We’ve never previously tipped our hat in rugby league’s direction at Presentation Night, but living in Sydney in the lead up to to the NRL Grand Final what we love about the caper is that it ignites exactly the same type of passion that those of us of an ‘Aussie Rules’ persuasion know so well. With South Sydney taking on the Canterbury Bulldogs in their first Grand Final since 1971 this weekend, my thoughts turn to the pure unadulterated joy that one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, Mr. Daniel Lee Allen, must be feeling. He’s the handsome fella with the South Sydney tattoo in the picture to the left. He’s pretty keen on the Rabbitohs.
Danny is no longer a resident of Sydney, but a citizen of the world. Having played drums for our sentimental favourites Youth Group for 13 years, Dan moved to New York where he’s since made a career touring the world with the frankly excellent We Are Scientists and the similarly magnificent The Drums. Danny was born and raised in Maroubra in Sydney, the heart of bunnies’ territory. This weekend, after he plays a show in LA with The Drums, he will repair to his hotel room full of nervous anticipation, plug in his laptop and cheer on his beloved bunnies with every fibre of his being from the City of Angels. Below is Dan’s beautiful reflection on how his love of Souths covers family, community and a sense of belonging.
I’d like to begin by saying the following article may seem a little gratuitous or excessive to the uninitiated but I can assure you every word is sincere, earnest & heartfelt and is the sort of stuff that lies within every South Sydney supporter you’ve ever met that calls themselves a Tragic.
I can’t seem to decide whether my earliest memory is Dad taking me to Redfern Oval or coming to collect bits and pieces from our McKeon St apartment down on Maroubra Beach after my parents split. Either way it means he was already taking me to games long before it became our weekend default activity. It would come to shape, nurture and almost define our relationship until this very day.
At Redfern we’d always sit on the Leagues Club side to the right of the stand, so we could see the manually-operated scoreboard. I remember how exciting it was seeing the numbers jiggle and gently fall back as the fella up there amended the score. No action replays or video refs in those days. I remember as much of sliding down the hill on cardboard behind the “tuck shop” and waiting at the fence for the final whistle to race the other kids and try snatch up a piece of the black and white candy-striped corner posts as I do of the actual games.
I do remember Neil Baker tying with Eric Simms for most field goals in a season however. I remember loving the Ignis Fridges sponsored “Minties” jersies (my own flag at the time was basically Italian with the extra white stripe). I remember crowd favorite Zbigden “Ziggy” Niszczot, underrated workhorse forwards like David Boyle & Michael Andrews and of course, ’80′s Reggie the Rabbit.
I also remember parking just far enough from the ground so as not to get stuck in the post-game log-jam of Redfern’s relatively tiny inner-city streets. As the young bull, I could never understand why Dad wouldn’t just relent and park closer when there were clearly so many available spots we walked past on the way to the ground. Still, I loved winding through the streets past all the true locals, flags in windows, soaking up the match-day atmosphere. For me it was a truly cherished occasion each and every time that I’m sad people rarely get to experience anymore in this age of the corporate sponsored stadium.
The only Bunnies jersey I’ve ever owned is the Smith’s Crisps era because the late ’80′s and more specifically 1989, was the one real glimmer of hope throughout my formative years. For a stack of those years Dad lived in Matraville on the same lot as the house he grew up in, and across the street from Les ‘Bundy’ Davidson, a legendary enforcer. Les always had time for a quick hello, even on match day mornings. ‘Gonna have a big one today, Davo?!?‘ I’d yell from across the street. ‘Yeah mate’, he’d shout as he packed up his ute, 3-legged dog in tow. Country boy from Dubbo and great rugby league role model. Family man. What I reckoned they meant when they said, “a good style of a bloke”. He went on to represent NSW & Australia and was a huge part of the Minor Premiership team in 1989 that gave me my first hope a Grand Final might be within reach. It was a fantastic season that ultimately only taught me as a Rabbitoh, not to get your hopes up. ‘They’ll break your heart mate.’ It was a lesson my Dad would pass down but never seem to heed himself. The burden of the diehard. One of the many parallels and traits I would come to realise we had in common.
We’re much, much more similar than I thought – something every young man denies and maybe even dreads but something which I grew to find more and more comforting as I got older and we got closer. We bought tickets for the GF in ’89 as soon as they went on sale, and despite losing only 3 games all season and having two chances to get to the big dance, were bundled out by Balmain and (eventual premiers) Canberra respectively. Fortunately for us, we decided to make the most of our seats and were treated to one of the greatest games in history, Raiders v Tigers. A fantastic day, where a chance meeting with Balmain icon Laurie Nichols turned into spiteful history lesson (albeit playfully) over the great Grand Final upset of 1969.
