Heart on their Sleeve
Season 1999 was a definitive year in the long and storied history of the South Sydney Rabbitohs. With the debrit of the Super League war still crashing down onto the rugby league world, Souths, and many other proud foundation clubs, were under the threat of extinction.
The St. George Dragons had already succumbed, and merged with the Illawarra Steelers, while the Western Suburbs Magpies and Balmain Tigers would come together to form the Wests Tigers for the next season. Old adversaries North Sydney Bears and Manly Sea Eagles also joined the merging trend to become the Northern Eagles.
Souths stood firm though, and against all the odds, defied the opposition and refused to give in. While financial hardships and the pressures from News Limited lurked over the then 91-year-old Club, other sides, including the Parramatta Eels, were spared.
The arrogant brand of Blue and Gold heading from Sydney's greater west was still riding the highs of their dominance in the 1980s, and were priming for another premiership, while Souths were struggling to keep afloat off the field, let alone on it.
Book of Feuds author and club historian Mark Courtney was one of the die-hard supporters riding the rollercoaster ride of 1999, and recounts the battle that the Red and Green faced throughout the season.
"It felt like a make or break season for Souths. They had actually invested a little bit in some players and had a lot of work to do off the field to prove themselves as a viable entity as a Club," said Courtney.
"Most of us believed the criteria was set, the likes of sponsorship and results and financial stability. They basically had to perform well on the field and get those things sorted, so there was a lot to do.
"The team was looking okay. Mark Carroll had come back from Manly and Sean Garlick was captain. Craig Wing was coming into his second season, who we all believed was going to become a fabulous player. They started off under that cloud heading into the season and things progressed from there. "Things started really well actually. We beat the Bulldogs at the Sydney Football Stadium in round one right on the bell, and then the next week they had Canberra and really beat them well.
"They ended up winning four of the first five and were really well set up going into the season, and got a whole lot of sponsorship deals sorted. Things were looking pretty good, and were always in a sound financial position. The ethos of the Club throughout the 90's was that they would not spend beyond the means, which meant bad results often happened, but they were never in any danger of going broke.
"The Super League clubs were owned by News Limited were the ones they wanted to keep in the competition. About halfway through the year, Darrell Trindall, who was a bit of a lynchpin and a good player at halfback. He was suspended for seven weeks, for what was a reasonably innocuous high tackle. That really put the season under a cloud, and as it went on and the deadlines and criteria changed and really hurt Souths. Particularly when the rule for the amount of junior clubs needed was lowered, which was one of Souths biggest strengths.
"The News Limited press ran a number of stories throughout the year about the 14-team competition, as well as the teams that were going to be cut and Souths and Norths were under that. Norths ended up merging with Manly, but Souths were always under the hammer.
"George Piggins passionately spoke about standing alone, and numerous media stories throughout the year were very anti-Souths when it came to participation. The players started to get nervous and began looking at their futures, and thought if their employer wasn't going to exist they were going to go somewhere else.
"Players started to sign with other clubs, it was a self-perpetuating thing - the team lost focus on what their goal was to make the finals. The last part of the season began to disintegrate and we copped a few heavy losses.
"By the end we were out of finals contention with two or three weeks to go. The bells were ringing and people started to talk about Souths being excluded from the competition with no justification according to the criteria. They had everything in place, if not for the shifting and changing criteria.
"That was where we were coming into the match of the season, protest rallies were happening, there were all sorts of things going on as the fan base rallied. And in saying that the fan base lost focus on supporting for the team and working to help the survival of the Club through that last month of the season."
And that arrogance and contempt could not have been more apparent when in round 26, 1999, the Eels hosted the Rabbitohs at Parramatta – and branded the match as 'the last ever Souths-Parramatta clash'.
The match would also be the last for Rabbitohs legends Mark Carroll and Sean Garlick.
Courtney was there that day, and looked back on that 'nightmare' of an afternoon.
"We were very very concerned at this stage. Maybe we were in denial. Surely they couldn't kick Souths out. Leading into the last game, of course their CEO Denis Fitzgerald, who was an outspoken critic of Souths' stance, very much backed the process," he said.
"Parramatta had a reasonably big team and had massive amounts of revenue coming from their leagues club, so they were never really in danger and Fitzgerald was really an opponent in the struggle.
"The Eels were well entrenched in the finals coming second place and had a good side. For them it was just a game they wanted to win leading into the finals. For us it was a game that wasn't relevant to that season, it was very much a feeling that it could be the very last time we see Souths.
"Parramatta started promoting it that way as 'The Last Souths-Parramatta Clash'. That was just a boot in the guts, it was more than that. They were laughing in our face. They didn't care, and wanted to use it to their advantage to promote the match.
"It was a feeling of betrayal from another Australian Rugby League aligned club, it was a feeling of contempt. Complete contempt and lack of respect for a foundation Club who had won 20 premierships.
