Brothers in arms: how Bulldogs helped hunted Bunnies bounce back from the brink of extinction
Support ... Arthur Coorey with Steve Mortimer after the 1985 grand final. Photo: Supplied
IF South Sydney had not won their battle to be reinstated to the NRL a decade ago, they may have been based on the Gold Coast under a little-known plan devised by Canterbury to keep the Rabbitohs alive.
Despite being on opposite sides of the Super League war, the Bulldogs played a significant role in Souths' fight for re-admission and refused to co-operate with News Ltd and the NRL in the court case against the Rabbitohs.
Canterbury also assisted financially, by attending a number of fund-raising events to pay for Souths' court costs, and were the first NRL club to speak publicly against the Rabbitohs expulsion at the end of the 1999 season.
''They were a brother club and they were a great club,'' said long serving Canterbury director Arthur Coorey, whose cousins Jim and Peter Lahood were on the Souths board. ''We weren't going to let them die, we fought with them all along.''
Coorey revealed in Wednesday's Herald how the Bulldogs were the main rival to Russell Crowe's $42,000 bid for the bell used in the first league game in 1908 at an auction to raise funds for Souths' legal bills.
Former Canterbury Leagues Club boss Gary McIntyre was also sitting at the table of Bulldogs officials at the function, held at Sydney Convention Centre on November 9, 1999.
''I made quite clear to the compere, Ray Martin, and I am sure he announced it to the function that we never intended to keep the bell,'' McIntyre said. ''It was a very important symbol of rugby league and it was also a treasured item of the South Sydney club, so we were going to donate it back to them. Canterbury went to the function specifically to support Souths, financially and morally, during their darkest hour.
''When I was phoned by the media about why our club was attending when no other club was attending I responded that Canterbury will be attending, Souths is a great club and it will be a shame if Canterbury did not attend. We admired their fighting spirit and we supported their endeavours to get back in the comp. We thought they were unfairly excluded and supported them entirely.''
The black-tie event was the first of many Souths fund-raisers Bulldogs officials or supporters attended, including one at Bankstown in 2001 at which Hazem El Masri made a surprise appearance.
To gain reinstatement, Souths had to fund three costly court cases, losing the first two but winning the third, and News Ltd and the NRL expected the other clubs to help them.
''Don't forget that we had been on the Super League side but we were the only club to my knowledge that refused to put in an affidavit and we said we were not prepared to give any evidence whatsoever against Souths because we supported Souths' inclusion,'' McIntyre said.
Coorey said the Bulldogs had only agreed to join News Ltd's breakaway Super League competition to ensure their own future. ''We saw the plans for Super League and we weren't in it. They were going to scrub us, too, so it was about our survival,'' he said. ''We made sure we survived and then we tried to help Souths.''
Among the plans devised by the Canterbury board to ensure Souths' survival was a development proposal on the Gold Coast that they considered offering to the Rabbitohs as a new home.
''I don't know if even George [Piggins] knows this but Canterbury looked at a site opposite Coolangatta beach as a potential second club on the Gold Coast,'' McIntyre said. ''We had discussions amongst our directors about helping Souths to have an eventual club on the Gold Coast with an objective of one day being re-admitted to the competition from the Gold Coast. They could have been a feeder club to us in the meantime.''
Souths and Canterbury have long had a close association and after the Rabbitohs were expelled Piggins helped direct his nephew Braith Anasta to Belmore.
After Souths won the third court case and were granted readmission to the NRL, the Bulldogs invited Piggins, his wife, Noelene, and other members of the Rabbitohs board to ANZ Stadium for their next home match on July 8, 2001, and a tribute to them was played on the big screen.
The two clubs are also closely connected through their ties with the Lebanese community. The Lahood brothers and Coorey's families came from the village of Kfarsghab as part of the first wave of Lebanese migration to Australia in the 1890s and settled in Redfern.
''We have been with Souths since day one,'' Jim Lahood said. ''The next generation moved out in the 1920s and were instrumental in the start up of Canterbury.
''Through mine and Peter's urging of not only Arthur but also others at Canterbury, they came to the conclusion that there was something terribly wrong with what was happening to Souths and their supporters.
''Even though legally they couldn't break away from the other clubs, morally they felt that they wanted Souths back in the comp and their contribution was quite significant.
''There was the financial support … but even more important was the fact one of the most popular and powerful clubs … had broken ranks and said: 'We are changing our stance, we don't want Souths out of the comp, we think it's better if Souths are back in'.''