This week on our Remembering a Rabbitoh segment we featured Rabbitohs legend, the one & only George Piggins. The following is a compilation of our notes on the great man for the show plus the footage from the segment on Rabbitohs TV.
George Leslie Piggins was born on the 14th of October 1944 in Mascot, NSW. The Piggins family lived in Linden St, next door to the legendary Souths half-back and Presidents Cup coach Clem Kennedy and his wife Mary. Nicknamed Barney, given to him on the waterfront, he is one of 7 children born into the home of a railway worker.
George learned early in life about family, friendship, community and hard work. Rugby League taught him discipline and respect. He became very close to his Mascot E grade coach Freddy Griffiths, who kept the local kids off the streets.
George started off as a second rower and changed to hooker as a teenager in 1963.
A rare one club player, Piggins played in seasons 1964-78 in 120 first grade games (6 tries), 105 reserve grade (2 tries) and 33 in third grade (2 tries). He became first grade player #546 in Round 5 on Anzac Day in the 15-17 loss against Newtown at Redfern Oval.
In a 1987 interview George said ‘I remember my debut clearly. A scrum went down sometime in the 2nd half, and my opposition hooker Clarrie Jeffries kicked me in the shins. I said to him ‘you low c—-‘ he had a tussle and 4 players were sent off by referee Laurie Bruyeres – Rod Gorman, George, Bruce Olive and Jeffries.
George was sent off nine times in his career and was suspended four times. He famously locked horns with Manlys English lock forward Malcolm Reilly at the SCG in 1973, both were marched in the 58th minute and copped 3 games suspension. Souths lost 31-24.
He represented Souths in 1965 President’s Cup and was graded later that year. Frank Facer, the Secretary of the champion St. George Club, offered young George a contract to play lower grades after watching him play in a trial. But he wasn’t interested, and only wanted to play for Souths. He needed the weekend overtime on the wharves, being already married to his first wife and with young kids, and asked Souths for 1000 pounds a season. They offered him 300 pounds (decimal currency 14 February 1966) and wouldn’t budge. So, he told them that he’ll just play for Mascot. Several weeks later, Souths rang him and gave him the money he wanted.
In 1966 Souths signed a hooker called Elwyn Walters as an understudy to Fred Anderson and George effectively became 3rd choice hooker. Souths won the reserve grade grand final 12-5 over Balmain that year, with Walters in the 2nd row and Piggins hooker. George didn’t get along with reserve grade coach Les ‘Chicka’ Cowie, who later became a selector. Comments such as ‘Piggins is a liability to Souths’ from leading referee Col Pearce, who had a newspaper column, kept George out of first grade for a long time. George and Cowie reconciled late in his career.
In 1967, however, he played 16 first grade games until being suspended for repeated scrum infringements against Norths in Round 19. This gave Walters his chance, and he not only won a premiership, but he was also selected on the1967-68 Kangaroo tour.
So, Walters kept his spot for most of 1968, with George playing just 3 games in firsts. Souths won both first and reserve grade grand finals, both against Manly. Walters played in the first grade 13-9 win, and Piggins played hooker in the 17-7 reserve grade win.
How is this for a reserve grade team that took the field: Kevin Longbottom, Russell Amatto, Ray Branighan, Ralph Grace, Alan Heiler, Greg Norgard, Ivan Jones, Gary Stevens, Bob McCarthy, Paul Sait, Dennis Lee (capt), George Piggins, Chris Armstrong. Coach Fred Nelson. McCarthy was returning from hamstring injury and coach Clive Churchill didn’t want to risk him.
George finally got his chance in 1971 when Walters suffered a broken collarbone in the 19-13 win over Manly in the major semi-final, to qualify for the grand final two weeks later. St. George surprisingly beat Manly in the Final, so it was a Souths v Saints GF. Again, adverse press tried to keep George out of the team, but he not only played, but he also produced a ‘blinder’. He made many determined busts, and in the 2nd half turned defence into attack on several occasions by raking the ball back in the play-the-balls. Says George ‘Players had to drop the ball from their knees when they played it, so the opportunity was there. Ian Roberts was also good at it, but these days it’s not allowed’.
Souths won 16-10 to take their 20th premiership, but financial difficulties coupled with bad management, meant they couldn’t hold their star players. One by one they left, John O’Neill and Ray Branighan to Manly and Ron Coote to Easts. Walters went to Easts in 1974, with Denis Pittard going to Parramatta.
George stayed loyal to Souths, and in 1975 was selected in Australia’s World Cup team, and played in three games, beating Queensland twice and the touring Great Britain team. He captained Souths in 15 first grade games, mainly in 1977. He scored an unforgettable try on Sunday 2 May 1976 against Wests at Lidcombe Oval in front of a bumper crowd of 17,425 refereed by Gary Cook.
Receiving the ball near around 15 metres from Wests’ goalposts, he started to charge towards the line. In an amazing effort and sheer determination, he knocked about four opposition forwards out of the way to score next to the right upright. Wests had a formidable pack, too – the likes of John Donnelly, Geoff Foster, John Elford and Les Boyd. In Rex Mossop’s Channel 7 commentary ‘George only knows one way, and that’s hard. By heavens he’s barrelled his way over, right through the meat of the Western Suburbs pack’.
George showed the same determination at the end of 1999 when Souths were disgracefully kicked out of the NRL, leading the way in the rallies and court cases. He was vindicated on Friday 6 July 2001 when Souths scored a stunning court victory to be re-instated in the competition.
He coached Souths in seasons 1986-90 and was awarded Dally M coach of the year twice – 1986 and 1989.
