Rich history of Rabbits across the Tasman

South Sydney players will don compression garments to optimise blood circulation when they fly to Auckland this Saturday, 24 hours ahead of their clash with the Warriors.

Any Rabbitohs who suffer injuries at Mt Smart will be assessed immediately and the team will attend a recovery session on Monday morning before they board the return flight to Sydney. South Sydney coaching staff will analyse GPS data collected during the game as they cross the Tasman.

All of the above has become standard operating procedure for NRL clubs in 2011 but it is a far cry from the first time the Rabbitohs played in New Zealand.

Souths pioneered club visits to the Shaky Isles in 1929, embarking on the journey across the Tasman three weeks after they celebrated their fifth successive premiership title. The 2000km sea voyage was often a perilous one and Rabbitohs players had undoubtedly been regaled with stories of the first all-Australian team to sail to New Zealand 10 years earlier.

That 1919 tour came amid a general transport strike and organisers arranged for the team to make its way to Newcastle, where there had been a “whisper” of a boat leaving for New Zealand. The whisper was correct but the boat, the SS Essex, turned out to be a cargo tanker and according to one report “the best accommodation was supplied by hammocks swung among the rats and cockroaches in the hold”. Rugby League News reported that the “old hulk battled and wallowed about the Tasman” and eventually made the trip in six days!

Souths’ craft, the steamship Maunganui with a top speed of 15 or 16 knots, made the crossing in a slightly less punishing four days – but that would still represent an inconceivable ordeal to today’s players. The ship accommodated 499 passengers, 244 in first class, 175 second class and 80 third class (with up to 10-berth cabins in third class).

There is no record in which class the Rabbitohs travelled, but it is unlikely to have been first class.

The 1929 visit was no hit-and-run mission as this weekend’s will be. Souths played three games, two against the champion Auckland club Marist Old Boys and one against “country outfit” Huntly.

By coincidence, Marist just happens to be the junior club of Rabbitohs captain Roy Asotasi, and among others, Kiwi dual-international Sonny Bill Williams.

Souths made the trip without a handful of their best players (sounds familiar!). Harry Finch, “Mick” Kadwell, Paddy Maher, Eddie Root and George Treweek were already in England preparing for the Ashes series with the 1929-30 Kangaroos. Despite the absentees, the Rabbitohs continued to field the famous “five-man pack” that had been the hallmark of their premiership success throughout the second half of the 1920s. Souths’ philosophy was that their five forwards could hold any opposition six, allowing them the luxury of an extra five-eighth in attack.

But the weakened outfit met its match in the first game at Carlaw Park. A bumper crowd of 15,000 turned up to watch Marist edge out the Sydney champions 10-9. The local team was laced with class players including two future Test captains, Hec Brisbane and Charles Gregory.

Four days later the Rabbitohs headed south to Huntly where they thrashed a local side 30-3. Front-rower Dave Watson, later to become an Australian selector, had the misfortune to break an arm.

The return match against Marist produced a far more polished effort from Souths, who won 21-5 before another big crowd. According to New Zealand’s Evening Post: “South Sydney gave a glimpse of the brilliant form which won them the New South Wales championship”. Among Souths’ try-scorers was winger Benny Wearing, who would go on to become the most prolific try-getter in the club’s history.

A superb action photograph featuring Wearing, which appeared in the 1994 publication, South Sydney – Pride of the League, is one of the few surviving relics of the Rabbitohs’ pioneering tour.

This weekend’s trip to Auckland carries none of the gravitas of Souths’ 1929 Tasman crossing but in the context of their 2011 season it is every bit as important.