Protected no longer
Here is Mark Courtney's chapter on a tale of redemption in the rivalry between the Rabbitohs and the New Zealand Warriors.
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Rugby league has been played in New Zealand for just about as long as it has in Australia. New Zealand Maori teams came to Australia in 1908 and 1909 with some success and in July 1909 the NZRL was formed. Although a club championship began in Wellington as early as 1910, a strong league community supports the code, centred in Auckland.
Following a few years of persistent rumours, in May 1992, the announcement confirming Auckland's entry in 1995 was finally made. The club was named the Auckland Warriors and a Maori-based logo was adopted.
South Sydney started its own history against the Warriors the way it went for quite a while - with a heavy defeat. Midway through our wretched 1995 season, we faced Auckland at the Sydney Football Stadium, having won only two of our 13 games, and capitulated 38-20. What was particularly galling about this match was that, having finally been given the opportunity to participate in the elite ARL competition, the Warriors signed up with Super League after just four weeks. Now, just a couple of months later, as it became clear that Souths had not even been approached by Super League, the fledgling Auckland team had towelled us up and shown no mercy.
Our first visit to the land of the long white cloud was the following year and once again we were on the wrong end of the score line, losing 24- 10 at Mount Smart Stadium.
In 1997 we didn't play the Warriors, of course, as they played in the Super League competition. Indeed, by the time we next took the field against the New Zealanders, the game's landscape, and the standing of these two clubs had altered dramatically.
As part of the infamous ARL-Super League peace deal of December 1997, three clubs were given a five-year licence and were therefore exempt from the culling of 20 clubs down to 14 by the end of 1999. Brisbane, as 1997 Super League Premiers, and Newcastle, as 1997 ARL Premiers, were granted this immunity. And so were the Auckland Warriors. This was decided for various economic reasons and to ensure the game continued to be promoted in New Zealand, but it seemed a grave injustice for Souths. How could a team that had played just three seasons in the competition be granted a five-year licence when South Sydney, with 90 seasons and 20 premierships to its name, was placed clearly in the gun-sights?
When we lined up against the Warriors in the very first round of the new NRL competition in 1998, it was the beginning of a two-year period where we had to prove our credentials to survive. In an extremely tight match that went right down to the wire, the scores were locked at 18-all with less than five minutes to play when Kiwi prop Terry Hermansson broke into the clear and careered 30 metres to score under the posts. It was a fantastic victory that we hoped would set up a successful season, but it wasn’t to be.
We crashed to 16 losses in the next 18 games before coach Steve Martin was sacked and Craig Coleman took over. Three weeks later we once again faced the Warriors and once again emerged victorious, winning 20-18 at the Sydney Football Stadium. We finished the 1998 season with just five wins; two of them against Auckland, who had already been guaranteed their place in the streamlined competition of 2000. It hardly seemed fair.
In 1999, both games against Auckland were very significant in what turned out to be the most tumultuous year in our club's history. After a sensational start where we won four of the first five games, the season suddenly threatened to go off the rails with consecutive losses to Brisbane and Wests and then a horrendous 52-0 thrashing in Melbourne. The next week we travelled to Auckland for a "make or break" match and emerged victorious after a pretty awful, dour struggle. Craig Wing and Darrell "Tricky'' Trindall each scored an individual try and that was enough for a 12-8 win.
We won five of the next nine games, keeping the dream of a semi-final berth alive, before meeting Auckland at the Sydney Football Stadium in round 21.
We had won 10 games to Auckland's five at his point and were expected to beat them. After conceding an early try, we took control and seemingly had the match won, leading 16-10 inside the last five minutes, Then the Warriors scored and then they scored again. The match and the season were gone in an instant. We didn't win another game and ended up being kicked out of the competition two weeks after the grand final.
The granting of a five-year licence to the Warriors became increasingly ironic the following year, with Auckland racking up three 50-point defeats and then completely collapsing financially. While Souths failed the criteria supposedly in place to ensure the viability of all clubs, the Auckland Warriors - granted exemption from the same rules - were broke. It was a bitter pill, made even worse by the NRL's decision to resurrect them as the New Zealand Warriors rather than bring back the Rabbitohs.
After our reinstatement to the NRL in 2002, we went through six barren years against the Warriors. There were some close losses, though. In 2002, they beat us 25-18 in Nathan Merritt’s first grade debut, during which, not surprisingly, he managed to score a try. In the midst of a dreadful 2003 campaign, with just two wins from the first 14 games, we took on the fourth placed Warriors and, led 24-6 midway through the second halt. Then the Kiwis went berserk and scored 24 points in 11 minutes, before a converted try by Justin Smith in the 78th minute levelled the score at 30-30. It was our first ever golden point match, but the dire season was to continue, with a Stacey Jones field goal three minutes later scaling our fate.
Up until 2007, the rest of the games had been awfully one-sided. In 2006, they beat us 46-14 and, later in the year, on a day no Souths person who was there wiII ever forget, ran riot in a 66-0 humiliation. It was the worst defeat in Souths’ proud history.
While these big defeats were very difficult to take, the 2007 match was probably the most painful of all. They outplayed us in the first half but a try to Nigel Vagana after 28 minutes meant we only trailed 8-4 at the break. For 22 minutes of the second half we couldn’t put it together, but then Merritt took an intercept and raced 80 metres to score. When Fa'alogo scored five minutes later and Joe Williams converted, it looked like we would get away with a win.
