A combination photo shows the English Burgess brothers (L-R) Sam, George, Luke and Thomas at a training session of rugby league club Sydney Rabbitohs in Sydney yesterday. The four brothers all play for Australian rugby league club South Sydney Rabbitohs, which is co-owned by Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe and seeking a first National Rugby League (NRL) title in 41 years over the next month. (Reuters)
What started with an invitation from an Oscar-winning actor to visit a movie set in 2009 could see four burly English brothers playing a key role in the resurrection of one of the great names of Australian sport over the next month.
The actor was Russell Crowe and the young rugby league gladiator he was hoping to entice to Australia to play for the club he co-owned and was looking to revive was powerful England forward Sam Burgess.
The entreaties on the set of Robin Hood worked and Sam, now rated as one of the best players in the National Rugby League, was eventually joined at the South Sydney Rabbitohs by older brother Luke and 21-year-old twins Thomas and George.
Last weekend all four, who combine to weigh in at just under half a tonne, played together for the first time as the Rabbitohs came from 18-0 down to beat Wests Tigers 32-18 and remain on course for a first title in more than four decades.
“It is incredible, if someone had told me that five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them,” Luke, who scored a try in the comeback win, told Reuters at Redfern Oval this week.
“It’s massive, absolutely massive,” the 26-year-old added. “I think for a start, for all four of us to play professionally is pretty cool, and then to play in the same game in the same team is massive and definitely something we’ll talk about at the end of the year over a beer.”
For now, though, there remains a job to do and all four brothers have again been included in the squad for Friday’s final regular season match against their fiercest rivals Sydney Roosters - the team from glamorous Bondi.
The match between the last two surviving club’s from the league’s foundation season of 1908 is a winner-takes-all clash to decide who tops the final regular season standings to be crowned “minor premiers” going into the playoffs.
Rugby league is the unrivalled number one winter code on the east coast of Australia, while the Rabbitohs are the most successful club in its 115 year history with 20 titles.
The last of those came in 1971, however, and for a long time it did not look like there would ever be another, particularly after they were kicked out of the league in 2000 and had to resort to the legal system to get back in two years later.
The tens thousands of fans who took to the Sydney streets to back the legal bid bore witness to the popularity of the “Bunnies” but lean years followed with the team finishing bottom of the league to take the “wooden spoon” in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
“Manchester United would be reasonable comparison, they’ve got supporters all over the country,” said Brad Walter, senior sports writer at the Sydney Morning Herald.
“(But) they were just amateurish, they didn’t have any money, Redfern Oval was just run-down, it still had a picket fence around it.”
The Oval, where the Rabbitohs train but no longer play, lies in an inner city area where, so the legend goes, hard-up players in the early days of the club sold rabbits, crying “Rabbitoh!” to advertise their wares and giving the club its nickname.
Shabby public housing apartment blocks still rise high above the Oval but the facility itself bears the hallmarks of the investment of Crowe and businessman Peter Holmes a Court, who together took a 75% interest in the club in 2006.
“We’re aware of the history and we’re reminded about it quite often by the fans, the fans get really excited,” said Luke Burgess.
“It’s nice to see the fans get really excited by a South Sydney team because it’s been over 40 years since they had any success.
“But it’s our job not to get caught up in that and just go out there and do our jobs.”
Crowe and Holmes a Court’s investment was by no means limited to the four Yorkshiremen and the recruitment of indigenous fullback Greg Inglis and coach Michael McGuire have been key to the revival.
“It were never just all about the Burgess brothers and that was something we didn’t want as four brothers, we just wanted it to be about the team,” Luke said, as his brothers and their team mates ate lunch in the sun on the bleachers nearby.
“We just feel very privileged that we got the opportunity to do this at this club and with these boys we’ve got here. It’s just fantastic, we all love each other, all the boys are so close.”
South Sydney captain John Sutton grew up in the nearby beachside suburb of Maroubra and is a member of the surf gang the Bra Boys, who won international fame when Crowe narrated a 2007 documentary film about them.
As a local and one of the few survivors of the bad old days, Sutton is well aware what four more wins this season would mean to long-suffering South Sydney fans and almost splutters when asked whether it is a special club.
“One hundred% it is, it’s got the longest history and it’s won the most Premierships and all that stuff,” he said.
“We’re just trying to create our own little history here by keep winning games and playing some good footy. It’s great to be a part of the club at the moment.”