There’s only one bunny bigger than the Easter Bunny at this time of year and that’s Reggie the Rabbit, the oldest, most famous, most beloved mascot in rugby league.
Rugby league is about warriors committing blood, bone and sinew to a cause from within the armour of a guernsey bearing tribal colours, ceremonial crests and animal iconography. It often involves torrid clashes, physical mutilations, and moral ignominies. How so epic
a brand of sporting warfare came to be emblemised by midgets in fluffy animal suits is a mystery.
Yet it’s that anomaly that makes Reggie the Rabbit so special. In an age where sport is played as much in the boardrooms and courts as on the field, and where the most crucial bounce of the ball comes from a club’s bottom line, teams need their mascots more than ever. It’s they who beguile the next generation of warriors and secure the future.
South Sydney RFC chose a rabbit as their mascot because it was once the most working-class of suppers. Back when Sydney rugby league was born in 1908, men walked the streets of south Sydney with braces of trapped bunnies across their backs yelling, ‘Rabbitoh! Rabbitoh!’ and hawking their bony game bounties to anyone with a shilling to spare.
Like the white settlers who settled in the Eora nation’s hunting lands, rabbits were an introduced species run wild at the expense of the land’s indigenous species. A white rabbit – part fabric of the land, part fairytale, part spirit animal – became the perfect symbol for a footy team where black and white came together as easily as cardinal and myrtle.
The rabbit took lifesize form in 1968 when celebrity fan Don Lane brought back a suit from the US in time for the 1968 grand final against Manly, won by the Bunnies 13–9.
The first man to don the Reggie costume was Albert Clift, a Souths’ stalwart who in 1998 donated the bell used to ring time in the inaugural rugby league match in 1908 to an auction raising funds for Souths’ fight to stay in the competition they would later be cruelly cut from by News Limited. The bell was sold to Russell Crowe, the man who is now Souths co-owner, and the $48,000 paid went a long way to the fight in the courts that saw Souths reinstated in 2002. Crowe insisted Clift take up the bell anew and ring time on.
Perhaps the most notable of the early Reggies was the club’s groundsman Reg Fridd. Standing just over four feet tall, the Rabbitohs lured the diminutive Kiwi from a touring production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the same troupe that had yielded the second Reggie, Roscoe Bova, tragically killed in a car accident in the early 70s.
“I love the job,” Fridd told reporters in 1981. “OK, there’s a few fans who give you a hard time, like throwing cans at you or pieces of wood. I guess if they don’t like Souths they’re not going to like me. But when they do that, then I know I’m doing my job. Me, I love the kids and the people.
I love to see them smile.”
Fridd wore the No.14 proudly and lived the Reggie Rabbit role to extremes, going so far as to build himself a warren home under the Redfern Oval grandstand and living in it during the season.
In the wake of massive protest marches through the city and a successful court battle, “The People’s Team” returned to their rightful place in first grade in 2002, and the Reggie role fell to Kevin Freeman, who for five years prior had stood guard outside the Rabbitohs dressing rooms, handing out water during training sessions and working the scoreboard for the juniors and the local police competition on long wintry Wednesday nights.
Cut from the same battler’s cloth as his predecessors, Freeman wore the Reggie suit on rural tours and on visits to local children’s hospitals. “When the sick kids in the hospital see me walking towards them they always shout: ‘Here comes Reggie the Rabbit!’ They have that moment for their rest of their lives. Me too.”
Most teams in the National Rugby League maintain mascots. But none do the sort of charity work as Reggie and none dare venture to opposition grounds as he does. Yet for the current Reggie, Charlie Gallico – a sub-five footer who runs a panelbeating shop on the side – it’s all part of the job. For five years little Charlie has been quietly and anonymously volunteering his services to his club and community to maintain a sideline alter-ego as one of sport’s most enduring symbols.
Having trained a fleet of Souths’ current day heroes including stars Craig Wing and Nathan Merritt, Charlie is the archetypal clubman: one eye green, the other red. As with all Reggies, his commitment stems from childhood and goes beyond the field, extending to regular visits to the spinal unit, cancer wards and children’s hospitals all over Sydney.
“The players respect me as one of them,” says Charlie. “The board take care of me – Peter Holmes a Court’s sons help me get my rabbit suit on before games – but my greatest pleasure is to bring a smile to the faces of those terminally sick kids and have Reggie make them forget their troubles for a couple of hours.”
Fact is, Reggie holds the heart and soul of the game in his big furry paws. When your kids are restless and need diversion from grown men pummeling and beguiling each other in the arena of combat, when the surface world and its dramas is too much and childhood seems too far gone. When your team’s behind on the scoreboard with seconds to play... pray he’s out there.
1908 South Sydney RFC founded
1968 Albert Clift debuts as Reggie the Rabbit in Grand Final won 13-9
1969 Roscoe Bova wooed from Snow White & the Seven Dwarves as new Reggie
1973 Reg Fridd is Reggie, builds warren home under Redfern Oval
1999 Souths axed from comp by News Ltd
2002 Reggie returns as Charlie Gallico
2008 Reggie reborn, old colours, new suit