Mario... Our fearless leader. Having filled in the captaincy role in 1984, it finally became official in 1985 when Fenech was named to lead the side. There's few moments in history that can match the rollercoaster ride of emotions that reinstatement brought for everyone associated with the Red & Green. Which moment will move on? Only you can decide!
Mario Fenech named Captain
Top Moments - Fenech Named Captain
In any team sport a captain is chosen to be their trusted leader. The chosen individual must inspire confidence in all his players, handle the extra pressure and responsibility, and communicate effectively with the referee as well as his team. Being named a team captain is quite the honour.
Our proud history shows that we’ve had many captains that excelled in that role and one of those was Mario ‘Test Match’ Fenech. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, and was known for having ferocious battles with his opponents, but none more so than Balmain’s Benny Elias.
Fenech played it as tough as any player, and in his era, you only left the field if you were missing a limb. As the proud captain of the South Sydney Rugby League Football Club, leaving the field simply wasn't an option. He once broke his thumb on Brett Kenny's head in the opening minute of a match against Parramatta – and played the full 80 minutes. He tore the tendon off his shoulder while tackling Cronulla winger Andrew Ettingshausen and played through the pain.
Mario was born in Marsa, Malta, and migrated to Australia as a ten-month old baby in 1962 with his parents and one brother, Joe, who sadly passed away in 1985 at the age of 24. With a surname like 'Fenech' which in English means "Rabbit", it was only fitting that Mario Fenech would end up playing for South Sydney and become one of the club’s most passionate and inspirational captains.
He only started to play rugby league to get respect from his mates at school. "I was bullied at school because I had tanned skin and dark hair, called everything ... not even the nuns could protect me. So, I remember crying to my dad when I was about five-years-old, and this is what he told me, ‘Well son, you'd better learn to play rugby league’," said Fenech. And that sparked a career that included 10 seasons with Souths (1981-90), four with Norths (1991-94) and one year at the South Queensland Crushers (1995).
"I loved playing and I gave it my everything. In rugby league I earned respect. It was somewhere I could prove my worth and show how hard I liked to play the game," Fenech said. Just ask Balmain hooker Ben Elias what it was like to take on Fenech in the scrum for further vindication. "The game didn't care where you came from or what colour skin you had. Rugby league was the great leveller. Everyone just got in and dug deep or you didn't survive," Fenech said.
Fenech made his first grade debut in 1981 against Wests at Redfern Oval (Round 15), when he came off the bench to replace Peter Tunks in the second half. His first game as captain of Souths was in 1984 against Canterbury at Redfern Oval (Round 23), when club captain Ziggy Niszczot was forced to miss a match owing to injury. Over the next six years he spent at Souths Mario would captain the side in 118 games, which puts him in third place of our club captains since 1908.
Jack Rayner is in first place with 180 games as captain, and John Sattler is second with 129 games. In 1989 Fenech was named Dally M Captain of the Year after leading Souths to the minor premiership. They lost the preliminary final to eventual champions the Canberra Raiders 32-16 after the scores were level 12-all at halftime.
Fenech made his NSW Origin debut that same year but he broke his hand in Game 2 and that cost him an Australian jersey on the Kangaroos tour to New Zealand in 1989 (his NSW replacement, David Trewhella, toured instead).
"Not getting that Test jersey and not playing in a grand final," said Fenech, are two major disappointments in his playing career. He played in three preliminary finals – one with Souths and two with Norths.
"Can you imagine the feeling of being the winning captain in a grand final? And lifting that trophy?
"I would have held it above my head all night! " said Fenech proudly.
He was inducted as a Life Member of the South Sydney Football Club in 1997.
Rabbitohs Supporters Participate in Rallies for Re-instatement
Top Moments - Rabbitohs Rally for Reinstatement
When ARL and Super League merged in December 1997 to become NRL it was announced that 20 existing clubs that took part in 1998 would be reduced to only 14 by the year 2000. There were three criteria assessed at the time – each side’s top 16 home crowd figures and top 16 away crowd figures from the past two seasons, as well as competition points over the past four seasons, using a system that rewarded recency. It was also announced that clubs that merged would receive a large sum of money, as well as a guaranteed position in the 2000 NRL Competition. At the end of 1998 season Adelaide Rams and Gold Coast Chargers folded, while St. George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers became the first clubs to merge and become the St. George Illawarra Dragons. Balmain and Western Suburbs merged at the end of 1999 season to become Wests Tigers, which still left 16 teams viable.
