Letter from Sydney: One man's plan to keep the Rabbitohs running

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO George Piggins, the Sydney Olympics are not the biggest sporting contest coming up in the city. It is, in fact, the the battle to save his beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs, kicked out by the National Rugby League but fighting fiercely for their lives.

"It will be the biggest shit-fight you've ever seen" says the former hooker, coach and now president of the club, rubbing his hands with ill- disguised relish. "We might die, but we'll die standing up."

Time was when you could navigate your way around Sydney using four of its rugby league clubs - Norths, Souths, Easts and Wests - as a compass. But North have been rewarded for one disastrous season by being railroaded into a shotgun marriage with their hated neighbours, Manly; Wests have jumped into bed with Balmain, and South Sydney, in another echo of events in Britain, are a famous old club who are now facing extinction.

Souths are not just any old rugby league club; they were instrumental in the birth of the code in Australia at the start of the century and have won more Premierships than anyone. Based in Redfern, one of the inner city's remaining working-class enclaves, they represent values and attitudes that mean little to the game's new paymasters.

When News Limited began casting around for the clubs on which they could base an Australian Super League, Souths figured in their thinking only as an inevitable casualty. They told Piggins: "We haven't spoken to you and we won't be." It was then that he knew he was going to have to fight to the death.

As a player, Piggins had the reputation of wanting to fight everybody - his clashes with the equally competitive and uncompromising Malcolm Reilly are the stuff of legend - and, as an administrator, he is much the same.

Thus, his first appointment in court, this week or next, will be to sue the Australian Rugby League - which he supported so staunchly through its battles with Super League - for the pounds 400,000 he says it owes Souths.

That is only the warm-up for the main event, when Piggins gets his day in court with the NRL, the Murdoch-dominated inheritors of the wreckage of the Australian game, to prevent them starting a new season next February without South Sydney.

Even Piggins' allies in his previous battles - and some from within his own club - have told him to accept defeat. But the self-made millionaire, who built up a trucking business during his playing days and now nurtures a string of garden nurseries, is having none of it.

"Weak as piss," he calls those without his stomach for the continuing struggle. "I believe we'll be there for the start of next season. If not, we'll die on our feet."

Piggins drew his confidence from the fact that, although he now has few friends at an official level, he has plenty down on the streets. A protest march to Sydney Town Hall last month attracted an estimated 50,000 people, and an A$100-a-head (pounds 40) fundraising dinner at swanky Darling Harbour is sold out and over-subscribed. Australian soldiers keeping the peace in East Timor have written to Piggins pledging their support.

There are even signs of South's survival becoming a fashionable cause among the Sydney glitterati, with the well- known actress Deborah Mailman wearing a red-and-blue South bob cap to the gala opening of Fox Studios - the pride and joy of one Rupert Murdoch - last weekend.

The irony of that is not lost on Piggins, who loathes the mogul and all he stands for. "This is the man that put up razor wire to keep workers out of their newspaper. That tells you plenty about him," he says chuckling, also thinking about the impetus that South's resistance has exposed. "We've taken on the biggest media organisation in the world and they haven't been able to kill off the brokest club in the game."

Despite being officially defunct, South began their pre-season training under their coach, the former Salford and Hull scrum-half, Craig Coleman, last week. They had six contracted players, plus some, like the former London Broncos prop, Mark Carroll, who have nominally retired but turned up and trotted around out of solidarity.

"I'll go out and find a team of kids," says Piggins, looking out - appropriately - at the lines of shrubs and saplings destined for the back yards of suburban Sydney. "We'll put a team on the field and surprise a lot of people."

Those surprises could start when South's lawyers get to court and subpoena witnesses whose testimonies could open the wounds of the Super League war afresh. Piggins makes no apology for how messy it could become.

He has been widely criticised for not seeking a settlement that could perhaps have saved the club. But South Sydney to him is a non-negotiable, emotional commitment, which cannot be compromised. "Mergers work for some people," he says of the route others have chosen, "like sharing your missus works for some people."

George Piggins is not one of those people, which is why the club to which he is wedded fights on.