Farewell, Falcon: Mario signs off after 37 years in league

Mario Fenech has spent more time spruiking the game of rugby league – 22 years – than he did playing it. 

The mighty "Maltese Falcon" finishes up at the NRL on Wednesday.

He has spent two decades as a Community and Sponsorship ambassador for the NRL after joining the governing body in 1996 - the year after he finished his 15-year playing career with stints at the South Sydney Rabbitohs and North Sydney Bears being the pillars.

The brilliant smile has charmed chief executives, business people, school kids and mums and dads alike as he championed programs on health, learning, respect and inclusiveness.

But perhaps Fenech is better known for the black tape around his head, the mud-stained jersey, and usually a trickle of blood from some sort of head wound.

He rattled off 275 first grade games – 182 of those with his beloved Rabbitohs, where he played alongside the likes of Les Davidson, Peter Tunks, David Boyle, Lindsay Johnston and Tony Rampling, not to mention two teammates who later became successful NRL coaches in Graham Murray and Phil Gould.

"Great memories ... great ones," Fenech told NRL.com on his last day in the office. 

The game probably owes Fenech more than the other way around, because in rugby league he found a vessel to earn the respect he craved.

"I was born in Malta and arrived here when I was only 10 months old, so you would have thought that being that young would have qualified me as an Australian," he said.

I always look for the bright and the good and I will continue to do so

Rabbitohs great Mario Fenech

"But I was bullied at school as I had tanned skin and dark hair, called everything ... not even the nuns could protect me.

"So I remember crying to my dad when I was about five-years-old and he told me 'Well son, you'd better learn to play rugby league'."

And that sparked a career that included 10 seasons with Souths (1981-90), four with Norths (1991-94) and one year at the South Queensland Crushers (1995).

"I loved playing and I gave it my everything. In rugby league I earned respect. It was somewhere I could prove my worth and show how hard I liked to play the game," Fenech said.

Just ask Balmain hooker Ben Elias what it was like to take on Fenech in the scrum for further vindication.

"The game didn't care where you came from or what colour skin you had. Rugby league was the great leveller. Everyone just got in and dug deep or you didn't survive," Fenech said.

Steve Fenech (L) with older brother Mario.
Steve Fenech (L) with older brother Mario. ©NRL Photos

In 1989 Fenech was named Dally M Captain of the Year after leading Souths to the minor premiership. They lost the preliminary final to eventual champions the Canberra Raiders 32-16 after the scores were level 12-12 at halftime.

Fenech made his NSW Origin debut that same year but he broke his hand and that cost him an Australian jersey on the Kangaroos tour to New Zealand in 1989.

"Not getting that Test jersey and not playing in a grand final," said Fenech of two disappointments in his playing career. He played in three preliminary finals – one with Souths and two with Norths.

"Can you imagine the feeling of being the winning captain in a grand final? And lifting that trophy?

"I would have held it above my head all night! "

But Fenech's legacy is more than being the source of "the Falcon" term when a player is hit on the head accidentally by the football.

South Sydney great Mario Fenech before the 2018 preliminary final.
South Sydney great Mario Fenech before the 2018 preliminary final. ©NRL Photos

He will be forever remembered as one of league's most courageous, whole-hearted players.

Fenech is going to take a long break with his wife and family at Vincentia on the NSW south coast. He will then look around for ways to keep active within the rugby league community.

"I've met some fabulous business people in my time as a NRL ambassador so there might be companies I can work with on game days, or school kids I can still meet and talk to, play with. I know I'll be doing something because I'm not the type of person who can sit still for long."