Rabbitohs local leads club renaissance

John Sutton bleeds red and green.

So much so that when he was putting pen to paper with the Bunnies back in 2008, a clause was whacked into the contract.

Should the Rabbitohs walk away from the South of Sydney – which wasn't so far-fetched an idea in the mid-2000's when an $8 million carrot was dangled as an incentive to move to the Central Coast – then Sutton would walk away from them.

When the current skipper debuted for the Rabbitohs in 2004, the club was on its way to a second consecutive wooden spoon and in the midst of a six-year period when the Bunnies win percentage tallied just under 21 per cent.

Over the previous 15 years they'd also watched some of their best local talent march out of Redfern never to return again. 

Ian Roberts, Terry Hill, Jim Dymock, Jim Sedaris, Craig Wing, Braith Anasta and Reni Maitua.

They all left the Burrow for greener pastures bereft of an accompanying shock of red. Only Wing eventually returned after eight years with arch-rivals the Roosters, reaping the harvest from the cardinal and myrtle oats on what Bunnies diehards will always tell you is the wrong side of Anzac Parade.

Now a decade on, Sutton stands on the cusp of ending a Rabbitohs premiership drought that pre-dates coach Michael Maguire's time on this earth. 

He'll head into Sunday's clash with the Bulldogs as one of five local South Sydney juniors in the 17 alongside Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston, Jason Clark, and Adam Reynolds, who grew up a drop punt or two down the road from Redfern Oval. 

Also in Maguire's 2014 squad are Beau Champion, and retiring Redfern royalty Nathan Merritt, about the only person who could lay claim to being more entrenched in the Burrow than Sutton. 

The last time the club belted out 'Glory, Glory to South Sydney' as champions was in 1971, when they boasted local products Ray Branighan, Paul Sait, Keith Edwards, Bob McCarthy, Ron Coote, George Piggins and Gary Stevens, with club legend Clive Churchill carrying the clipboard. 

"Always during my era, we had a lot of local boys," John Sattler, captain of the Rabbitohs '71 vintage, tells NRL.com.

"Bob McCarthy, Ronny Coote and Paul Sait... and now it's great to see the young blokes coming through. I was over there yesterday at Redfern oval and the number of people that were locals, young kids with red and green scarves and so on, it was just like the good old days."

There's been so much water underneath the bridge with this Rabbitohs side and their contingent from the southern suburbs, it's a wonder it hasn't been washed away.

As a baby Bunny Walker would shadow Reynolds in the schoolyard of rugby league nursery Matraville Sports High, spending half his time trying to emulate the halfback four years his senior, the other half taking the piss out of him.

"He was always that cheeky kid at school," Reynolds recalls of the 20-year-old now in line for a Kangaroos berth at the end of the year.

"He gave a lot but he also copped a lot. I was the one giving it to him a lot of the time, trying anyway.

"I was usually trying to get back at him for showing me up... He was always the young bloke trying to impress all the older ones at school and you could always tell he was going to be a talent even back then."

Walker and 19-year-old wingman Alex Johnston have played together in the Souths juniors system since the age of 13. 

At schoolboy level, one of the few occasions they lined up opposite, instead of alongside one another, Johnston would hare past his Bunnies teammate like he was a plodding tortoise.

"I came up against him and he showed me up a couple of times when I played against him in 2012, he single-handedly won one game," Walker recalls of a GIO Cup semi-final when Johnston claimed man-of-the-match honours.

These are the ties that bind. And according to Bunnies institution George Piggins, the type of connections that win premierships. 

He would know. Piggins was understudy to Kangaroos rake Elwyn Walters for the Rabbits' four grand final appearances between 1967 and 1970. 

When Walters was floored with injury for the '71 decider, Piggins stepped in, produced a blinder and became part of the furniture at Redfern when the Bunnies lost a galaxy of stars over the course of the decade.

"It's good for the kids in our district and it's good for the community," Piggins says, as he recalls the bond between the 1971 championship side.

"It's great when you see local product coming through... and it helps the team gel. Everyone tends to move into the area and they enjoy one another's company. You get the country kids come down and they seem to be able to blend in better. 

"You'd find Ronnie (Coote) and Slugs (1960's stalwart Dennis Lee) would be round the pub for a drink, and then John O'Neill would say, 'Well I'm going', and he was from up Gunnedah way, and those boys would just slip right in."

Which is why it stung so to watch this home-grown produce get farmed out as the club wallowed in the doldrums for over two decades. Why watching Sutton in the thick of it, after enduring so much thin, is so gosh darn satisfying. 

"Yeah early on, a grand final was the last thing on my mind," Sutton admits.

"Early on you're thinking: Will I ever get to play finals football or make a GF?

"But now we're here, it is special to do it with local kids. The club's always been massive on keeping its local juniors and bringing the young blokes through.

"Having so many juniors playing in this team, blokes like Adam Reynolds, he's been around the club their whole life and to see him stepping up to the mark over the last few weeks, and ever since he came into first grade really is pleasing.

"And it's great to see this club attract the best players in the competition as well. I'm lucky enough to run out with these blokes every week, especially big Sammy (Burgess) and GI (Greg Inglis)."

Sutton will turn 30 in a month's time, and with another three years to run on his current deal, can't imagine looking in the mirror and seeing anything other than red and green in the reflection.

"All I know is South Sydney," he says. 

There's been offers to go elsewhere, as there always will be, but never has he been tempted to come up the rabbit hole.

Sutton doesn't see it. Or at least he refuses to acknowledge it. But the fact he's carved out a career in the red and green, all 228 games and counting, is something his young teammates have noticed. And are wanting to emulate. 

"You always want to play for Souths no matter what, even in the toughest times you still want to pull on the jumper you've loved your whole life," Reynolds says.

"And Sutto's done that. No doubt he's had offers to go elsewhere, but he's stayed here probably for less cash, and I know I admire him for it. He deserves this more than anyone, and it makes you want to follow his lead and stay here too."

That should be music to the Rabbitohs' ears. 

Because as Piggins points out, the last time they had this many locals filling the ranks, they went pretty damn well.

"I'd love to see them win," Piggins says. 

"You can see how hard it is to win one of the bloody things, it's 43 years. It'd be nice to see Souths win, and then come back next year for another one, start off another dynasty."