The Rivalry Series: When two tribes go to war, there is usually a Gilbert involved

by Matt Cleary

Every rugby club has an arch-rival. In every town, at every school and in every club, there exists that one rivalry that brings an unmistakeable lift of intensity when the annual grudge match rolls around. Or sometimes it's just a big party. Or both.

Over the next few months, leading sports writer Matt Cleary will take a tour of some of the great rivalries in Australian rugby for RUGBY.com.au.

IN THE BEGINNING

"We’re standing atop a plastic seat on the eastern side of Manly Oval enjoying a golden ale on a golden afternoon. It’s late Autumn and sunny, maybe 24 degrees.

Sunshine dapples the field in what photographers call “golden hour”. Kids bolt about as kids do while industrious types make use of milk crates to see over fellow spectators six-deep on the fence.

The footy on field is willing, physical and skilled. And close. There are very few places you’d rather be.

It's Manly Marlins and Warringah Rats in perhaps Australian rugby’s most famous local derby.

All the elements are here. Tribalism? Two halves of the peninsula, north and south.

History? Lumps of it - the Rats broke free to tread their own path in 1963. Sibling rivalry: little brother versus big. Mateship? These people surf together, work together, school together.

After matches carouse together in Manly Wharf Bar or Newport Arms or both.

And there are scores of rivalry rounds like this in our great southern land. Every rugby club in every town, big or small, has another rugby club they love to hate, and love to beat even more.

For reasons aplenty - proximity, history, brawls, cheap shots, defectors, finals fights, nail-biting triumphs and defeats - these are the games that get circled on a calendar.

Joondalup do it when they play Wanneroo, Crookwell when they play Taralga, and the Crocs of Palmerston love-hate the Cougars of Casuarina. Brothers and GPS don't even bother with the love bit.

Schools rugby is basically fuelled by the fumes of teenage rivalry, and when grown up a bit, club rugby too. Canberra Royals and Tuggeranong Vikings duel valleys if not banjos.

They play Saturday week (June 8th), same day as Brumbies and Waratahs play their typically antagonistic bash-up.

And on the fields around Sydney’s Rose Bay, a couple times a year, Sydney Convicts play Maccabi RFC for themselves, for their people and for the Barbara Streisand Cup.

And we will talk more of this here, and of these other derbies in coming weeks.

THE BEACHES

For now it’s back onto that unsteady plastic seat for an over-the-heads view of the cracking match at Manly.

The rugby is fast and physical, high-skilled. Shute Shield is semi-pro ball, meaning some of these people play professionally, the rest are professionals – accountants, tilers, police.

And they want it. And you can see they do because you’re 10 metres from their mugs.

Marlins dominate early, thundering out to a 25-3 lead. I barely see any of it, however, given I’m doing a lap to find said plastic seats. The rest of the half I spend in a beer queue. 

Half-time and kids bolt about on field. There’s connection here, between players and fans. The Rats’ Colts on the eastern sideline are loud and fun.

And while you mightn’t have any “skin” in either club, this game – and the greater event that it is - makes you proud – of the city, of the country, of rugby.

For here on the sideline, fans get along. Much like elections, they don’t take the outcome too seriously. It is a game, after all. When the sun comes up you still live in the world’s best country. And these are, and always will be, one’s people.

Doesn’t mean blood is not spilled, however.

Damien “Turtle" Cummins played nearly 400 games for Manly Marlins and relished the physicality of the derby. He describes battles with the northern Rats of Warringah, as “fix bayonets from 10 paces and rip in”.

“From the opening whistle, it was just on,” says Cummins.

“In the early ‘90s I was in one of my first derbies, we played at Manly, and the Rats had a pretty fearsome pack. Young and stupid me, I punched Matt Guberina in the head while I was lying on my back, bottom of the ruck.

"He grabbed me by the throat and was about to put my head through the cricket pitch when the siren sounded for half-time. He suggested I was lucky the whistle went. I agreed!”

Cummins’ daughter Alice had been brought up with the green-and-whites as enemies, her dad as a knight in red-and-blue. When he headed north to coach the Rats, it was controversial.

“She wouldn’t talk to me for a week,” smiles Cummins. “She came around, eventually.” 

As they did this year, local paper The Manly Daily pumps the derby. Unlike sanitised professional sports, coaches and players have a crack at each other through the press.

Cummins says it’s never been distasteful or rude. But they don’t care who gets pumped up. More people the better.

“By Saturday, we wanted to be running out baying for blood. It was Roman Colosseum stuff. It was awesome," he grins.

Still is.

Back atop our plastic seat and the Rats roar home. There’s an intercept that swings the match, centre Ben Marr bolting 85 metres. It’s all Rats. They defend their end like it’s North Narra’ pumping.

