“Stop them at all costs.”
That was the South Sydney Rabbitohs mantra during their 1998 Round 1 clash against the then called Auckland Warriors in New Zealand. The Warriors were known as a strong and physical side with skill to boot and were particularly difficult to beat across the ditch.
Right from the run out, they make you feel unwelcome. Opposition players were engulfed by the sound of crashing drums, heat from blazing flames and a vocal crowd baying for blood. It’s a daunting task for any player and, for Souths debutant Willie Peters, it was an introduction to the game he’ll never forget.
“I remember it clearly,” grinned Peters.
“It was the first game of the year, I was halfback at the time. When I went to kick off, I remember the yelling and screaming their forwards were making and I just thought to myself, what the hell am I doing here?”
The Round 1 match-up was a tense affair between two clubs on the opposite ends of the Rugby League spectrum.
The setting was unique. The Super League war was officially coming to an end, with the big wigs and their army of lawyers beginning to settle their differences off the field. Yet there remained great uncertainty around many clubs and their existence in the emerging world of Rugby League.
Clubs were contemplating the prospect of being cut from the competition, or perhaps worse yet, being forced into unceremonious marriages with their rivals.
Only a few clubs were offered immunity from the great Rugby League cull. One of those teams was the Warriors, a team that had played just three years in Australia, while foundation club the South Sydney Rabbitohs were left with just their on-field performances as their final attempt to state their claims for salvation.
It was this savage setting that the 1998 Round 1 clash between the Rabbitohs and Warriors took place in. The climate contributed to make the match even fierier than a typical season opener. The mighty Red and Green went out to prove their worth.
It was a tight affair in the first half, with both sides struggling to register any points as they looked for a weakness in each other’s armour, and debutant Peters was clearly considered by the Warriors as a soft spot.
“Defensively I had Stephen Kearney, who is the Warriors Head Coach now, he was the back rower lining me up and he just kept running at my inside shoulder pretty much the whole game,” Peters laughed.
“Steve was an international player, a big body, strong and physical. He ran at me all day and as an 18-year-old on debut it was a very scary challenge.”
Yet Peters understood what it meant to play for the Grand Old Club. That resilience is in the DNA of South Sydney, and he knew what he had to do.
“Stop them at all costs, even if that meant getting trampled on.”
Both sides were unable to be separated at half-time. They went back into the sheds at 10-10 after tries from Tim Brasher for Souths and Kearney for the Warriors. The second half continued in the same vein as the first with neither side able to force the advantage as the game hung in balance.
“One thing with the Warriors is they can throw the ball around and if it sticks on the day, they can be very hard to handle,” said Peters. “That’s what they were like back then and that’s what they are like now.”
Tries to Rabbitohs second-rower Darren Burns and Warriors five-eighth Gene Ngamu couldn’t split the sides. It looked like the game would finish a stalemate.
Ironically however, it was a Kiwi that decided that match but it was one who bled Red and Green. Souths forward Terry Hermansson burst through the Warriors defence to race 30 metres untouched, scoring right under the sticks with just five minutes remaining to seal a famous 24-18 victory.
The last gasp victory in Auckland would be South Sydney’s last for quite some time in New Zealand. The battles to come would be for South Sydney's very existence.
Rabbitohs faithful would have to channel the mantra 'stop them at all costs' and direct it towards the forces working to exile the Club to the history books.