General Russell Crowe and his Rabbitoh minions
“At my signal, unleash Hell.”
How Russell Crowe must long to deliver those immortal words from his best known on-screen character, Roman General Maximus, to his Rabbitohs rugby league players when they ready for battle in the world’s toughest football competition.
Alas, the once mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs have not resembled anything as great or as feared as the Roman legion -- and have yet to make the semi-finals of Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) under Crowe's ownership.
The partnership is one in which Hollywood meets the city's gritty, working class streets -- the club's heartland is among public housing and indigenous communities in Redfern.
Crowe, a lifelong Rabbitohs fanatic, wrested power of the financially troubled club on the back of a Hollywood-style speech to voting members, imploring them: “Let’s get into bed together. I hope you respect me in the morning."
Following that takeover, I spent two years in the Rabbitohs burrow alongside Crowe. As club journalist, I shared many meetings and phone conversations with him.
I know his power and charisma -- but also the failure that burns in his belly.
Publicly, he is largely reluctant to talk about the football side of things. He declined through his Australian representative to be interviewed for this article, preferring to let his coach, chief executive and players espouse their views -- even if those views may have been carefully crafted in private with help from Crowe.
Crowe controls his troops as much as his on-screen character, General Maximus, that scored the actor an Oscar in 2001.
Like any owner, his word is absolute. What Crowe wants he pretty much gets. His minor partner in the initial 2006 purchase of the club, blueblood businessman Peter Holmes a Court, has been moved to the sidelines after disagreements brought a frosting of their relationship.
One included the sacking of a Crowe associate without first consulting the General.
Whether on sabbatical or on set, Crowe speaks to his coach almost daily. While some might enjoy such a cozy relationship, others may see it as interference.
He played a leading hand in former coach Jason Taylor’s ugly departure from Redfern. Taylor had been involved in a drunken altercation with a leading player -- a situation Crowe referred to as “an unacceptable level of risk."
Taylor, the game’s former leading points scorer, had been livid that Crowe positioned coaching rival John Lang in an overseeing position at the club. Taylor was concerned about his own future -- vindicated when Lang was chosen to replace him for the 2010 season.
Now, Crowe is unimpressed by Lang -- a coaching legend -- not guiding the side to the finals last year.
“Just not good enough,” Crowe said.
Australian international Adam MacDougall famously claimed that Crowe attempted to coach him during training.
“He was trying to tell me what lines to run,” said MacDougall, who endured an acrimonious departure from the club.
But like any general, Crowe knows his tactics and targets inside out. He is heavily involved in contract negotiations. He wielded his considerable power to court Greg Inglis -- arguably rugby’s league’s number one player -- to Redfern this year.
Within the club itself, Crowe is regarded not only as a benefactor but as a fanatic -- a Rabbitohs tragic. He has spoken repeatedly of fond childhood memories celebrating South Sydney’s last premiership win, in 1971.
“It was like a birthday,” Crowe said, “We even had cake.”
The 'main man'
Crowe is reverently referred to in hushed tones by Rabbitohs players and staff alike.
“Russell,” they whisper affectionately, not so much intimidated by him as spellbound by his charismatic persona. Everyone understands that Crowe is the "main man."
He does not so much throw his weight around as deftly maneuver it.
He is driven by victory, and understands the fiscal realities of sport.
“We are a professional organization focused on the ultimate goal of success in our sport," he said. "We will achieve that with an eye to tradition, we will achieve that with an unassailable team spirit and cohesion. We will achieve that by the quality of decisions in all areas of our business."
Like many famous Sydneysiders, Crowe polarizes opinion in the Harbour City.
In the rugby league community, he is universally loved by Rabbitohs supporters but loathed by opposition fans -- such is the tribal nature of the sport that divides the city along social, economic and cultural lines.
Most believe the struggling club -- which was thrown out of the national competition in 2000 but reinstated two years later under a concerted grassroots campaign and a Federal Court case -- has changed for the better since Crowe took over.
The brutal fact remains. The sport’s most successful club -- winner of a record 20 titles between 1908 and 1971 -- have not tasted premiership success in the last 40 years.
Indeed, they have qualified for the finals only once in 21 years.
Crowe's involvement in the sport brings a glitz and glamour to its historical working class domain and garners interest from those not traditionally drawn to it, such as women.
To see Crowe mix, beer in hand, and have anecdote at the ready amongst former Rabbitohs legends and current day heroes is to witness a fan indulging the child within; a man comfortable knocking shoulders and talking footy with those he once dreamed of emulating.
Crowe’s single most famous moment during his tenure with the club so far occurred during a 52-12 slaying of long time arch enemies, neighbors and bitter rivals the Sydney Roosters in 2009.
As cameras panned to Crowe celebrating another try in his corporate box he played up to the attention grandly, performing the "thumbs down" signal that once indicated a defeated Roman gladiator be condemned to death.
It is a signal Crowe and his fellow Rabbitohs faithful are dying to see more of.