Mario Fenech: Erasing 25 years of pain
As someone who had the great honour of captaining the mighty Rabbitohs during my career it is hard to find the words to express just what seeing this wonderful group of South Sydney players qualify for the NRL Grand Final means to me.
South Sydney is a famous club and have won the most premierships but every time I say that to people the response I get is, 'You haven't won a comp since 1971!'
I sat in a box at the preliminary final against the Roosters and when I realised we were going to qualify for the grand final I got emotional; I had tears in my eyes and I started crying a bit. I'm a tough man but it just means so much to us, I just couldn't help myself.
People I was with were blown away that I was crying but it's been an emotional adventure over the past 43 years. It's been a long one for us, a lot of ups and downs and to finally get there is fantastic, it's exciting and like a dream come true.
We came close to a grand final in 1989 when I was captain and having to watch Balmain play Canberra a week later was devastating. The only cheer I gave was when Benny Elias hit the crossbar with that field goal close to full-time.
That year was sad because we didn't quite get there but we built a bond among the players where we were like brothers and we challenged ourselves. We won the minor premiership but didn't quite get there but I've got no doubt the boys today get on really well. The brotherhood they have is strong and we're lucky we have such a good coach.
It's not much fun getting bundled away one game shy of a grand final, it hurts you, and I know the playing group has been really hurt by it over the past two seasons.
In losing two preliminary finals in a row the team has learned a lot of lessons and the great thing about the coach is that he had the guts to make changes and bring the next generation in. With the likes of Dylan Walker, Kyle Turner and Alex Johnston, we've got a bit more strike-power out wide but hard decisions had to be made in order for that to happen.
We have come a long way in recent years but it was imperative to our future that we had success. In any business success is critical and we were at the real turning point from a business and brand perspective.
If we didn't make the grand final this year I would have been worried. I would have been really worried because the brand, the 'Pride of the League' who have won the most comps, they needed to play in a grand final, let alone win one, in our lifetime.
It's really important not just for the business but for the 'Pride of the League' to win a comp in our lifetime and thankfully they're in the grand final. We've got 33,500 members and it's good for business when you're making grand finals.
When we step back and think for a moment on the men who have helped us to reach this point, there are three that stand out: George Piggins, Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court.
I was with Russell at the preliminary final and I cuddled him and thanked him for his support and without Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court, Souths wouldn't be the great team that they are. Peter doesn't get the recognition he deserves. He has individually monitored things such as marketing and sponsorship and the internal ins and outs of operating a real business so I'm really grateful to Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe because without them who knows where we would be. We were a pretty poorly run club in the days when I played and you simply cannot compare the juggernaut that Souths are today to the club as it ran in the 1980s and 1990s.
When more than 75 per cent of the members – which is a lot of people – voted to accept the ownership proposal put forward by Russell and Peter back in 2006, George obviously took offence and you can't blame him for that.
He mortgaged his house and would have gone broke for Souths so it's great to see that he's turned around and is realising that he is a legend of the club and it would be great to see him back in the red and green.
George came to the 25-year reunion of that '89 team only a few weeks ago and for him to make the effort to come as our coach in '89 to that celebration was something I really admire.
It was George who tapped me on the shoulder after 1990 and told me they were cutting back on the playing group and that I wasn't wanted anymore – which was devastating to me – but George was also the one that tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was going to be captain.
I was given a great honour and I when I saw him again recently I cuddled him and said, 'George, I can't thank you enough for the honour of giving me the captaincy.' It is a great honour to be considered a captain of the mighty Rabbitohs. When you look back on the history and tradition of Sattler, Coote, McCarthy, it's just overwhelming to realise that you're a part of it.
Without George we wouldn't be here and it's great to see George slowly but surely starting to come back into the fold. South Sydney will be poorer without George Piggins and probably wouldn't be here without him.
The Bulldogs will be a great challenge, no doubt, they're a unique team and Des Hasler is a very good coach and I don't doubt that they want to beat us and we want to beat them so it will certainly be a tough game to be remembered. They have got plenty of strike-power, they've got a big forward pack and I have no doubt this will be a great contest but it's also a moment for the players to savour.
As a young man I played with Mascot in the South Sydney Juniors and I always dreamed about playing in grand finals. I played in many as a junior and I played under Brian Smith when we won the under-23s in 1981 but I never had the chance to play in a first grade grand final.
You need a bit of luck to achieve it and unfortunately for me I wasn't in the right place at the right time but I've just said to the boys, don't let go of this opportunity. This is one in a million so be proud of what you do on the field and have no regrets.
With my role with the NRL I'll be extremely busy on Grand Final Day but I guarantee you one thing, when the whistle blows the 'Falcon' will be sitting down with nerves in the pit of my stomach as if I was playing the game myself.
It's a wonderful occasion, our game's greatest stage and I'm just so pleased for our fans and our players that they will have this moment to cherish for the rest of our lives.
Mario Fenech played 181 games for South Sydney over 10 seasons between 1981-1990.