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'True believer': Albanese says Bunnies back where they belong

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese believes a 22nd South Sydney premiership on Sunday would prove their 2014 success "wasn't a fluke" and be a fitting send-off for super coach Wayne Bennett.

A generational Rabbitohs fan who “came out of the womb supporting South Sydney” and attended the 1971 grand final with his mother, Albanese has not only been a long-suffering fan through the ups and downs over more than half a century but also served as a member of the club's board.

After falling one win short for the past three seasons, the Rabbitohs are now in their second grand final in seven years – but the Suncorp Stadium showdown against Penrith is also only the club’s second grand final since 1971.

“They don’t come by too often,” Albanese told NRL.com. “It is our second grand final in 50 years. We have won 21 premierships, so we have been pretty good in grand finals over the years.

“1969 was my first memory … we lost 11-2, of course, and we are still cross about [Balmain] players laying down. We don’t want to miss that opportunity to win a grand final.

“It would mean so much if we were to win because what it would show is that 2014 wasn’t a fluke.”

Anthony Albanese explains what makes Bennett so special

'In Wayne we trust'

Albanese has known Bennett since before he joined the club in 2019 and believes the seven-time premiership winning coach is poised to leave the club with a grand final win on Sunday night.

“Wayne gives people that sense of belief so when people wrote us off after Latrell Mitchell was suspended I didn’t because I was sure that Wayne would use that to get the best out of the team,” he said.

“He is actually interested in politics, he tells a good story and he has a fantastic sense of humour.

“I have seen him in the dressing room giving talks after wins and after losses. He doesn’t say that much but they hang off every word and they would run through a brick wall for him – and they do.”

Revive, survive and thrive

Albanese said a win on Sunday would reaffirm the view he and others involved in the club’s fight for reinstatement 20 years ago held about the Rabbitohs’ potential to not only survive - but thrive - if given a chance.

He was a member of the Rabbitohs’ board when the club was cut from the competition in 1999 - when the premiership was reduced to 14 teams - until after their return in 2002.

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He helped organise rallies, tabled motions in parliament against the club's expulsion and was among those in a packed courtroom on July 6, 2001 when Souths' legal team, led by current chairman Nick Pappas, won their case for readmission.

Albanese later spoke in favour of selling a 75 per cent stake in the club to Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court at a meeting of more than 3000 Rabbitohs members in 2006 that set Souths on the path to ending their 43-year premiership drought in 2014.

Before the 2014 triumph against Canterbury, an entire generation of fans had listened to stories about the courage of John Sattler, the brilliance of Clive Churchill and how Souths had won 20 premierships in 63 years, without ever celebrating success themselves.

Anthony Albanese has spent a lifetime supporting the Rabbitohs.
Anthony Albanese has spent a lifetime supporting the Rabbitohs. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

After winning the minor premiership in 1989, the Rabbitohs were wooden spooners in 1990 and didn’t feature in the finals again before failing to meet the criteria for a streamlined 14-team NRL in 2000.

However, the likes of Albanese, Pappas and Crowe, along with a fiercely determined club patriarch in George Piggins and other “true believers” such as Andrew Denton, Ray Martin, Mike Whitney, Don Lane, Deirdre Grusovin and Laurie Brereton, insisted Souths could return to the glory days.

“I joined the board when the NRL had been reconstituted after the Super League war,” Albanese said.

Souths is a phenomenon and it something that people relate to.

Anthony Albanese

“We thought the criteria was stacked against us and didn’t give enough credit to history and heritage, and to the level of support South Sydney has.

“To me that fightback was an extraordinary experience. I will never forget when we lost the first court case and coming back to Souths Leagues Club, there were people who had been in tears.

“I remember this elderly woman who I got to know. She was quite distraught, and she said to me, ‘South Sydney is all I have. How can they take it away from me?’ We made the decision in a board meeting later that day that we would continue the fight.

“I think we had about 10 days to organise the second big rally and because we didn’t have any money … that would be a sign of whether people wanted to continue to engage in the fight.

“It was just incredible, people came from everywhere and there we were on the steps of Sydney Town Hall with over 100,000 people led by George Piggins, who showed incredible courage and leadership during that period.

“Newcastle Knights fans came down, people who supported other NRL clubs were all there with us and there were people who didn’t even follow rugby league but who just thought it was wrong that something so embedded in the community was being taken from them.

“It said a lot to me a lot about why rugby league has that sense of community, that sense of belonging and who you are - that sense of identity.”

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Sense of pride 

Since their return, Albanese said the Rabbitohs had not only re-emerged as regular premiership contenders but have maintained their strong links with the Indigenous community and the Souths Juniors competition, which produced six members of Sunday’s grand final team.

“The link with the Indigenous community is one of the reasons I know why Greg Inglis came to play for Souths,” he said. “There is a real sense of pride about that and it has made an enormous difference.

“Greg Inglis could have played wherever he wanted. He was at the time the best player in the world, but he chose Souths in part because of that commitment.

“Latrell Mitchell, a proud Indigenous man, coming to Souths has also really added to the side so we have been able to attract players of quality and in Wayne Bennett, we attracted the 'super coach', who has made such a difference since he came to the club.”

Looking back at the 2014 grand final

Random Souths Guy

With Sunday’s grand final moved to Queensland due to COVID restrictions and Sydney in lockdown, Albanese will be forced to watch at home like most Souths fans, but he said the support for the team was still noticeable.

“Souths is a phenomenon and it something that people relate to,” he said.

“I noticed at the AFL grand final in Perth last Saturday night, there was a Random Souths Guy. At almost any event, it doesn’t matter if it is the tennis at Wimbledon or the Masters Golf, you will see someone there in a Souths top or cap.

“There is that real sense of energy in the community.

“You see people walking around with their South Sydney gear on and that will be the case all week.

“It’s disappointing that we can’t go to the game or get together to watch it but the plus side is how good the NRL, the players, the administration, the coaches, all the support staff and the Queensland Government have been for keeping NRL going.

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“It has given people that sense of community and belonging even though we are by ourselves.

“In some ways the community has never been more together than it has been during COVID, with people making sacrifices for each other.

“One of the sacrifices we are making is not being able to go to the grand final but we will be celebrating virtually.”