I still have my flag from ’89 signed by the entire team along the fences. My older brother Scott (“Skar” to his mates), a tough-as-nails Group 2 2nd rower in his day keeps it safe as I traverse the globe. Despite being a Dragon, he has a huge soft spot for Souths after all these years, and will no doubt be cheering as loud from his living room in Mylestom, NSW as I will from my hotel room in L.A. this Sunday.
Now, before the current winning culture of the Russell Crowe era, there was a whole lot of losing. Much like Millenials never knowing life before mobile phones or the internet, I never knew winning. It happened to other people. Other generations. My Dad, his brother Ron and definitely their Father saw Premierships. The ones I’ve heard oh soooo much about – the most in the league apparently. I was born in ’76 so I was conveniently poised for the greatest drought the club would know.
Those storied Mighty Rabbitohs that built the club’s proud foundations almost felt like another team entirely. Especially when simply winning a game was something to celebrate. I remember a particular losing streak (probably in the early ’00′s) in which after finally cracking a Sunday arvo win over my mate Mick’s Eels, I celebrated like we’d made the GF. I went out from the game on the Sunday night and only made it in to work for the Friday that week (one of those times when you decide taking even more time off makes it look more like you were genuinely sick). These kinds of minor victories, like seeing rugged winger Graham Lyons make the (victorious) 1990 NSW State of Origin side or in 2006 watching Nathan Merritt finish the season as top try scorer in a team finishing last, were the only kind of celebrating I knew and I can honestly say that at the time it felt like the closest I’d see to genuinely getting to celebrate anything in my lifetime. To think otherwise was to dare to dream, a never-say-die attitude that came to embody what it is to be a Rabbitoh. A trait that would prove vital to our very survival come the arrival of the 21st Century.
I don’t generally do regret in life, opting more for the belief that even bad choices are valuable in what you can learn from them but the closest I have to a regret, is choosing not to march for the club in 2001, after we’d been kicked out during the super league debacle. By that stage I felt worn down by the hopelessness of it all. My interests had headed very much toward music and my band Youth Group was seeming less like a hobby after scoring some decent opening slots and promising radio rotation. I can’t even remember what I did on the day of the march but I remember watching it on the news and being surprised at the size of the turn out. ‘Where the **** were these 80,000 when we were at the SFS watching teams run up cricket scores against us?!!?’, I whined. Reliably, Dad saved me a shirt, knowing his Prodigal son would return.
It would prove however, to be the first opportunity for genuine celebration and what would only cement my place as a Rabbitoh lifer. For the first game back I walked from my apartment in Surry Hills to the SFS (now Allianz Stadium) and mainly agreed to go for Dad but as I got closer to the ground, the excitement I had felt so often as an optimistic lad once again began to churn in my gut. Seeing the faithful, the two colours side by side again, slowly realizing that these colours, this team, is in my blood. It’s part of who I am and where I’m from. It’s my Dad and I. I walk into the ground and it hits me. The supporters shop, the smells, even the overpriced food vendors and then the modern day legends. I see Mario. I see Tugger Coleman. My childhood heroes. I see… PHIL BLAKE – the “go-to” when my inner Rex Mossop commentated street chip ‘n’ chase moves. I get to our seats and to Dad, Uncle Ron & Aunty Les, ‘The Brians’, their kids and all of the other familiar faces that had ridden this rollercoaster alongside me all these years. Then came the moment that sealed the deal. Rusty had found Albert Clift, the man that signalled in the birth of rugby league at the first game between Souths and Easts in 1908, to ring the ACTUAL bell, indicating that rugby league was born again to South Sydney supporters. The crowd too had bells and as the team ran out onto the field once again, triumphant merely in the very RIGHT to even be out there. My Father’s tears of joy streaming down his cheeks were infectious and I vowed never to stray again. The team was back and so was I. For good.
We were dead last the following year (and 14th the ensuing three) but we were there. Fighting on. And unless you know the joy in simply being allowed to exist and compete, you can’t begin to know what SSFC diehards will be feeling this week. The difference between this week and every other GF we’ve had to sit through over the last 4 decades.
Over the years rugby league and our love for South Sydney has given us it’s ups, including getting to play with my band on the SFS turf before the Newcastle v Brisbane semi-final of 2006, which obviously I did in my ’89 jersey (Dad snapped a blurry pic, while my head was briefly on the Paddington end screen), and so many downs but this week we’re justified in daring to dream. This gift my father bestowed on me at birth and that for so many years felt much more like a curse, is finally coming full circle. On Sunday, we’ll see if these gladiators, maybe the best South Sydney squad I have known, can channel 43 years of hurt, focus all the emotion into “sticking to the process”, take this very last “one game at a time”… and deliver to the cardinal and myrtle faithful what we have believed is our birthright as the “Pride of the League”. To be honest, I’m just happy we’ll be there.
Glory Glory to South Sydney.