For sheer athleticism and history, Rugby League is a sport which can captivate and at the same time divide opinion for its ability to give itself a headache every other week. League attracts almost as many negative stories in Sydney as positive ones, which can at times frustrate the fans and those who have grown up supporting the ‘greatest game of all.’
Image credit: NrlPortal
There is however an element in which league has done well over the years, the ability to embrace people of every background. Long before the other codes truly understood multiculturalism, league was a pioneer at it.
As a working class game built on the shoulders of tough men, there was no room for distinguishing between ethnicities and cultural stereotypes, this was a game that welcomed everyone.
In keeping with that theme, I was lucky enough to meet Dr George Peponis, the first Greek or Mediterranean born player to lead his country. This is a true giant of the game who played at a time when society (overall) in Sydney was not yet ready to shake off its prejudices towards migrants or those perceived to be different. Yet Dr Peponis was to prove one of the most revered and respected players in the game.
As his team the Canterbury Bulldogs (some would say the mighty Bulldogs) get set to celebrate their 80th anniversary in the Premiership, I met with Dr Peponis at the impressive Canterbury Leagues club to ask him a few questions about his successes and his role as a Greek pioneer.
I asked him if he felt any prejudices, considering he was born in Tripoli (Peloponnese), arriving in Sydney as an 8 month old in 1954. Dr Peponis explained that he never had a problem, and considering his incredible talent on the playing field, it was easy to understand how readily he was accepted by his peers.
Dr Peponis was your typical young Greek boy, attending Greek school, becoming a ‘papadaki’ at the Belmore Greek Orthodox Church and enjoying sport. Except rather than soccer, he chose league, crediting one of his childhood friends for the introduction to the sport. Once he had learnt to handle a footy, a young George was always welcome in every school team all the way to being graded by the Bulldogs at SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and then President’s Cup. In 1974 he made it to First Grade and never looked back as the Bulldogs made the Grand Final.
What set him apart was the fact he was a medical student an UNSW. Not many players in the working class history of Rugby League had been in that situation. Eventually becoming a GP, I asked him what he does with his medicinal background. ‘Billy, I still practise 35 hours a week, in addition to my role as Chair of Canterbury Leagues.’ It should also be pointed out, that he is Chair of the NSWRL to add to his impressive list of duties.
In 1979, Dr Peponis became the Captain of Australia in a Test series against arch rivals Great Britain in and remained the leader the following year against New Zealand. Under his guidance the team achieved a perfect winning record. His brilliance on the field and off it, made him an inspiration to players in the game, especially for those of Greek heritage as more and more took up the game in the 1980’s.
His passion for the game and Greece, led him to being the first patron of the Greek Rugby League which now sits ranked in the top 20 league countries. In 2014, Greece held its first ever League Championship with the Rhodes Knights being crowned as winners.
You can only wonder if such a competition would ever have been held had there not been a Greek pioneer from Belmore.
For most of their existence, the Bulldogs had been based in Belmore Sports Ground for their home matches until 1999. The ground has a 24,000 (approximate) capacity and is now home to Sydney Olympic, the Greek soccer team. The Bulldogs moved to the Olympic Stadium which is a 20 minute drive away for match day, whilst remaining in Belmore with the club’s headquarters and training facilities.
Belmore is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. Walk down the main street, and you will see people and shops representing an estimated 70 nationalities. Greek is the second most spoken language at home. Nestled amongst a plethora of eateries you will find a gyros shop, Greek bakeries, frappe to tie you over and Hellenic produce shops. Each of these shops proudly displays their allegiance to the Bulldogs, no one would dare to support another team. Grab a coffee from Dianne’s in the morning and chances are you will hear Greek and Arabic spoken before spotting a Bulldogs player. Off the main hub you will find the Vegas/Hawaiian style Leagues club which undergoing a 100 million dollar refurbishment, which will hopefully be big enough to accommodate a few more NRL trophies over the next 80 years.
