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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 13:37 GMT
Rabbitohs back in the hat
South fans took it hard when their club was expelled from the NRL
South fans took it hard when their club was expelled
BBC Sport Online's Phil Mercer reports on the remarkable revival of one of Australia's oldest rugby league clubs.

It is the team that refused to die, whose story of survival is one of the most remarkable in the history of Australian sport.

Thrown out of the National Rugby League two years ago, the South Sydney Rabbitohs are back and gearing up for a new season.

And on 16 February, 2002 they completed their return to the big-time when they drew 20-20 in a thrilling Charity Shield clash with St George Illawarra.

Oscar winner Russell Crowe is a big Souths fan
Oscar winner Russell Crowe is a big Souths fan
It's a game that Souths fans were looking forward to in a massive way after the events of 15 October, 1999.

That date is a scar on the collective conscience of everybody connected with the club, one of the founding members of Australia's rugby league in 1908.

"It was a black day," recalls Rabbitohs president George Piggins, who led the legal battle after administrators decided to streamline the NRL to 14 teams following the conclusion of the 1999 season.

Souths refused to merge with another side and were expelled.

A team with 20 championships behind it was suddenly cast adrift into the wilderness.

The axing of Australia's oldest rugby league club provoked outrage, and 80,000 fans marched through Sydney to show their support and vent their anger.

We consider Souths to be part of our family, a loving relative
Rabbitohs fan Clayton Gunning

"We love our sport here and just did what we had to do," Piggins told BBC Sport Online.

"What would the British do if they took away their soccer clubs?"

Many Rabbitohs fans have an almost religious devotion to their club.

Clayton Gunning says the love of the red and greens is in their blood.

"Souths supporters have taken a spiritual ownership of their team which cannot really be explained in words," said Gunning.

"They have embraced their love of their team like no other.

"We consider Souths to be part of our family, a loving relative."

The close relationship between the fans and Souths can be explained by geography.

A young fan is comforted by his mother as the Rabbitohs lose an appeal hearing
A young Souths fan breaks down in tears after one failed appeal hearing
The club is based in Redfern, a tough, working class district in Sydney.

According to Neil Barber, an academic and lifelong follower of the Rabbitohs, it's an area that reflects "the nature of class difference and oppression in Australian society".

Barber believes Redfern's downtrodden past has bred generations of fans who simply never give up: "It's a place where oppression is overcome through unity and resourcefulness."

Souths needed every ounce of that fighting spirit during its 18-month court battle to regain its place in the NRL.

The club endured two failed appeals in the federal court before victory was secured.

"Never Say Die" is the club's motto. Take a drive through the streets of Sydney and you see it emblazoned on dozens of bumper stickers.

It is also the title of Piggins' book about the club's fight for life.

Fans credit Piggins, the club's president for the past 12 years, with being their saviour.

"He led us from the Valley of Darkness," one supporter said.

Souths coach Craig Coleman
Souths coach Coleman has promised "fireworks" in the coming season
Piggins says he's got "only a few more years in charge left in him" and wants the local authorities to help him build a new ground in the heart of Redfern.

The man who saved the Rabbitohs now wants to make sure they survive and prosper in the future.

There is a strong feeling here that rugby league in Australia needs the determination shown by Souths to repel the growing threat posed by rugby union, Australian rules and soccer.

Coach Craig Coleman has recruited several top quality players to spearhead Souths' 2002 comeback, including Adam Muir, Russell Richardson and highly-rated young prop Paul Stringer.

A passionate fan as well the team's head coach, Coleman has promised a powerful return to the NRL.

And he has told Rabbitoh fans to "prepare for fireworks" in the season ahead.

We saw a few in the clash with St George Illawarra. There is surely plenty more to come.

See also:

16 Feb 02 |  Rugby League
Souths back with a bang
07 Dec 01 |  Rugby League
Rabbitohs get derby opener
07 Dec 01 |  Rugby League
Rabbitohs win court battle
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