weeks ahead of Asotasi. Vagana, a fellow New Zealand international, endured taunts from his Sharks teammates as he played out the rest of the 2006 season.
“I remember shortly after I signed, still playing for Cronulla, we had a win and someone, in front of the entire dressing room, said; ‘well, don’t get too used to this Nige, you won’t be experiencing this at Souths’,” said Vagana.
Vagana and Asotasi went into the 2007 season with a chip on their shoulder after their experiences. Along with David Kidwell, Jeremy Smith, Daniel Irvine and Dean Widders, the new signings at the Rabbitohs were set on changing the perception of the Red and Green.
“I was really good mates with David Kidwell and Nigel Vagana, we’d played together and caught up a lot of times and talked about how South Sydney wasn’t in a great place and there was only one way and that was up,” said Asotasi.
“If we could go there and kind of change the club, change the culture and change the way people see South Sydney, for us, that’s pretty much a win.”
Mason and Asotasi would meet for the first time after the move in the traditional Easter weekend clash in round four. There was plenty of media attention on the former teammates’ coming face-to-face after Mason’s inflammatory comment.
Off the back of three straight wins to kick off the 2007 Rabbitohs season, the match-up had plenty of Souths fans yearning to see Asotasi show the doubters that they were serious contenders for their first finals berth in 19 years.
“Leading up to the game Willie Mason’s article re-surfaced effectively saying ‘Roy Asotasi won’t be playing finals football ever again’. With the Dogs it was always finals football, so I really took that as a challenge,” remembers Asotasi.
“Deep inside you always want to go out there and do well against former clubs.”
In front of a charged crowd of 34,315 at Stadium Australia, the Bulldogs would run out 34-10 winners. It was a depressing Friday night for the hopeful Rabbitohs but Mason’s barb would stick with them throughout the season - they were fixated on getting the last laugh.
And they got it. In a complete turnaround from 2006 - thanks in large part to being able to field a team with eight internationals, the most in a Rabbitohs squad since 1975 - the boys from Redfern put together one of the best defences in the NRL. They were competitive in many games and enjoyed a strong second half of the season.
They finished the season in 7th position with 12 wins to find themselves in a finals series for the first time since 1989. Asotasi remembers it well, both achieving history and proving Willie Mason wrong.
“We didn’t win that match, but we made it to the finals series for the first time in 19 years - sort of like losing the battle but winning the war. We got to the first week of the finals so in that sense; Willie Mason was wrong,” laughs Asotasi.
“I haven’t regretted the move. Everyone’s been so awesome, so fantastic even post-career, I’m loving Souths supporters and I love the club.”
Forced to eat his words, Mason admitted that he was wrong and named Roy in his team of the year article in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2007. Proving that mateship and rivalry can co-exist, Mason explains that his comment was a heat-of-the-moment remark after learning Asotasi had signed for the Grand Old Club.
Despite the personal battle between Mason and Asotasi that motivated Souths to prove their worth to the greater league, the two remain mates.
"Did I say that? We were probably on Mad Monday,” Mason told Paul Crawley after Asotasi’s Rabbitohs qualified for the finals.
“I was just shattered that we lost him because he was one of the most dominant forwards in the game and one of my best mates.
"It was really disappointing but when you make decisions like that you really have to back yourself and that is exactly what Roy did.”