SOUTH Sydney great Bob McCarthy paid Michael Crocker the ultimate compliment on the eve of the Rabbitohs co-captain's 200th first-grade game by declaring he would have made the club's great premiership-winning teams of the late 1960s and early '70s.
Those were the last glory days for Souths, when they had teams dripping with internationals - some of whom had to play off the bench or, on some occasions, not get a run in the top grade at all. To be regarded as good enough to play in those teams that won the competition in 1967, '68, '70 and '71 by someone who was an automatic selection at the time is as high as the praise can get at the club.
McCarthy, the great, wide-running second-rower who scored one of the most famous tries in grand final history with a runaway intercept in the 12-10 win over Canterbury in 1967, was at training yesterday to present Crocker with the jumper he will wear in tonight's second semi-final against Canberra at ANZ Stadium.
It is also the 200th first-grade game for Souths winger Nathan Merritt, who has played all of his games at Souths. He was presented with his match jumper as well. Crocker began at Sydney Roosters in 2001, left there for Melbourne in 2006 and came to Souths in 2009.
Before presenting veteran lock Crocker with his jumper, McCarthy told the Herald: ''Crocker would have made the squad in the great South Sydney sides. I'd like to think I'd get a run in the starting side, and [second-rower] Gary Stevens and [lock] Ron Coote would be there, but Crocker would have got a run off the bench in those sides.
''He's not a Souths kid, he didn't come from the area, but he plays with Souths passion. He plays hard from go to whoa, he wants to compete the whole time. He has accepted the culture at Souths, and is a leader at the club. He's the type of bloke who wants to kick the walls down if he thinks he has let the side down on the field.''
The official program for the most famous grand final of all, in 1969, when Balmain beat red-hot favourites Souths 11-2 in a massive upset, provides proof of how hard it was to get a run for the Rabbitohs then.
On the bench, behind an illustrious starting forward pack that included McCarthy, Bob Moses and Coote in the back row, were brothers Ray and Arthur Branighan, George Piggins, Paul Sait and Stevens. Only two reserves could be used then. Ray Branighan, Piggins, Sait and Stevens all went on to represent Australia.
Souths coach Michael Maguire has encouraged his players to embrace the great Souths tradition, and has welcomed the club's greats into the inner sanctum to help make that happen. It was Maguire who invited McCarthy to present Crocker with his jumper.
McCarthy said he remembered, when he was a young Souths player, being similarly introduced to the great Souths men of the 1950s.
''We'd be tying our bootlaces and one of the great players from the '50s would tap you on the shoulder,'' he said. ''I'd look up and he'd say, 'Go out and have a good game' or offer a bit of advice.
''You didn't want to let them down. The new coach likes to go back in time and use a bit of that. He's had me there before and other players from the '60s and '70s as well.''
Souths struggled in the first half of their 24-6 loss to Melbourne last week. But they began to improve in the second half, and McCarthy says there is no reason they can't bounce back against the Raiders.
''It was one game,'' he said. ''They didn't play well, but they will be better off for the experience. They will have learnt their lessons … I believe they will, because it's do-or-die now. They'll bounce back.''