He had an extensive administration career, President of SSDRLFC 1990-99 and South Sydney Leagues Club 1990-2000. He also was awarded the Order of Australia medal in June 2002 for invaluable contribution to the South Sydney community and sport in general, and the Centenary medal for services to rugby league, presented by the Office of the Governor-General in June 2003.
Successful in business, he had a fleet of trucks and invented a system which could unload pallets faster than anyone else. He sold the idea for $1 million in 1986. He also shared a nursery Gardens R Us at Kingsford with Jack Gibson and had interest in horse racing and breeding.
In 2002 he released his biography ‘Never Say Die – The Fight To Save The South Sydney Rabbitohs, as told to Ian Heads.
When Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court bought 75% of Souths for $3 million in 2006, George walked away vowing to never return. However, he stunningly attended the 2014 grand final. After beating the Roosters the week before, he was asked if he would attend the GF. ‘No, but if someone raises $100,000 for charity, I will’. So John Singleton, Tabcorp and car dealer Steve Nateski raised the money for charity, and George and Nolene were off to the GF in a hire car provided by the NRL. There he was on the front page of the Telegraph wearing his Souths jersey and scarf.
George gradually began attending club functions. A month before the 2014 GF, the R-Ageing Rabbits held a re-union at Souths Juniors honouring the 1989 teams: first grade minor premiers, reserve grade lost a play-off for 5th spot against Brisbane and the Under 21s won the GF. George attended, and a loud cheer sounded around the Wintle Room when he entered the room.
In 2011 he kicked off a junior grand final at Redfern Oval.
Close friends Norm Lipson and Dr Jim Lahood and his brother Peter organised a George Piggins Tribute dinner on Saturday 10 February at Doltone House, Eveleigh. It was well attended by past players, officials and sponsors.
At the annual Red and Green Ball, the George Piggins medal is awarded to the best and fairest player for the season. He and Noelene were awarded Life Membership of SSDRLFC in 2002 but refused to transfer them to the new entity in 2006.
In 2021 he became very ill with a lung infection, spending 5 weeks in intensive care. Once again, he showed grit and determination and he’s at home recovering.
George Piggins – a true legend of the South Sydney Rabbitohs. – Brad Ryder
We spoke to Josh Piggins whose dad Wally is Georges’ brother.
Wally said he remembered the day George & their other brother Albert were riding their bikes, were hit by a car & flew about 5ft in the air. Everyone thought they were dead.
Wally Piggins recalled someone was yelling “The Piggins boys are dead!”
Josh said he just remembers Uncle George as a man who didn’t suffer fools and was respected. – Josh Piggins
George Piggins is a true SOUTHS HERO!
“Many of us know how he played for Mascot, was graded with Souths, won a competition with Souths and played for NSW and Australia.
We all know how, when no one else wanted it, George took the Chairmanship of the football and leagues club and stopped them from disappearing.
We all know that George put his house up to save the Rabbitohs and famously took on News Ltd and the NRL and inspired hundreds of thousands of people to back him in a fight he led, and we eventually won.
But there’s also the other George Piggins that I have known for many decades.
For all his toughness – and he is tough – George has a soft and caring side. He cares for people, and he cares for animals.
I have seen him in tears over the plight of people doing it tough and I have seen the gentle way he treats his dogs and horses.
And one thing is for certain – George’s word is his bond. It is more sacred to him than a written contract.
If you are ever in the trenches and you can pick only one person to be in there with you – the choice is easy – George Leslie Piggins. He is a bloody great bloke.
There should be a statue of the man!” – Norm Lipson
Dr Jim Lahood said – “I remember a game when Souths were playing Manly, George smashed his head but played on, I was standing 10 metres away & every time they wiped the blood from George’s face he’d turn around & there was blood all over his face again.
Souths came back from about 30-10 down & although they lost Frank Hyde gave George the man of the match award.”
Jims’ Dad Herb loved George & said never seen a bloke with that much fight in such a small body.
George said South Sydney Rabbitohs or nothing, we’ll die standing up not on our knees.
Nobody in the history of Souths has done more for the club.
We lost Elwyn Walters to injury, but George comes into the 1971 grand final & becomes the star raking the ball back & was involved in 2 of our 3 tries.
When Jim’s dad died George was in the room & he said the tears flowed.
Herb Lahood always used to say it comes to Souths George was never wrong & that George just keeps surprising people, he was so smart. – Jim Lahood
In 1986 George brought me into grade after he had a chat to me at Belmore. He’d come to watch me playing Jersey Flegg & I got sent off. He spoke to me after the game & said to stay out of trouble & he will bring me up to grade.
George gave me my debut in first grade in 1987 & in the lead up to that game he said on tv when asked about me “Souths haven’t had a centre as good as him ever since I’ve been with them.”
Jimmy said he remembers another time George was having a go at me in the dressing room & Jimmy stood up for me & said to George why are you picking on Mavo the whole team played bad & George said he’s got 3 times their ability.
George asked Jimmy & Peter to look out for me after I had that shocker in the raiders semi-final. – Steve Mavin
George had 3 careers.
He was one hell of a nuggety player & when the big moments came, he was in always in there.
His 2nd career was as a coach he was what we needed, someone who was Souths focused after we had Johnny King, Bill Anderson & Ron Willey – George brought it all back to Souths culture.
His 3rd career was as a famous administrator. – Marco Sivis
Thank you to Brad Ryder, Norm Lipson, Dr Jimmy Lahood, Josh & Wally Piggins & Marco Sivis.