Cinderella stories with Russell Crowe at Souths
CUBAN cigars, Cinderella stories and a record-breaking win over Melbourne fuelled by Sambuca shots and an assortment of fine Scotch whiskey.
It was all part of Shane Walker's four-year association with Russell Crowe at the South Sydney Rabbitohs from 2003-2006.
Crowe, a lifelong South Sydney fan and now the co-owner of the club, knew when the players needed a boost and ensured they enjoyed themselves in those moments.
Readmitted to the NRL in 2002, after being booted out in 1999, the Rabbitohs experienced tough times.
In Walker's four seasons at Redfern the Rabbitohs collected the dreaded wooden spoon on three occasions. In 2003 Souths were in the doldrums and stone motherless last after 12 rounds and just one win.
The team needed an injection, so Crowe hired out a Sydney hotel in Woolloomooloo and flew cricket legends Shane Warne and Merv Hughes up for the night to talk to the lads.
Walker didn't have a TV as a child in Toowoomba so he couldn't talk movies to Crowe with any great authority, but he did wax lyrical about the Hollywood actor's cattle and his farm.
As the night wore on all and sundry were having a ball. Then...out came a ball.
Crowe decided to give the Rabbitohs some tackling practice and instructed Keith Rodger, his personal assistant, to go fetch a footy.
"Russell wanted to feel what it was like to be tackled by NRL players,” Walker grins.
"So we had an impromptu game of footy in the bar. Paul Stringer hit him low and the force of the blow made Russell's body dip forward.
"Bryan Fletcher had gone high and collected him across the mouth and nose...and opened him up.
"But to Russell's credit he continued to hit the ball up until late in the evening. There was no blood bin rule that night.”
The alcohol flowed and the bar was a cloud of cigar smoke after the night had started like a scene from the Great Gatsby.
"Russell could certainly put on a show and he'd hired out the hotel just for us,” Walker says.
"The table setting was that luxurious you could have dead-set had your wedding there. He flew big Merv Hughes and Warney up and we all had to wear a suit and be well presented.
"There was this huge box full of different cigars and I remember Jess Caine, who had just played his first game, had a pocket full of cigars at the end of the evening.
"We all had a big night and when Jess got a cab home he realised he didn't have any money, so he paid for the ride with Cuban cigars.”
The Thursday night out did the trick and the following Sunday the Rabbitohs walloped Melbourne 41-14, which remains the biggest winning margin Souths have ever had over the Storm.
"It was a win fuelled by Sambuca shots, Chartreuse and fine Scotch whiskey, aged 200 years,” Walker grins.
"After the game we went down to the Woolloomooloo Hotel and Russell sent his PA, Keith, out at 10.30pm to buy a box of Cubans for me.
"Russell issued the instruction 'don't come back until you've got them' and an hour later he was back with a box of 24 Montecristo Cuban cigars. When my brothers have had babies we've smoked a few, and I've still got the box and a couple in there.”
Walker's memories of Rusty and the Rabbits linger long and with fondness.
The QT has published an image of Walker waving to the crowd after South Sydney's 17-16 win over arch rivals the Sydney Roosters at the Sydney Football Stadium in round 24 of 2005.
Emblazoned across his jersey is 'Cinderella Man', courtesy of a $250,000 sponsorship deal Crowe had brokered between the Rabbitohs and the producers of the film he starred in.
The film tells the story of James Braddock's rise from down and out local boxer in the 1930s to world heavyweight champion.
Walker reflects on how the journey of South Sydney at the back end of 2005 was similar to Braddock's own.
"Cinderella Man was the movie Russell starred in and the storyline was about a washed up boxer who was past it,” Walker recalls.
"Life was doing him a hard turn, his kids were starving in the Depression...then he takes up boxing again and won his way through to a world title.
"Russell, with Cinderella Man, sponsored the jersey for the last nine rounds or so and we went on to win six from eight and avoided the wooden spoon. We were performing our own Cinderella story if you like...rising from the ashes.”
The winning field goal in that round 24 game was kicked by Shane's brother Ben, who he now coaches the Ipswich Jets with.
"It was a tough game and fairly spiteful,” Shane says.
"The dressing room afterwards was like winning a premiership. The SFS sheds are quite dead usually but it was standing room only with fans, sponsors and media. It was brilliant.”
The win was the first by the Rabbitohs over the Tri-Colours since 1994 and broke a 13-game losing streak against the dreaded Roosters.
A photograph of Crowe with fans, published with this story, highlights the jubilation.
It was a bittersweet time for Walker and the Rabbitohs with many players having signed elsewhere for the following season.
"What was heart breaking in a way was that end of season run gave us a taste of what it would be like in Redfern when you have a winning footy team,” Walker says.
"I am envious of the 2014 Rabbitohs that won the premiership. It would have been an amazing time for them.”
It is worth noting that Crowe is far more than just a passionate Rabbitohs fan and co-owner.
His involvement with rugby league and South Sydney goes deeper than that.
Walker says he was "blown away” by Crowe's knowledge of the game and explains why he would have made an outstanding rugby league coach.
"He understood team dynamics and how important each person's role in a team was,” Walker says.
"From a fan's perspective it is easy to get caught up in the 'star' factor, but Russell understood what the contribution of each player from one to 17 meant to the team.
"The salary cap wasn't as big then and you got a sense from him that he appreciated the financial pressures for the fringe player on match bonuses or the minimum wage, and how that could impact their well-being and mental state. There was a lot about man management that he was across.”
"Russell would have been a good appointment as a coach at the Rabbits. I've never played Origin - but in the same way that Kevin Walters is passionate about Queensland, Russell is for Souths.”