The South Sydney Rabbitohs used to be called the "pride of the league" and it was said that when Souths go well, rugby league went well. Established in 1908 amongst the terrace houses of the Sydney suburb of Redfern, South Sydney seemed to encapsulate that working class ethic that made rugby league so popular.
It is not clear why the club chose red and green as its colours. Some have speculated that it is because the club adopted the colours of the rugby union and Australian football teams that previously played in the area. Others have speculated that the colours came from the name Redfern. Although Redfern was named after a Convict doctor, it had also been a slang term for the waratah plant that has red flowers. (The truth is probably that a couple of blokes were having a beer, the conversation turned to colours, and red and green were suggested for no apparent reason. The other drinkers probably went, "good enough" and went on drinking.
Just as it is not clear how the club chose its colours, it is not clear how it got its moniker. One version of history says that during the depression, many of the players used to catch and sell rabbits, calling out "Rabbitoh" as they walked the neighbourhood in search of income. Opponents weren’t too impressed by the smell when the players wore their same blood-stained jumpers during games and so called out Rabbitoh as an insult. Another version says it was a derogatory reference to South's home ground being littered with "rabbit ‘oles" (holes).
Whether true or not, the insults seemed to strengthen the resolve of the rabbits. Not only did they officially embrace the rabbit as their moniker, but they went on to prove themselves by winning a record of 20 first grade premiership - more than any other club.
As Sydney grew, gentrification changed the cultural composition of most of Sydney’s rugby league clubs - Souths was an exception. It had a large Aboriginal community but when landlords in the area conducted a campaign of evicting Aboriginal residents, the Aborigines fought back. They gained a grant from the Federal government to purchase houses in the region, which were in turn rented to Aboriginal families. To further hinder gentrification, the state government situated housing commission high rises in the South Sydney region.
While Redfern may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it can’t be denied that the region has character and spirit. Furthermore, that character and spirit seems to mirror the Rabbitohs.
The fortunes of the region seemed to mirror those of the football club and the licensed premises of Souths’ went bankrupt in 1973. Without poker machines or alcohol sales to raise cash to buy players, Souths had to rely on gate takings. These were not enough. For most of the following three decades, the pride of the league was very much in the category of “disadvantaged” as Souths firmly resided at the base of the ladder.
Following the reconciliation between News Ltd and the ARL after the Superleague War, it was agreed that Souths had to go, irrespective of whether they wanted to. On October 15, 1999 the NRL announced the Rabbitohs would not be invited to participate in the 2000 competition.
Ironically, the eviction probably saved Souths and even saved rugby league. In a classic Australian story, South Sydney refused to give up. Street rallies were attended by 150,000 people and forced the NRL to re-admit the club two years later. At the time, Australian football and rugby union were circling rugby league like sharks waiting for their prey to bleed to death. During the Superleague War, fans had seen the code sell its soul to the dollar and had become highly disillusioned. Souths fighting for re-admission showed that somewhere that working class rugby league spirit still smouldered.
It would be nice to say once readmitted, the South’s fire reignited and turned a raging inferno, but that would be a Hollywood movie script, not a true Australian story. For all the stirring speeches and odes to its heritage, Souths still didn't have a profitable licensed club to fall back on and its playing list was crap. For the next few years, Souths remained firmly entrenched its disadvantaged rabbit hole as other clubs ran over the top of it.
Without a future, in 2006 the "people's club" voted to accept private ownership. For many, it was hard to reconcile the street rallies with a corporate structure in which profits could go to a few wearing business suits. The one consolation was the new owner was Russel Crowe, a millionaire actor who generally played very masculine characters in his movies. A bit like other millionaire artists that attacked capitalism while simultaneously profiteering from it, Crowe seemed to champion South’s working class heritage while navigating it towards a more affluent world. He compared Souths to neighbouring Sydney Roosters by saying:
" For all the Roosters have spent in the last five years they've only bought one premiership… Souths are the poorest club in the league. Our boys train on a busted-ass oval with cockroaches in the dressing room, there's no glamour playing for Souths."
Meanwhile, he relocated the Rabbitohs to Stadium Australia, dressed them in Armeni suits and had them play exhibition games in America.
In 2012, the Rabbitohs finally had some of the success that Crowe had promised and which gave an insight into the glory of the past. At Stadium Australia for the preliminary final, up to 40,000 people waved red and green colours. Without disrespecting the colours of other teams, arguably there has never been a more beautiful crowd in football.
2006 - When compared to other NRL supporters
Roosters - South Sydney and the Roosters are inner-city neighbours and the last of the traditional clubs. Owing to poker machine revenue, the Roosters have been profitable despite having few fans. This profitability has allowed the club to buy premierships, much to the angst of Souths.
Q:What do you call Rabbitohs players running back in defence?
A: A re-ceding hareline
Q: What do you call a South Sydney player that has been part of a premiership?
Q: How many Rabbitohs does it take to win the premiership?
A: Nobody remembers
An old Rabbitoh boardmember lies dying in his bed. He calls over Shirley, his faithful wife of 50 years, and says, "Shirl, when we started out as teenagers, we bought tickets to our first grand final but the bunnies lost: you were with me"
"Oh, yes, Bruce", she says.
Then I was signed, packed down in the front row, broke my leg in three places and never played again. You stayed with me."
"Oh yes, Bruce" she says.
"Then, came home, couldn't play due to me disability, but joined the board to contribute something, but we got the spoon."
"Oh, yes, Bruce", she says.
"Then the leagues club went bankrupt, players left then just when we got over that, there was the eviction from the premiership, which wiped us right out: you still stayed with me."
"Oh yes, Bruce,"
"Now here I am, in excruciating pain, about to die, useless and you're still with me."
"You're bloody bad luck"
A Rabbitoh fan and a Roosters fan bump into each other in the supermarket. Sorry mate, says the Rabbitoh’s fan, I am a bit nervous, I lost my wife, can't find her anywhere. The Roosters fan replies; gee, I can't find mine either, how about we go and look for them together? Sure, says the Rabbitoh fan, what does you wife look like? Eh well, she's blonde, long hair, tall slim body, well tanned, large breasts and she's wearing a tight fitting low cut black dress. What does your wife look like? Forget about my wife, says the Rabbitoh, let's go and look for yours!