But, in scenes spookily reminiscent of the 1999 match at the Sydney Football Stadium, Warriors fullback Wade McKinnon roared into the open spaces, broke clear of the last tackle and scored under the posts with just four minutes remaining. That made it 16-14 our way. In the final play of the game, the Warriors kicked to the vacant right wing and Todd Byrne won the race for the ball. Warriors 18, Souths 16. It was a loss that took the team more than a month to get over.
After the pain of that last-gasp hearth-break, the tide finally turned our way. Our first venture to Auckland in 2008 saw the debut of a young mercurial halfback named Chris Sandow – who had an immediate impact on the match and our season.
In his NRL debut match, and with the Club only managing a single win in their first 12 games, Sandow brought a breath of fresh air to the side. He starred in the 35-28 victory, setting up multiple tries, kicking two conversions and booting the field goal that sealed the win. It was a win that kick-started a five-match winning streak. A second victory against the Warriors that season, 18-16 in Sydney, helped begin to right the wrongs of the past.
We won three of the next four contests against the New Zealanders before succumbing to a three-match losing streak, compounded by heavy losses in 2011 and 2012. It was the demolition in Round 20 of the 2011 season that brought the most pain however, reminiscent of the 66-0 drubbing in 2006.
With the Warriors making a run to the semi-finals off the back of the emergence of the very talented young halfback Shaun Johnson, we were struggling to come into contact with the top eight and sitting at 12th position on the ladder. There was an eerie feeling in the air on that day, which was hardly ideal for John Sutton’s 150th match celebrations.
Just four minutes in the Warriors struck their first blow through winger Bill Tupou touching the ball down a seemingly impossible manoeuvre, just inches from the dead ball line. Three tries in 15 crushing minutes set up the Kiwis with a 24-4 half-time lead, which they hammered home in the second stanza. Following nine tries in total, including a hat-trick for Manu ‘The Beast’ Vatuvei, it ended 48-16.
The 32-point defeat put a huge dent in our season and it ultimately cost us a place in the finals. But from that day onwards, however, we’ve grown in every match.
As the Warriors began to slide, we emerged as a powerhouse of the competition.
We faced them three times in Perth. The first of which in 2013 saw us strike through a miraculous ricochet that came off the boot of Adam Reynolds into the arms of winger Andrew Everingham – but we still trailed 13-6. The mental toughness that coach Michael Maguire had instilled in the side helped to spark a comeback to win 30-13 as we retained our spot on the top of the ladder.
Our next meeting, also in Western Australia the following year, was a true war of attrition in an injury-filled contest. The Warriors ran out of the blocks, taking a 10-point lead in just under 10 minutes, before Greg Inglis suffered a nasty leg twist in an awkward tackle. Dylan Walker struck back with a try, but the injury woes continued as centre Bryson Goodwin and Jason Clark were forced off the field, and the Warriors took advantage of the shuffled line up to take an eight-point lead.
Despite a thumb injury, Walker sliced through the Warriors’ defence a few minutes later, and would kick-start an avalanche of tries in a famous 34-18 victory. In hindsight, that victory helped to instil the toughness and confidence needed to claim the Premiership later that season.
After helping the Club win the Premiership trophy in 2014, halfway through the 2015 season, favourite son Issac Luke announced he was heading back to New Zealand to sign with the Warriors. It was a decision that was respected by the Club, but certainly one that hurt considering how much ‘Bully’ had done in nine years in Red and Green.
Less than a month later we returned to Perth and put on a performance highlighted by the right side pairing of Walker and Alex Johnston, who combined brilliantly for three tries. Maintaining our recent dominance, we rampaged to a 36-4 win.
In 2016, we arrived in Auckland after a dismal nine-game losing streak, desperate for a win. The Warriors were looking to make it three wins on the trot, but to the surprise of everyone, we raced to a 31-6 lead at halftime score.
Adam Reynolds puton a master class with three try-assists off his boot, five conversions and a field goal, delivering a 41-22 victory that was the relief we needed after such a horror run.
Our most recent victory came in Round 24 of the 2017 season on a cold and miserable night at ANZ Stadium. With both teams out of finals contention, the match was looked at as a nothing game – however the seeds of the future that we had planted seemed to be sprouting in the 36-18 victory.
The match saw Luke pull on the boots against us for the first time. It also saw the emergence of South Sydney Junior Cameron Murray, who managed to bag his first try in the top grade, and ambush the Warriors up the middle in his first game in the starting side. Alex Johnston, in his first full season at fullback, played one of his finest games to date, scoring three tries and setting up another.
Our record against the New Zealand Warriors over the last decade is a true indicator of how far the Grand Old Club has come since the early days of re-instatement. We hold a six-match winning streak over the Warriors. However that isn’t to say they haven’t tested us and pushed us to our absolute limit.
South Sydney are avenging the dark days we've suffered at their hands. We won't ever forget that 66-0 drubbing, but we won't be intimidated by it either. We won't be intimidated by them ever again. We know what to expect and we will defend our winning steak with every ounce of effort, pride and passion we have.