The history of rugby league in Melbourne is short and sweet, although there were a few early skirmishes long ago. The touring England side played NSW in Melbourne in 1914 and Victoria played against the visiting English Lions on the first game of their 1924 tour, losing 45-13 at Fitzroy Cricket Ground. Despite these attempts by the game to gain a foothold in Melbourne, there was virtually no further involvement, except when the occasional Sydney match was taken south, the most notorious being in 1979 when Manly and Wests initiated their famous "Silvertails v Fibros" battles.
During the early and mid '90s, Melbourne hosted the occasional fixture and attracted some good-sized crowds, particularly to State of Origin and Test matches. But any interest in these one-offs was sparked purely by their novelty factor. When it comes to football, the people of Melbourne are completely obsessed with another game. And that's why it came as such a shock when - the day after the ARL-Super League "peace" deal in December 1997 deemed that 22 teams would be reduced to 14 within two years- the powers-that-be announced the first act in the reduction program would be the addition of a new team in Melbourne.
Most people thought that Melbourne would be hopelessly outclassed and survive just a few years, but neither came true. On the contrary, Melbourne has always had a very strong team. With Super League supremo John Ribot installed as their first CEO, the Storm signed Chris Anderson as their coach and got a massive and immediate cash injection from News Limited. They got the pick of the players from the terminated Western Reds, Hunter Mariners, Adelaide Rams and South Queensland Crushers clubs. Rather than struggle to establish any kind of roster in their first year, Melbourne signed players the calibre of Scott Hill, Robbie Kearns, Stephen Kearney, Brett Kimmorley, Rodney Howe, Marcus Bai, Tawera Nikau, Robbie Ross, Richard Swain, Matt Geyer, Aaron Moule, Paul Marquet and Danny Williams.
And if that wasn't enough, they snared champion front-rower Glenn Lazarus from Brisbane. It's probably the only time the Broncos have ever lost a player still at the top of his form. If you didn't know better, you might think the Storm was given a leg-up to succeed. It was also hard to fathom how the number of juniors was removed from the criteria used to decide which clubs stayed and which ones got punted. Souths had more junior clubs than just about anyone. Melbourne? Well...they had none.
On the field, our record against the Storm has been pretty much a disaster, right from the first time we played them in May 1998 at the Sydney Football Stadium, when we led 6-0 well into the second half before they finished over the top of us, winning 14-6. The following year, on our first trip to Melbourne, they jumped out quickly to lead 18-0, before running in six more tries in a 52-6 flogging.
And then the NRL kicked us out.
On a midyear trip south in our first year back in 2002 we played in those ghastly white uniforms. We never seemed to play well in that strip and certainly didn't on this occasion, copping a 44-6 hiding.
It's always been a mighty struggle to go with Melbourne, and there have been more bad days than good. Occasionally, though, we've got the money and, perhaps because victory has been so rare against the Storm, it's always tasted very sweet indeed.
Like the next time we played them, in Round 14, 2003. It was an absolute beauty, even if it did come after a week when we made the papers for the wrong reasons. For a start, we were sitting alone in last position, having won just once in 13 weeks. With Melbourne running fifth, nobody gave us much of a chance. Russell Crowe decided he wanted to help arrest the alarming slump and he set up a Thursday night bonding session at the "W" Hotel at Woolloomooloo. Test cricket legends Shane Warne and Merv Hughes addressed the team and each of the Rabbitohs spoke.
At the end of the session team captain Bryan Fletcher suggested that everyone loosen up with a game of "knee footy". Keen not to do any damage, the boys made sure they cleared and stacked away all the tables and chairs to get the field ready for action. And action there was, too. Paul Stringer started proceedings with a bullocking run that took six opponents to bring him down. And from there, the intensity level only got higher. Fletcher was in fine form, getting away some beautiful offloads and Shane Walker continually found gaps in the defence. The only trouble was that somewhere between "let's have a game of knee footy" and the kick- off, everyone had chosen to ignore the word "knee".
The game was played at a frenetic pace by elite athletes wearing suits and dress shoes.
On their feet. Not meandering around on their knees. Running. Fast.
The game was so intense that when someone called out "last tackle", Owen Craigie, a footballer who played largely on instinct, put up a towering bomb. A towering indoor bomb! On the way up it smashed a two foot hole in the roof; on the way down it demolished a valuable light fitting from New York. It was all very innocent and the players certainly had a great time, Russell paid for the damage and the appropriate apologies were forthcoming but the press nevertheless had a field day.
