When Russell Crowe took over South Sydney he commissioned what is called The Book of Feuds. It details exactly how every other team had at some stage wronged the Rabbitohs. The book has never been released to the public but I cannot imagine that the Penrith Panthers would warrant many pages.
Both of these teams are more likely to be seen at the bottom of the NRL table, where fans say things like “mathematically, it’s still possible” – a phrase that always spells doom.
But South Sydney v Penrith is the blockbuster rivalry in our household.
Dad is a diehard Souths fan. He worked at Redfern Oval selling newspapers as a teenager and claims to have once been handed a corner post by Eric Simms, an heirloom that was one day thrown out by a family member who didn’t understand the emotional weight a cardboard tube could hold. When my sister, a brilliant tactician, was bringing her new boyfriend home for the first time, she dressed him head-to-toe in Souths gear. Dad was so thrilled to meet my now brother-in-law. And like a classic Souths fan, Dad can tell you with only the slightest prompting how every game was rigged against Souths from the start – even the games they won.
Becoming a Penrith fan instead is perhaps the most I have ever disappointed my father. Don’t fact check that. It’s his fault, anyway. He had caught me cheering on the North Sydney Bears as a kid and reacted with a disgust usually reserved for when you’re caught smoking. In my defence, I was seven and bears were cool. In a counter-offensive, he took me to watch Penrith, the local team, and one dramatic intercept try later from superstar winger Ryan Girdler, I was addicted.
In retrospect, it was a cruel thing to do to a child. Who would let them fall in love with an often mediocre team? You suffer for so many years with so few glimmers of hope.
But, of course, the suffering is the point. Nothing here comes easy. This was a place that swelled with pride when it was declared the hottest place on Earth. And we’re the only ones who can handle that heat. More than that, we’ll do it dressed in black. That’s what I loved about the team: panther pride. In a place that’s constantly told that it’s lesser, having pride is a bold act.
You have to fight for it, too. Through years in the wilderness, through cruel losses, injuries, and legends departing. Even when you make the grand final, you have to sit in the stands and watch try after try get piled on to your team until the game is over before the half.
But pride endures. And that’s the gift given to me when I left Panther Park way back when, with a huge grin on my face and a Penrith flag in my hand. A flag I have treasured. A flag currently sitting in my future child’s nursery, waiting to condemn them to the same fate (or, if my father has his way, it will be traded out for the Souths equivalent).
We have prepared for this before. In 2014, Souths and Penrith were on either side of the preliminary finals bracket. I emptied my entire savings account and got two nosebleed seats. Of course, I didn’t know then that Penrith would choke in the semi-finals. But I wouldn’t trade that day for anything. Taking Dad, dressed in a replica jersey from his days at Redfern Oval, me in Souths gear for the first and last time, cheering the Bunnies home.
It was the perfect victory for Souths fans, who have known far too much suffering themselves. And when they realised, 15 minutes to go, that the dream would not be taken away, they erupted in beautiful song. As I returned to my home near Redfern Station that night, I knew no one in the suburb would be getting a wink of sleep. That’s pride.
And then there’s the best part – that glorious day means Dad has already gotten this win, so I can pray for the mighty Panthers to grind them into dust with no remorse.
• James Colley is a writer, comedian and Penrith fan