The 2002 Charity Shield, despite ending in a 20-all draw at the Sydney Football Stadium, will likely be remembered as one of the most significant matches in the fixture's history.
It signalled the return of the Grand Old Club to the NRL after being kicked out of the competition. A crowd of 36,804 packed into Aussie Stadium to see South Sydney's iconic Cardinal and Myrtle hoops run out on a footy field again. A star-studded Dragons team were quietly confident of a blow-out victory over a team built completely from scratch in the lead-up to the 2002 season.
The spirit of South Sydney imbued the Rabbitohs that night and, against all odds, they pulled off an incredible 20-all draw that kept the Charity Shield in Redfern (Souths won the 1999 Charity Shield encounter 16-14).
Channel 9's Ray Warren was given the duty of calling the match
"Well it wasn't hard to remember 2002. That was the day we welcomed South Sydney back and the atmosphere was fantastic," said Warren.
"Souths were right in this match and eventually they drew level, in fact they had a chance at full time to win the game. On paper, I looked through the South Sydney side and they didn't have that many big names - they had very few.
"You always felt that Souths were going to be competitive even though the weight of numbers as far as big names were concerned really favoured St George Illawarra.
"A lot of people, whether they're rugby league lovers or not, even if they have their own club, the other club that they like to follow is the South Sydney Rabbitohs. I think everybody thinks they own a little piece of South Sydney.
"That, coupled with the fact it was their return, to something they should never have been dismissed from - it was an exciting time."
The following is an extract from Big League's 2002 Season Preview magazine:
The crowd told the story. This was definitely no ordinary trial match but the rebirth of a tradition.
They came from far and wide. Aussie Stadium was one-third full two hours before kick-off. Even intermittent rain didn’t dampen their spirits. South Sydney were back.
A club in exile for two long years, this was the night they had waited for, the night when all the hard work, tears, the rallies and the overwhelming support finally was rewarded.
And what a night it was.
There were many who were sceptical about the Rabbitohs’ return, some believeing their lack of depth and genuine game-breaking talent would be too great a hurdle to overcome.
Perhaps, in the long-run, they may be right.
But Craig Coleman wasn’t exaggerating when he talked about South Sydney spirit.
He had one simple request for his plaeyrs at the start of the year. ‘Never give up’, and they lived up to their promise on a night during which they looked out of their depth for so long.
Twice the Rabbitohs trailed by 10 ponts or more before clawing their way back, almost producing the perfect finish when replacement winger Scott McLean scrambled his way over in the dying stages.
As it turned out, McLean missed his sideline conversion, and the match finished in a fitting 20-all draw, despite Souths wasting a half-way penalty in the final 10 seconds. Given one last hope after Mark Riddell had kicked-off into touch on the full, a disorganised Rabbitohs took the tap and gave Jamie Fitzgerald a rather optimistic 50-metre field goal attempt.
It didn’t matter. For Rabbitohs fans they’d already had their victory. It was ecivdent in the sea of red and green and the awesome greeting the players received when they ran onto the field. And it was further measured by the never-say-die attitude on the field.
“It was amazing,” a delirious captain Adam Muir later beamed of the crowd of 36,804, the vast majority of whom were there to support the ‘people’s team’. “I walked down that tunnel and just soaked it up.
“The noise that came out of there was amazing, it was a huge buzz, and I know it’s something special the boys will never forget.”
The crowd itself was a sight to behold - an unusual mix of politicians, celebrities, families, former players and faithful fans who had waited so long for such an occasion. They came from all over and one Souths fanatic even flew in from London so he would not miss ‘the moment’.
Journalists from every conceivable media organisation, some as far away as England, crowded into the press box to watch the historic encounter.
All were transfixed by the event - and the greatest kick-start to a season of Rugby League has ever had.