Manly don’t post any points in the second half. Josh Holmes plunges over in the 78th minute for the match-winner. When the siren sounds it’s Rats 31-25, and flannelette shirts spill over the sideline to embrace the players in a big happy beer-spattered mob.

Then they head off to Manly’s hill to taunt their mates.

“That’s what it’s all about,” says Cummins. “You want your kids to know about the rivalry and if they get a chance, to play in it. You want it continuing through the generations. People love it.”

THE "BABS"

Across the bridge and into the east there’s a quite different, no less willing and perhaps more important derby. A couple of times each year Maccabi RFC take on Sydney Convicts.

It’s “the gays” versus “the Jews”, doing battle with stereotypes and each other for the Barbara Streisand Cup.

Maccabi RFC reformed after a 20-year hiatus in 2006. Looking around for trial matches, they found willing opponents in the Convicts, the “inclusive” nearby club who were just a couple years old themselves.

After a few trials they decided to play for a cup. “Camp David” was mooted, and a few others.

They settled on Barbara Streisand Cup “because it’s the most tongue in cheek,” says Maccabi president Kevin Jankelowitz.

“We were having a chat after our first game and had a laugh about us both representing minority communities inside of Sydney,” says Jankelowitz. “It took off from there.”

The clubs play together in fifth division of the NSW Suburban Rugby Union – “Subbies” – though they haven’t always, the clubs sliding up and down grades.

They’ll play a trial match pre-season and if they can’t there’ll be a catch-up game in the post-. And “Babs” goes back and forth.

It’s as physical and meaningful as any derby – yet the players have perhaps more to prove.

Each club’s very existence seeks to dent stereotypes of what it is to be “gay” or “Jewish”. They represent themselves and their people.

“Both clubs defy stereotypes,” says Jankelowitz. “Jews are not known for being big, brutal guys, we’re sort of more known for our financial prowess, for success in things like business, arts, things like that.

“We defy that by playing really tough rugby. And I think the Babs match is always a showcase of that. It’s exactly the same for the Convicts.

"They play really hard footy. And we kind of just go at each other for a full 80 minutes, no holds barred. It’s fierce competition.”

Both clubs’ biggest matches are international events. Maccabi play in the Maccabi Games. The Convicts play for the Bingham Cup, named after a hero of United Airlines flight UA93.

Mark Bingham was president of San Francisco Fog when they were accepted into the Northern California Rugby Union.

Two weeks before 9/11 he wrote to his players: “We should be role models for other gay folks who want to play sports, but never felt good enough or strong enough.

"More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.”

It could be the Convicts’ raison d’être. Maccabi’s, too.

Jankelowitz says both clubs have a strong identity but are very much part of Australian society.

“We’re both inclusive clubs.  We represent the Jewish community as the Convicts represent theirs. We show people from clubs who might never come across Jews except for what they see on television. We smash stereotypes every week.”

Example? Jankelowitz says Maccabi is leading Subbies’ fifth division “boat races”.

“Jews are definitely not known for their drinking, that’s for sure,” he says. “We’ve got a guy who skolls a beer then eats the can!”

One derby saw several players sent off including Jankelowitz’s brother Shaun, the club captain. “Afterwards we had a BBQ and beers,” says Jankelowitz.

When Israel Folau made his much-publicised declaration that gay people would go to hell unless they repented being gay people, players at Maccabi RFC rallied for their mates.

Gays and Jews have been persecuted for Millennia. There’s brotherhood forged in mutual circumstance.

“When the Israel Folau thing came out, the first thing we did was hope that the Convict guys were alright, weren’t hurt,” says Jankelowitz. “If something similar had happened to us they would be the first ones to lend support.”

But wait – aren’t religious people anti-gay?

Jankelowitz agrees that at the extreme, fundamentalist end of his religion – much like at the extreme end of Folau’s – there is not acceptance of homosexuality.

“But then people who spend all their time studying books wouldn’t consider rugby a worthy pursuit either,” says Jankelowitz.

“We play on Saturdays which is meant to be a day of rest. So even playing rugby we’re making a statement that wouldn’t be agreed with in very religious circles.

“Everyone’s seen what persecution has done to the Jewish community world wide. The last thing our community is ever going to do is single out any particular religion or sexual orientation.

“Bottom line is we’re humans and we believe in humanity. And the greater Jewish community is very strongly integrated into secular Australian society. And we just want to be in an inclusive society. The Convicts are the same.

“We’re all pretty passionate about it.”

Rugby can hang its hat on many things. Inclusion is one. Global fraternity is another.

Yet like all brotherhoods, the rivalry that exists among one’s closest siblings is the fiercest. And long live that. Long live rugby rivalry. 

Maccabi RFC play Sydney Convicts at Lyne Park, Rose Bay, at 3:15pm, this coming Saturday, June 1.