South Sydney’s arch-rivals the Sydney Roosters are owned by motoring magnate Nick Politis, about whom it is said – and one would suggest our Nick is not averse to cultivating the theory – that he has the look of a craggy Al Pacino.
Rabbitohs fans, who have been butting heads with their near neighbours longer than the black-and-white spies in Mad Magazine, would tell you they do not need a lookalike famous Hollywood actor, a facsimile from Madame Tussauds, because they have the real thing at Redfern: a genuine, Oscar-winning Hollywood famous person.
The person they have, of course, is Russell Crowe.
Crowe has been co-owner of South Sydney since 2006 when his final pitch to the membership – to grant him and fellow rich person Peter Holmes à Court 75% ownership for $3m while the membership retained a quarter – was: “Let’s vote ‘yes’. Let’s get into bed together. I hope you respect me in the morning.”
Souths fans did indeed vote yes, and respected Crowe the next morning and ever since. And it has been nothing short of a hoot, because Crowe has been magnificent for Souths and for rugby league.
The game’s catchphrase is “the greatest game of all”, which belies (or perhaps highlights) its own insecurity about its place in the greater schema. Rugby league is proudly from working class roots. It is the Aussie battler. The underdog against “posh” rugby union and “up-itself” Australian rules.
And there was Russell Crowe, rugby league’s Russell Crowe, bringing Hollywood to South Sydney. He brought Tom Cruise and his dazzling white teeth to the Sydney Football Stadium and wrapped him in a Souths scarf. Cruise looked excited and borderline crazy, like he had found a new cult.
Crowe put Souths hats on – and thus made “Souths fans” of – an eclectic group of famous people including Ben Affleck, Snoop Dogg, Cristiano Ronaldo and the Dalai Lama. Pamela Anderson came to a game with Eva Mendes. Oprah Winfrey hung out on a boat with Crowe on Sydney harbour as a flotilla of the world’s press bobbed along nearby. Across the sea she trumpeted the club’s attempted signing of Melbourne Storm ace Greg Inglis by roaring – in her “you get a car and you get a car” Oprah way – “Greg Inglis”.
I was just taking a punt. I just had an instinct
Crowe’s tenure on top has been like a show. You see the man on TV and it is like he’s playing Russell Crowe in The Russell Crowe Show. He has been a big beardy Moses-looking fellow and a handsome man ringing an old bell for which he paid $42,000 in Souths’ first game back in the big league in 2002. There was also a famous and quite cool “thumbs down” gesture during a derby game with those Roosters.
He narrated Bra Boys, a documentary about a Maroubra beach surf crew which featured Souths captain John Sutton. He helped keep Sutton at the club. He brought Sam Burgess and his three brothers to Souths, and their mum. The boys had lost their father, Mark, as teenagers to motor neurone disease. Crowe made Mark a member of Souths and made Sam cry.
He made Luke Keary angry. At a pre-season team bonding do at Crowe’s farm near Coffs Harbour in 2016, Crowe criticised the five-eighth, which drove Keary off the property at 3am and ultimately out of Souths. You can see how Keary might have been miffed. He went straight to the Roosters and won two premierships.
So there has been the odd misstep. Ultimately, though, Crowe has been a godsend for the Bunnies and for rugby league. A man with a passion for the club, a massive profile and deep pockets, not to mention pals with pockets even deeper.
Holmes à Court sold out in 2014, weeks after Souths won the grand final and before another of Australia’s uber-wealthy people, James Packer, bought in. Packer’s famous, uber-rich dad, Kerry, was a Souths fan and a Roosters man. James is said to admire the quote “the winner is he who dies with the most toys”. Mariah Carey once bought him Jim Jefferies for his birthday, the comedian performing at Packer’s birthday party in front of (the real) Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Eddie Murphy and Leonardo DiCaprio who arrived with three women. The uber-wealthy are odd enough birds.
Crowe is not uber-wealthy but he is still a very rich person with many homes. Finance journalists cannot tell you his exact worth – estimates are around $100m. He is doing well enough that in 2016 he and Packer waived a $7m loan to Souths. And since that magnanimity, the Rabbitohs have been flying. Today they are well run and have so many members that Crowe and Packer need only tip in money if Souths make a loss.
Crowe is understandably proud of his contribution.
“Did I have any idea what we could achieve when I took this on?” he speculated when asked by former Rabbitohs star Dean Widders on NITV. “You know, no, man,” Crowe said. “I was just taking a punt. I just had an instinct that if somebody was in charge, a single voice, so people would work to one set of ambitions, then we had a chance of being able to combine all the love that was out there.
“The people wanted Souths to be successful. We still had a very high membership even though we were coming last every year.”
Today they are a powerhouse. And on Sunday at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, while Crowe is watching on television from Thailand where he is filming some secret Project X, Souths will play Penrith in a bid to win their 22nd premiership.
And there at Suncorp, Covid-willing, club favourite Isaac Luke, hand-picked by Crowe, will ring that famous old foundation bell, the one that sounded the start of Souths’ first ever game, against North Sydney at Birchgrove Oval in 1908 and which Crowe has declared must be put away for nobody to even look at and brought out to ring only when Souths play a grand final.
A sense of theatre and story, has our Rusty. He helped create a book of them called the Book of Feuds. Today there is a story about the bell’s journey from Crowe’s house to Brisbane. One might suggest the grand stage of big-time rugby league appeals to him. Actors love an audience, and to entertain, and this sport is pure entertainment.