"I remember it was a very surreal feeling that day because you sort of felt it could be the first time you were ever going to experience something that you'd had for decades and thought would be there forever. It was very weird and felt awful. I can't remember going to a Souths game ever feeling the same way."
Despite holding off the Eels and going into halftime with the scores locked up at 10-all, the Rabbitohs were overrun by their opponents in the second half 34-16. Although Garlick and Carroll were on the field at fulltime, and got a standing ovation from the Souths faithful, there was still that lingering feeling and clouds of uncertainty hanging over the South Sydney district.
But as we all know, the Grand Old Club rose up and returned to the competition in 2002, and after years of hardship and struggle, lifted the Provan-Summons trophy in 2014 to claim their 21st premiership.
The Eels, on the other hand, have still yet to reclaim their form from the 80s, leaving them currently with the biggest premiership drought of 32 years.
"I think the poetic justice for Souths was that Fitzgerald was run out of town. He was seen as part of the problem. They used to call him The Emperor at Parramatta, and there were a lot of Souths fans smiling when he lost his footing," Courtney said.
"In a lot of ways Parramatta seem to have failed to recapture their greatness from the 80's, and I don't think there are a lot of Souths fans crying over that."
Match report supplied by Michael Curin.
Parramatta fans were served up a mixed fare, including portions of rare Eel, while South Sydney left the "Spud" and Garlick until last. The ravenous appetite of Eels fans for another premiership was whetted by a try feast against the Rabbitohs, particularly the play of winger Eric Grothe junior. "Eric was as good as anyone on the field," said Parramatta coach Brian Smith, delighted by what he described as the "brilliant bits" of play his team produced, interspersed with a "a couple of horrendous moments".
Noting that his rookies, particularly Michael Vella, performed well on a day when Eels prop Dean Pay and South Sydney's veteran pair of Mark 'Spud' Carroll and Sean Garlick played their final premiership match, Smith said: "Maybe the young blokes decided they would not let the old boys steal the show."
Souths coach Craig Coleman ensured that Carroll and Garlick were on the field at the final whistle, but a decision by referee Mark Oaten to place Garlick on report in his final match merely reinforced Coleman's opinion of Oaten's poor performance. Coleman would not expand on his reasons for his dissatisfaction with Oaten, frequently pleaded with the press to "Do me a favour, write what you saw please". He did say of a forward pass from Jason Smith to Grothe which resulted in the Eels' first try, "Anyone would think the San Diego Chargers were still here."
The pass was embarrassingly forward, not because it was dispatched a metre behind the line and received a metre forward of it (momentum is allowed for in the rules) but because of the position of Smith's hands. The brilliant utility player clearly thrust his hands forward with a pass which was designed to get on the outside of Souths' compressed defence.
Parramatta coach Smith refused to comment on the referee's display, twice saying "pass". While Coleman is entitled to be furious about some dubious Parramatta passes, the young Eels prevailed because they ran harder, straighter and were more skilful. Souths scored the first try, a Julian O'Neill grubber which appeared to bounce off the shin of fullback Craig Wing, before he scored in the third minute. Four minutes later came Grothe's try and the teams went in at the interval tied at 10-all, following a deft short pass by Pay to Nathan Cayless in the 23rd minute and a superb flick-pass by Souths' Lee Hookey to Justin Loomans on the blind side, five minutes later.
Hookey had only a nanosecond to glimpse support while enveloped by Parramatta defenders, yet delivered a neat pass, prompting Coleman to say of his club's future: "We've got the next star in the making in Lee Hookey."
Grothe scored in the same spot three minutes into the second half when he soared above opposite winger Chris Caruana to take a David Penna bomb. Further tries to Daniel Wagon, Nathan Hindmarsh and Smith, followed to accelerate the score to 34-10 in Parramatta's favour. The Smith try was set up by Grothe, whose father had a fend which could palm Sunday. Grothe junior, carrying the ball in his left hand, shot out his right fend to stall a tackler while simultaneously tiptoeing the sideline and throwing the ball back to Nathan Barnes.
Craig Wing followed with a try which sliced the Eels defence in the 74th minute, and must've had the Rabbitoh fans hoping that it won't be the last ever try scored by a South Sydney player. The two old props, Carroll and Pay, decided the youngsters would not dominate the end of the match. Carroll executed a neat 30m chip kick on his own 10m line – something, his coach said later, "he's wanted to do all his life." While Pay had the last touch of the day, seizing the ball at a penalty and, declining a kick for touch, chipped as the siren sounded.
Carroll walked from the field, with tears streaming down his face yet again, and Pay was given a hero's departure to the sounds of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as the stadium announcer declared the match-ups in next week's quarter-finals.
For the nostalgic, Chris Caruana was the last Rabbitoh to touch the ball.
Parramatta 34 (E.Grothe 2, N.Cayless, D.Wagon, N.Hindmarsh, J.Smith tries; C.Schifcofske 5 goals)
South Sydney 16 (C.Wing 2, J.Loomans tries; J.O'Neill, D.Trindall goals)