Two nights before the 1971 Grand Final, with hundreds of Rabbitohs supporters spread around Redfern Oval watching, Ron Coote is lacing up his boots as Clive Churchill prepares his team for one of their last training sessions before the clash against St George.
As Ron moves through the drills - ball skills, tackling, plenty of running - he’s thinking about the 1965 Grand Final clash with St George. He remembers being 20, facing a brilliant St George side filled with internationals - bigger, older and meaner. It was Saturday afternoon at the SCG and there were more people watching than he’d ever seen before, they made an incredible noise. The Rabbitohs lost 12-8 that day.
At the end of training, Ron looks around at his teammates. John Sattler, Eric Simms, Bob McCarthy, John O’Neill - all veterans of the 1965 Grand Final clash with St George. They exchange looks between each other and without saying a word they know they’re ready. They’re no longer the young hopefuls that were cut down by a ruthless Dragons team all those years ago. They’re the men of a Souths golden era - winning premierships in ’67, ’68 and ’70. The Rabbitohs won 16-10 that day. Payback.
“I reckon that was a part of it; it was a get-even from 1965’s grand final. They beat us when we were a team of young blokes. We were all 20 or 21, 22 and they were all hardened internationals. We struggled that day - they were a much better team,” says Coote today as he remembers back to our second last premiership.
“1971 was a different story. There was huge emotion. There used to be 500 people going to training at Redfern Oval on a Thursday night to watch us train. All those people would know your name and they’d be talking to you. It was a big thing for South Sydney.”
After training Ron would spend time talking to the supporters around Redfern Oval - happy to discuss football or just casually chat about life. Qualities like that don’t seem to fade with time. He’s now 73 and often running around the city to attend different meetings, but he’s still happy to stop for a quick chat if someone asks.
He cops a lot of the same questions from Souths fans: “Why on Earth would you join the Roosters?” probably being the most popular but questions about the 1971 Grand Final are very common. Coote, Bob McCarthy and George Piggins, called into the squad late to replace Elwyn Walters, put on a masterclass performance against a resilient Dragons outfit. Eric Simms scored the only point of the first half with a field goal before a tough, decisive second half.
“I accepted the rivalry. You’d always have to lift when you took on St George because they were a tough team to beat under any circumstances,” says Coote.
“St George did really well that year because Jack Gibson coached them. Everyone thought it was going to be a win for Jack but I think that we were the better side. To say the score was 1-0 at half time was a unique thing - it could of gone either way. It was 11-10 before Bobby McCarthy scored the last try. It was a great match - you can’t say much more than that!”
He didn’t know it at the time but that would be the last game he’d play in the Red and Green. Souths faced a difficult period after that Grand Final and the Roosters and Manly started flexing their financial power. Roosters coach Don Furner would zero in on Coote and lure him to the tri-colours for the 1972 season.
“The next season I’d go to the Roosters. I didn’t know it was going to happen. We’d negotiate after the season ended back then, so it was a move that happened after the grand final,” said Coote.
“Souths went through a period where things weren’t going good and Don Furner lived around the corner from me at the time. He’d come down to my place, sit in the lounge room and talk to me about the Roosters and I think he talked me into it.
“The teammates accepted it for what it was worth. I wasn’t losing them, I’m still good mates with lots of them.”
Match Report: 1971 Grand Final
By Bill Mordey, Sunday Mirror, September 19, 1971
SOUTH Sydney won their fourth Rugby League premiership in five years when they beat St George 16-10 in the grand final at the SCG yesterday.
Souths, the defending champions, watched by a capacity crowd of 62,838 clung to a unique halftime lead of one nil.
And with 10 minutes of play left, Souths was still only a point, 11-10, in front of the gallant Saints.
The crowd has screamed hysterically as the lightweight St George team fought back from 11-0 to be 11-10 within four minutes.
The giant Souths machine was in trouble as Saints poured on pressure and only a grand stabling effort by skipper John Sattler steadied the men.
As Bob McCarthy explained afterwards he had been only one of several Souths players to react to Sattlers’ domination.
“I was down with a cramp in my leg and just couldn’t get up,” said McCarthy.
“But Sattler ran past me yelling to get on your bloody feet Bob.
“It was as if I’d been (indecipherable) off the ground. If he tells you to do something you do it,” said McCarthy.
Sattler’s urging could be (indecipherable) as he led his men on Kamikaze type raids into Saints territory.
In a four minute period John O’Neill, Bob McCarthy, Sattler himself, and Ray Branighan were all pulled down short of Saints line by desperate tackling.
But two minutes from the end, McCarthy put the issue beyond doubt when he raced across under the posts from a pass from lock Ron Coote.
The score gave Souths victory and the club a record 20 premierships.
The unsung hero of the match was Souths stand-in hooker George Piggins, who deputised for the injured international Elwyn Walters.
Piggins won the scrums against Col Rasmussen 15-14 which gave his heavy weight forwards a chance to dominate play.
Three vital times in the second half he raked the ball back from play the balls when saints had possession.
Without Piggins Souths could easily have surrendered their championship to Saints.
This band of nonstop, outweighted Saints triers went down in a blaze of glory.
Souths had at least an eight stone advantage in the forwards and used every pound of it to hammer Saints into submission.
But it was not until two minutes from the end that those who laid the 5/2 on Souths breathed easily.
Souths, running with the wind in the first half, had been kept to a field goal from Eric Simms lead with determined tackling by Saints.
In retaliation Saints several times went close to scoring.
It appeared early in the second half that the strength and force fo Souths forwards would blitz Saints.
Souths scored a try in the first minute of the second half when Ray Branighan crossed wide out after Piggins, Gary Stevens and Ron Coote had done the lead-up work.
Simms’ kick missed by Souths continued the pressure and in the 16th minute Coote crossed after Sattler found a gap.
This time Simms, whose earlier field goal had been his first of the season, made no mistake with the conversion.
Another easy penalty and Souths shot away to 11-0.
It seemed to be a case of how many Souths would win by before Saints started their fight back.
Saints skipper Graeme Langlands, who played with heavy strapping to protect a rib broken in last week’s final against Manly, admitted he had given up.
“I kept telling the boys to keep going. That we had a chance to win it. But I didn’t really believe my own words,” said Langlands.
But between the 25th and 29th minutes Saints rattled up 10 points to come within grasp of winning.
First Billy Smith put Barry Beath across wide out and Langlands coolly converted the difficult kick.
Then Russell Cox, a third grader brought on to replace Grahame Bowen who injured an ankle, sent Teddy Walton over in a similar position. Again Langlands added the extras.
Souths had relaxed and suddenly were in serious trouble because the eager Saints swarmed back.
Saints had one last chance when Souths winger Keith Edwards fumbled when trying to recover a ball kicked through.
But his rival Geoff Carr was unable to pick up.
It was Saints last chance and Souths rammed home their advantage.
The match was a tremendous advertisement for Rugby League, played hard and fast, but without the viciousness that is often seen in grand finals.
Saints best were Billy Smith, who never stopped trying, and their light weight forwards Peter Fitzgerald and Teddy Walton.
Fitzgerlad was forced off six minutes from full time with an arm injured from numerous tackles. He was replaced by Mick Dryden.
Souths’ coach, Clive Churchill, paid Saints tribute and rated them the toughest opponents his team has faced in their four grand finals since he took his job.
“They never give in and it was a real fine match,” said Churchill.