On the 17 January, way back in 1908, the South Sydney District Rugby League Football Club was founded at Redfern Town Hall and Rugby League was born. Souths won the inaugural game of Rugby League, held at Birchgrove Oval, by defeating North Sydney 11 points to 7. South Sydney finished as minor premiers that year and went on to win the very first Grand Final by beating Eastern Suburbs 14 points to 12.
Since their auspicious beginnings Souths have gone on to win 20 premierships in total, a Rugby League record in Australia. We have also produced 64 Australian internationals, another record.
In 1925 Souths went through the entire season undefeated. They were the first Rugby League team to do so and are still one of only six teams to have ever achieved that milestone.
In 1951 Souths defeated Manly-Warringah 42 points to 14 in the Grand Final to claim their 13th title. It still remains as the highest score by any team in a Grand Final and the third highest margin.
The miracle of ’55 saw Souths will eleven straight sudden death games in a row to claim their sixteenth premiership trophy.
The ’60s and ’70s saw four more Grand Final successes for the Rabbitohs, but times have been very lean since. In 2012 Souths finished third, which is their best performance since taking out the minor premiership in 1989.
In the late 1990s Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited proposed a Super League competition and Souths, who were lingering at the bottom of the ladder, faced extinction. The fan community rallied and the team has survived – but the showdown with News Limited hasn’t been forgotten.
The battle to save Souths wasn’t just about community versus corporations, but in this case, the media corporation, News Limited, and its desire to take the game to Pay TV. This was a “little Aussie battler” arguing over identity and types of belonging that were much bigger than simply a code.
In 1999, when the future of the team was in strife, tens of thousands of Sydneysiders took to the streets to try to turn the tide. As Rabbitohs fan Andrew Denton put it on the ABC’s Australian Story in 1999, it was a display of an Australian community and team trying to keep its identity in the face of the corporate dollar and an attempt to squeeze a few more bucks out of Pay TV.
In Denton’s words from that time: “You don’t have to follow football or understand the game to follow [the] story. It’s that old classic David and Goliath”.
By 2001 the team’s fate looked stronger and Australian Story returned again to the Bunnies. Comedian and Rabbitohs supporter Mikey Robbins called the Souths more than a story about a football team, it’s about a small community that took on a multinational, multimedia organisation.
The original fight to save Souths came via the former Chairman of South Sydney Leagues Club and former player George Piggins. He was the man who took the NRL and New Limited to court. The 2001 Australian Story was really his, titled simply “In George We Trust”.
But once the battle to stay on the field was won, the battle to build a winning team was taken over by a much bigger player, or at least one with much deeper pockets – Russell Crowe. Crowe purchased the team with Peter Holmes à Court in 2006. He has famously bankrolled Armani suits for players, poured rivers of cash into the team’s infrastructure, and made sure his Hollywood mates know what team to support when they’re visiting.
A photo gallery of Famous Rabbitohs Fans includes Oprah Winfrey, Snoop Dogg, Ben Affleck, Eva Mendes, Christian Bale and Pamela Anderson all in bunnies gear – none even necessarily even knowing what NRL is, but at least willing to fly the flag. Crowe and Holmes à Court have made the team financially viable and the code’s biggest brand – not bad for a team thought of a dispensable not so long ago.