On the Sunday afternoon, the game didn't start too well for us, either, and we trailed 14-6 after 29 minutes. The camaraderie from the knee footy session kicked in though, and we levelled it up at 14-all by half time, winger Wise Kativerata having scored three tries. Seven minutes after the break a converted try to Luke Stuart put us in front 20-14 and seven minutes later Nathan Merritt crossed to extend the lead to 24-14. From there it was one-way traffic and three more tries and a Craigie field goal made the final score 41-14.
We managed success again the following year. Having won just two of the first 11 games in 2004 (including a 50-4 shellacking in Melbourne made even worse by winger Adam McDougall rupturing his Achilles tendon in the last minute), Souths sacked coach Paul Langmack. Arthur Kitinas was installed as caretaker and we took on the Storm, who were again in fifth place, at Aussie Stadium. In another nightmare start, we fell behind 16-0 after 15 minutes but a superb comeback saw tries to Ashley Harrison, David Fa'alogo and Luke McDougall - all converted by Joe Williams - and the Rabbitohs hit the lead 18-16 early in the second half. A Storm try put us behind again on the hour but we were not to be denied. Two tries in three minutes to winger Wes TiIIott secured the points - 28-26 victors in a cracking game of footy.
In 2006 we lost the game, but did score the undisputed "try of the year" against Melbourne. In an astonishing movement, the ball passed through eight pairs of hands before John Sutton cross-kicked to the left corner where Adam McDougall caught the ball on the full and began another sequence of seven passes, with Fa'alogo finally crossing in the right corner.
As the Rabbitohs have grown in strength over the last decade there have been a number of close games, but still only two more victories.
In 2008, we lost a tight match in Gosford 15-10, but then got pummelled 42-4 down in Melbourne. Our only match in 2009 was a close 28-22 loss in Perth, but following year's match in WA would yield a different result.
Just a few months prior, the Storm were embroiled in probably the biggest single case of systematic cheating in Australian sporting history. The club was found to have deliberately breached the salary cap from 2005, and was stripped of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Minor Premierships as well as the 2007 and 2009 Premierships, and fined nearly $200,000. To make things worse for them, they lost all its competition points and were not allowed to earn any more for season 2010, effectively handing them the wooden spoon early in the season.
They were, though, controversially allowed to keep their star-studded team in 2010 and performed well, considering their predicament on the competition ladder. Come round 16, Souths were clinging to the edge of the top eight after back to back losses, and the Storm seemed like an unattainable scalp considering their history against us.
The early signs in this match were good when Souths created multiple attacking opportunities on the line, with Colin Best eventually sending his winger Fetuli Talanoa over in the 15th minute. The Storm hit back just a few minutes later when winger Justin O'Neill swooped on a perfectly weighted kick on the other flank. They came close again soon after but a Billy Slater knock-on earned a sigh of relief from the Burrow.
The momentum swung like a pendulum throughout the half with one side, then the other, just missing out on points. Towards half time, Nathan Merritt just failed to ground the ball after a precision kick from Chris Sandow, and then Cooper Cronk missed a last-second field goal attempt, leaving the scores locked at 4-all at the break.
Just two minutes into the second half Melbourne crossed for an extremely contentious try. With a towering bomb from thirty metres out spiralling high above Talanoa, his opposite number Duffie ran straight into him, preventing the Rabbitoh winger from getting anywhere near the ball. The Storm regathered, the referee bizarrely signalled six more tackles, and they managed to create an overlap on the other side for O'Neill, just as he was getting bundled to touch, to throw a miraculous inside pass to Greg Inglis who scored. These days, it's difficult to imagine Greggy scoring against us, but he did that day.
To rub it in, Cameron Smith nailed the sideline conversion to make it 10-4.
Off the back of that the Storm continued to challenge the Souths line, and ten minutes later looked certain to score another miraculous try, only for O'Neill to drop the ball with the line open. The game seemed destined for that place where so many games against Melbourne went.
And then, on this occasion, the Rabbitohs found a way back in. In possession on halfway, John Sutton exploded through a gap with a left foot step, finding a rampaging Dave Taylor on his inside. As Taylor made an attempt to shift the ball further, a Storm player knocked it backwards towards the tryline. With purple jerseys swarming all around the ball, the mercurial Chris Sandow appeared from nowhere to plant it down for a much needed try. When Issac Luke converted from in front it was 10-all after 52 minutes.
A few sets later a penalty allowed Luke to give us the lead for the first time in the match. Suddenly, it was all one-way traffic as Souths won a scrum 10 metres out, Sandow looping the ball to Best, who exposed the Storm edge and put Talanoa over for his second. It was 16-10 with 20 minutes to go.
Melbourne managed to get O'Neill over for another try but Smith missed the conversion, allowing us to keep a two-point lead, which we held for the rest of the match, although not without a couple of scares. The match finished frantically, but the Rabbitohs held on for a rare win against the Storm.
