Although the contest has no competition points on offer, the Charity Shield has always been more than just a trial. The 35th annual edition in Mudgee on Saturday 24 February is no different.
There’s a reason why this contest is dubbed the unofficial start to the season, for years being the only broadcasted pre-season match until recent times. The competition between the clubs has been so fierce that the coaches tend to field their best 17 and look to defy the risk of injury for the chance to come out victorious.
It’s also appropriate that the contest is held by two of the most successful and storied rivals in Rugby League, the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the St George Illawarra Dragons. The rivalry began as the Rabbitohs and St. George Dragons both enjoyed periods of success in the 1950s and 1960s, with the sides playing out five grand finals against each other.
In the early years, the first seven matches from 1982-1988 were played at the Rabbitohs’ hallowed turf, Redfern Oval, a ground that brought the fire out of any player in such a fierce rivalry.
As the 1980s wore on, the event was moved to the Sydney Football Stadium, now Allianz Stadium, although in 1999 it would be played at the SCG with Rabbitohs coming away with a 16-14 victory.
Since then the annual event has been played at the Rabbitohs home at ANZ Stadium, with results going back and forth, however the Rabbitohs hold the the trophy for the last five years.
DEFEND THE SHIELD
Few could forget the 2014 Charity Shield, the first contest outside of Sydney, where we shutout the Dragons 38-20 in a match that saw the most points scored by a side in the history of the Shield.
Interestingly enough, there have only been two occasions, in 1984 and 2007, where the winners of the Shield have failed to post back-to-back victories. In 2017, we have the chance to equal the biggest streak of retaining the shield, which is currently held by St. George from 1993 to 1998.
This year’s event holds particular historical value, as it will be the first in rural NSW - played at Mudgee’s Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium. Rabbitohs supporters get to see new signing Dane Gagai don the Red and Green for the first time in his career.
With the matchup just days away, there isn’t a better person to gain insight from than former Rabbitohs player, and current Player Evaluation and List Manager, Mark Ellison, who competed in the annual event from 1988 until 1991.
When asked of his memories as a player, ‘Ello’ recalls a contest that included more brawls than tries scored, as both a player on the field in the midst of battle, and as a fan in the stands cheering on the Cardinal and Myrtle.
“The games were brutal. They were vicious, there were fights in most of them,” Ellison recalls.
“They were the first trial games televised, and I remember going to the first one in 1982 at Redfern Oval. It was a night match and it was pretty much a full house.
“One great memory of the Charity Shield was at Allianz Stadium in 2002, our comeback match into the NRL, where they had to put back the start of the game fifteen minutes because there were so many people trying to get in. Phil Gould also ran out as a touch judge and there ended up being a record 36,000 people there.
“Even today when you speak to people, they say that when the Charity Shield is on, you know the Rugby League season is starting.
“It’s a good grounding to get young guys to play at first grade level as well, early in the season and with no points to lose. There’s slightly less pressure, however, it’s still taken quite seriously. When it’s your last trial, ideally you’re going to have close to your best team on the field as possible.
“At this stage of our history I think the Charity Shield is treated differently from what we used to. In the seasons where we were struggling the Charity Shield was a bigger game than usual.”
Rabbitohs Media and Communications Manager Jeremy Monahan chimes in: “The Club has always wanted to win it – you want to win everything – but it used to be looked at by supporters as our chance to win a trophy, whereas now we’re a contender for the main trophy every year,” he says.
“I remember ‘Wingy’ (former Rabbitoh Craig Wing) saying that he considers the Charity Shield his Souths debut. That’s how strongly the players feel about it.”
Mark rounds off his thoughts with a short, but to the point statement.
“The Charity Shield is always good quality. How many trials do you get that gets the coverage that it does? It’s the real deal.”
1984, 1988, 1989, 1990*, 1991*, 1992, 1999, 2002*, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010*, 2013, 2014, 2015*, 2016, 2017
St George Dragons: 11
1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998
St George Illawarra Dragons: 5
2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2012
*Retained through draw