When Canterbury makes a grand final which is often, the carnival like atmosphere lasts the entire week. You will see Lebanese, Greek, Pacific Islander and older Australians blocking traffic, singing and dancing. Again, the working class roots come to the fore in a sea of unified celebration and chants of ‘Doggies.’
Estimations place Belmore Greek speakers at 1200, whilst the large Canterbury district boasts 9.5% of people with Greek ancestry.
I spoke with Peter Tusa, who is of Italian heritage about what the Bulldogs mean to him and the area, as he recalled the first Bulldogs Multicultural Day in the early 1990s at Belmore Sports Ground. ‘ The team brings communities together; we are a multicultural area, different, but united and doesn’t matter if you are Chinese, Arabic, Italian or Greek.’ Peter has a point about that spirit which unites Belmore and the Bulldogs, and it doesn’t matter how many heart attacks he has received over the years due to close matches, he turns up every match without fail.
Mary Georgiou has the same sentiments. She lives in the Greek area of Brighton though has no hesitation heading out to Belmore. She told me that the Bulldogs bring a great sense of joy and pride to her family. Her son attended his first Bulldogs match at the age of 10 weeks and ‘he now aspires to play for the Bulldogs when he is old enough (playing for the Newtown Jets at the moment).’
Her entire family have season tickets to watch the team play. ‘It’s a family thing, we follow them together and defend them like family.’
The Greek Parish in Belmore was established in 1964, with the Church coming to fruition in 1969. The All Saints Grammar school (Kindergarten to Yr 12) was established in 1990 and I myself was baptised in the church in 1977. I was that cute chubby baby, and I still make an effort to visit the church annually.
As I understand it, Greek people have lived in the area since the 1950’s, perhaps earlier.
You just need to look at the team that will take the field against arch enemies Parramatta Eels on Friday, March 13 to start the home season and you will see cultural diversity at its best.
A powerful Englishman in James Graham leads out a team that has players from (or heritage) New Zealand, Somoa, Tonga, Gambia, Ireland. This diversity is very welcome in the game, as it always has been.
The Greek heritage players
I remember during my university days in the late 1990’s bumping in to a ‘Pom’ at a bar in Potts Point. Blonde hair and blue eyes, stocky and talkative, very English I thought. He had a great knowledge of Rugby League and as it transpired, he was a hooker of Greek origin in the English competition. None of us in our group could believe it until we ‘Googled’ him the next day. His parting words to me were, if memory serves me correct, ‘I’m a fan of the Bulldogs and was truly inspired by George Peponis!’
Rugby League has had a long line of players with Greek heritage, including the wonderful talents of Willie Peters, Steve Georgallis, John Skandalis, Jason Stevens, Glenn Lazarus, Michael Korkidis. The Bulldogs’ impressive list includes the following from the last two decades, Braith Anasta who played for Greece against Hungary in 2013, former Test hooker Jim Serdaris, Nick Kouparitsas, Justin Tsoulos, Geordie Peats; and ‘rumour’ has it former Captain Michael Ennis now with Cronulla has Greek heritage.
Braith played the second highest number of matches (110) by a Greek for the Bulldogs behind Dr Peponis. This high achiever played for NSW in the prestigious State of Origin on 10 occasions as well as Australia. After scoring four tries and kicking fifteen goals in the big win against Hungary in Budapest, he excitedly exclaimed that “to play for Greece was a proud moment for me, for my dad and grandparents. It was the first time I was in Greece beforehand and I love it.”
It should be noted that Braith played for the Roosters as well; they have had a similar amount of Greek heritage players and have a Greek leading the club off the field in Nick Politis who is chair of the football club.
As the Rugby League season is now upon us and the Bulldogs begin a long campaign for victory, come out and have a look at Belmore on game day. As Dr Peponis pointed out to me, the colours of blue and white which correlates with Greece are everywhere. The shadow of the Bulldogs and their long connection with Greek people is evident in Belmore, where the only true nationality is that of the Bulldogs.