But still they continued to dominate. They won the next six matches, including the 2012 qualifying final in Melbourne which put a dent in our run and launched them towards the Premiership.
The next season, however, we managed our best ever win against the Storm, in the corresponding match. Having just been pipped by the Roosters for the minor premiership, we hosted Melbourne at ANZ Stadium for the qualifying final in the first round of the playoffs.
Finishing third on the table, the premiers were certainly no slouches, and the Rabbitohs were well aware that it would require a herculean effort to take them down. But just seven minutes in an uncharacteristic error from the disciplined Storm side gifted Souths the perfect start. Justin O'Neill lost the ball twenty metres from their line and it was picked up by Dave Tyrrell, who swung the ball right for winger Dylan Farrell to cross for the easiest of tries.
A penalty goal took Souths to an eight point lead and we went further ahead in the 25th minute when former Storm enforcer Jeff Lima barged over to score his first try in Souths colours. We led 14-0 against the benchmark team. What a start.
As hard as they tried, the Storm just couldn't get across our line no matter how many opportunities they seemed to get from piggy-back penalties. Souths' defence was resolute, preventing tries from both wingers as they surged to the line, and we maintained the 14 point break at halftime.
It took them 53 minutes but Melbourne eventually scored from a scrum feed 20 metres out when Billy Slater scythed through the Souths line. Ten minutes later Slater looked to have touched down again from a bomb, but the video review revealed Nathan Merritt had been taken out mid-air. Off the back of the resulting penalty Souths made their way downfield, seeking the opportunity to seal the match.
As the Rabbitohs attacked the line, Greg Inglis (playing for the good guys now) dummied to his outside men then cut back inside, running across field and drawing defenders, before reversing the ball to Issac Luke, who reached out to plant the ball over the line. It was a beautiful set-piece, executed to perfection by two champion players. Souths were up 20-6 with less than fifteen minutes left and the Storm had no answer. A late consolation try was all they could manage and the Rabbitohs went on to record a magnificent win against an opponent who had pretty much always had our measure.
Sadly, the previous trend was set to re-establish itself immediately and that was the last time we beat them. It's been a fruitless road for the past four years, even in the Premiership year of 2014, when they beat us 27-14 in Round 10.
However, perhaps our most painful loss to Melbourne ever was in Round 22 of the 2016 season. It was a trying time for the Souths faithful as the team had lost their past eight games. To make matters worse, the game was in Melbourne, a city where we had never recorded a victory. Not even one. The Storm were flying high on their way to a Grand Final appearance and, unsurprisingly, were heavy favourites.
And things could not have started worse for us as Tom Burgess knocked the ball off from the kickoff. Souths muscled up, though, and soon found themselves right in the game. Both sides had tries disallowed before a clever chip kick by Adam Reynolds close to the line found a flying Alex Johnston, who acrobatically caught the ball and touched down in the corner. The Rabbitohs led 6-0 at the break and the feeling at half time was good. Even against the Storm, even in Melbourne.
But when they struck back early in the second half, scoring twice in quick succession to lead 10-6, the familiar sense of doom in the southern capital started to consume the Souths fans.
However, the Rabbitohs on the field didn't seem affected, and they continued to fight, despite the hostile crowd draped in purple. In the 56th minute Reynolds hoisted the ball up again and this time rookie Angus Crichton leapt high, caught it and landed over the try line, scoring his first four-pointer in the top grade and restoring the lead. The sides exchanged penalties goals as the clock wound down, but Souths held lead right inside the last minute. Our first ever win in Melbourne seemed assured.
Then the catastrophe happened.
With 45 seconds left and forty metres out, Storm fullback Cameron Munster was upended by Damien Cook in a copybook tackle. Yet, astonishingly, Cook was penalised and Cameron Smith kicked the long range goal to send the match into Golden Point. Absolutely bewildered, we never recovered and that man Smith kicked the field goal for the win.
It was a demoralising loss that still hasn't been erased from Souths' fans memories, the pain multiplied by two further losses in 2017, the second a sickening 64-6 annihilation in Round 25 which was the fourth biggest losing margin in Souths' proud history.
The Melbourne Storm is without doubt part of the modern rugby league "Establishment" and their history is one of privilege and success, tinged with arrogance. They are an unpopular Club, and deservedly so. From Cameron Smith getting his way far, far too often with the refs; to the sight of Craig Bellamy ranting, raving and then storming out the back of the coach's box after a decision – ONE decision! - goes against them, people are pretty fed up with their seemingly never-ending run at the top.
Our record against them is in need or drastic improvement. While we have had a few special days, we want more of them. A lot more.
This week we can start on that road.