Before the NRL announced their 14 successful teams Souths knew they were on the endangered list and one of the many things that helped our cause were our rallies, which were the brainchild of Jerry Lissing. The first rally was called ‘Reclaim The Game Rally’ and attracted a great crowd of about 25,000 supporters that marched from Souths’ Leagues Club to Town Hall on Sunday, 10 October 1999. Most newspapers put that story on the front page the next day except for News Limited-owned, ‘The Daily Telegraph’, who buried it on page 44 in a small paragraph of the newspaper, and Ian Heads resigned from the newspaper as a protest.
Then on Friday, 15 October 1999, the NRL did the unthinkable and committed a most public and shameful crime in Australian sport when they cut this grand old club from the elite competition for failing to make the 14-team cut-off under the NRL criteria (along with North Sydney Bears who were bankrupt). The news of their dismissal came as a sledgehammer blow to the hundreds of supporters who gathered at the South Sydney Leagues Club to hear the verdict. Grown men and women openly cried and threatened never to watch another game of rugby league. For life-long and proud supporters, it was unbelievable to think that a club that had produced such champions as Clive Churchill, Jack Rayner, Ron Coote, Bob McCarthy, John Sattler, Len ‘Chicka’ Cowie, Bernie Purcell, John O’Neill and Eric Simms would no longer play in the elite competition.
South Sydney challenged the decision in the Federal Court claiming that the NRL agreement was exclusionary, intended to unfairly exclude South Sydney, and breached the Trade Practices Act. In days leading up to the judgement, Phil Gould spoke to the media on many occasions about Souths, with comments like: “Blind Freddie can see that Souths have got to be put back in.”
But incredibly, Justice Finn ruled on Friday, 3 November 2000, that the agreement did not specifically exclude any club and dismissed the Rabbitohs' claims for re-instatement into the national competition.
Souths appealed the decision and continued raising much-needed funds with their exhibition matches, functions and other events to support ‘The Fightback’.
Another similar march was organised for Sunday, 12 November 2000, which proved to be much bigger than the one in 1999 with over 80,000 supporters there protesting against the NRL. This time even ‘The Daily Telegraph’ gave a realistic estimate of the crowd, and the story appeared on their front page. There were many guest speakers present like Alan Jones, the late Frank Hyde, Andrew Denton and rugby league legends, as well as letters were read out from the Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kim Beasley.
The moment of truth came on Friday, 6 July 2001 at 10am (which is now probably Souths’ second most important date, after our birthday in 1908), when three judges Moore, Merkel and Heerey announced their decision. The first one, Justice Heerey, said: “I would dismiss the appeal. I am authorised by Justice Moore to say that he would allow the appeal.” Then the big moment – the third judge, Justice Merkel, said: “I would also allow the appeal.”
Around midday on the same day, Souths put out the following media release:
The South Sydney Club is extremely gratified and greatly relieved by today’s judgement by the Full Bench of the Federal Court. This decision vindicates the Souths Board’s stance over the past couple of years that our club was wrongfully excluded from the NRL competition. Now that this decision has been made, we at Souths, on behalf of the many hundreds of thousands of Australians call on the NRL to re-instate this proud club immediately.
Then at around 2.30pm on the same day in the auditorium of the South Sydney League Club, Nick Pappas read out the following statement from News Limited:
News Limited CEO Nr John Hartigan, said today the company accepted the court’s decision and hoped the NRL and South Sydney would begin immediate discussions regarding the club’s participation in the 2002 competition.
Six days later NRL officials David Moffett, John Brady and David Gallop met with the Board of the South Sydney Leagues Club, and after a one hour meeting held a press conference where Mr Moffett said the meeting went very well and that Souths would be participating in the 2002 NRL competition. He also said they would be given the same $2.5 million grant and benefits afforded to the other NRL clubs.
In 112 years of rugby league history Souths have proven time and time again their ‘never say die’ attitude on and off the field has served them well and their resilience is reflected in the fact it is the only rugby league club to be kicked out from the competition and subsequently readmitted.
When Souths won seven premierships in eight years between 1925-32, sportswriter Claude Corbett called us “The Pride of the League”, and another sportswriter, George Crawford, created the dictum, ''When Souths are going well, rugby league is going well.''