Bunnies grow up strong as side effect of struggle
"For Souths to be where we are at this stage of the year is unbelievable" ... Jason Clark. Photo: Getty Images
OF THE six South Sydney juniors fighting to guide the club to its first grand final in 41 years, no one has fought harder than Jason Clark.
On November 14, 2000, the then 11-year-old joined his father and 80,000 protesting rugby league diehards in the streets of Sydney to help save the Bunnies. He marched from Redfern Oval to Sydney Town Hall - now he's marching his way within 80 minutes of a shot at premiership glory.
''It was a day with my dad and family friends to try and do what we could to get Souths back in the comp,'' Clark said. ''It was a day that I will never forget. It is a dream - for Souths to be where we are at this stage of the year is unbelievable.''
They may have attracted the best of England, New Zealand and Queensland, but the juniors are where the heart is at for South Sydney.
Greg Inglis, Issac Luke and Sam Burgess demand the spotlight, but Clark, Adam Reynolds, John Sutton, Nathan Merritt, Nathan Peats and Eddy Pettybourne are the pride of the club - the players whose backyards have always been Redfern Oval.
Sutton, who lives in Maroubra and played for Kensington United and the Coogee Randwick Wombats in his junior days, knows what a grand final berth would mean to the community.
''I've grown up in the area,'' he said. ''My family, my friends - they're all South Sydney fans. I know how much it means to everyone.''
The club has always prided itself on its juniors, but over the past decade their best local talent - Braith Anasta, Reni Maitua, Craig Wing - has been poached by rival NRL clubs.
Chief executive Shane Richardson understands the importance of developing home-grown players and to have such a large number involved in this year's finals campaign only adds to the significance of their breakthrough season.
''Occasionally you lose one, like Eddy Pettybourne going to Wests Tigers next year, but we are playing more juniors in first grade than any other current club,'' Richardson said. ''We have got six juniors playing first grade and in the squad there is about 10 of them, so we are really proud of that.''
Manly also have six juniors who could take the field against the Storm on Friday night. Jason King (Belrose Eagles), Anthony Watmough (Narrabeen Sharks), Kieran Foran (Asquith Magpies), Darcy Lussick (Beacon Hill Bears), Vic Mauro (North Curl Curl) and Michael Oldfield (Harbord United) have all played their junior footy in the Manly area.
The only Bulldogs junior to come through the Canterbury system and make his debut for the club is five-eighth Josh Reynolds (St George Dragons). While Corey Payne (Chester Hill Hornets) was a Canterbury junior, he played for the Dragons and Tigers before returning in 2010 to the club where it all began.
Peats and Reynolds played together for the Rabbitohs in the 2010 Toyota Cup grand final, going down 42-28 against the Shaun Johnson-led New Zealand Warriors.
The pair played plenty of football alongside Clark, who missed last Saturday night's win against the Raiders with an ankle injury.
While he sat up in the box alongside coach Michael Maguire, the importance of the victory for South Sydney's supporters wasn't lost on the 23-year-old back-rower.
''The crowd was amazing, sitting up in the box you can actually hear it and be part of it, which was unbelievable,'' he said. ''It's massive, it is something Souths haven't done for a long time and hopefully we can keep it going.
''Our supporters in The Burrow live and breathe it, and I am the exact same. I am friends with some of them and I know that they are with us every step of the way. I think the biggest thing that Souths have built is through the coach, he has bought belief and toughness into the team. It is something that we might not have had for a while and Madge has done that.''