Rugby League Grand Final 1971. South Sydney captain John Sattler is chaired off

Victory ... captain John Sattler, suffering a broken jaw, is carried off by Bob McCarthy and teammates after Souths beat Manly in the 1970 grand final.

WHEN thousands marched to save South Sydney after they were expelled from the NRL in 1999, it was commonly suggested that, had they attracted as many people to their games, they would never have been thrown out. Tonight, the Rabbitohs will play Canterbury at ANZ Stadium before up to 70,000 fans, hoping to reach their first grand final since 1971.

The crowd, and the occasion, will represent the latest significant step in the club's renaissance - a tale that is romantic, star-studded and, for those still bearing the scars of a bruising civil war, bittersweet. At Souths Leagues Club yesterday, the Rabbitohs' players association honoured the 13 who had played the most games for the club, including Bob McCarthy, John Sattler and Ron Coote.

The club chairman, Nick Pappas, served the organisation during the fight for reinclusion and, later under ''the investors'', actor Russell Crowe and businessman Peter Holmes a Court.

South Sydney Rabbitohs legends

Records proud ... Rabbitohs legends gather at a lunch at South Sydney Leagues Club to commemorate the club's most capped players. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Pappas says that such functions, and the participation of past greats, is evidence that, despite years of tumult, Souths have retained their soul. ''As a kid in the '60s and '70s, I was one of those jumping the fence at the cricket ground and running out to pat these guys on the back,'' he says. ''It's still very much the same club, and I hope the same people enjoy the success we have.''

Pappas compares the transition of the Rabbitohs to that of English Premier League clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool. ''But they have a total private ownership model. Ours is 75 per cent. Things like the name, the club colours, where we play … that all comes back to the members.''

But, as ever, the absence of the exiled club stalwart George Piggins from the gathering yesterday was the source of sadness. Disaffected since the fiercely contested vote in which Crowe and Holmes prevailed, Piggins no longer presents the medal for the club champion named in his honour.

NRL player Michael Crocker

Captain Michael Crocker ... going head to head with the Bulldogs today. Photo: Wolter Peeters

When hearing of the club's newfound prosperity, some disenchanted supporters underline the red entries in its books, particularly liabilities of more than $10 million, as indicating its financial state is more parlous than in 2006 when Crowe and Holmes a Court took control.

But Pappas says more than $6 million of the liability is from a ''notional loan'' to the club by the investors, beyond the $3 million paid for their 75 per cent share. He says he expects no interest to be paid to Crowe and Holmes a Court - the loan was renegotiated to expire in October 2024 - even if accounting practices required the club to record a ''notional repayment figure''.

Pappas agrees that Crowe's high profile and the media's use of the word ''owners'' could create the impression that Souths has become the Russell Crowe Football Club.

''That's the last thing Russell wants,'' says Pappas. ''He wants this to be the club of John Sattler, the club of George Piggins, the club of (current player) John Sutton, for that matter. He wants to keep the club going for those people, not to emblazon his own name on it.''

Membership now strongly underpins the club's finances.

In 2002, it raised about $300,000 from 20,000 people who joined after reinclusion. This year, it expects to reap $3 million from its 22,000 members, many of whom will be watching tonight, hoping to see history made. Or, in Pappas's eyes, continued.