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|Posted: Tue Jul 10, 2018 5:41 pm Post subject: Bears’ expulsion: Hunt for ‘real answers’ in new docum
North Sydney Bears’ expulsion from NRL: Hunt for ‘real answers’ in new documentary
Matt Taylor, Special report, Mosman Daily
July 10, 2018 3:18pm
FOR Mike Gibbons, the unceremonious dumping of North Sydney Bears from the National Rugby League in 1999 was “not just a sports story”.
“There were serious questions around asset stripping and corporate integrity,” the former Bears president (2004/05) said.
“The expulsion of the Bears, the way it was manufactured, was one of the most disgraceful episodes ever in rugby league.”
Mr Gibbons, now a documentary-maker, is on a mission to get “real answers” from the NRL about the “raw deal” the club copped between 1995 and 2005.
Photo: Back on October 26, 2004, Norths officials including former president Mike Gibbons (middle) and Greg Florimo address a “Save the Bears” meeting at North Sydney Oval.
He is working on a new documentary called Laid Bear, which will examine the divisive decade’s events, from when the Super League war erupted to Gold Coast Titans getting the nod for top-flight inclusion over the Central Coast Bears.
“The NRL keeps talking about wanting integrity in the game ... well, there are massive questions in relation to the Bears that need to be answered, and we want to provide those answers in this documentary (due for release in 2019),” he said.
One “bleak” chapter he will look at is the failed marriage with bitter rivals Manly as the Northern Eagles from 2000-02.
Photo: John Hopoate in action for the Northern Eagles against Newcastle in Gosford during the 2002 NRL season.
“This was never going to work; it was a disgrace from day one,” he said.
“When it was put together it was the North Sydney side of it that put in the millions to make it happen. And the colours of the team actually looked like Manly. It was another raw deal for the Bears.”
He said the Bears’ cards “seem to be marked, but it doesn’t make sense” as the Central Coast partnership would make it “one of the most powerful clubs in the NRL”.
Photo: Mike Gibbons (left) and Greg Florimo back in 2004.
“(Millionaire ad mogul John Singleton) was prepared to put serious money in to make it happen and instead they opted for the Gold Coast train wreck; it just boggles the mind,” Mr Gibbons said.
“The NRL has got to come out and admit the north shore and Central Coast are a boon for rugby league – and bring the might red and black back into the competition.
“It’d be a great feel-good story for rugby league – and it’d be no better way to repel to AFL beast which is taking over Sydney’s sports grounds.”
SLEEPING GIANT READY TO RISE
HERITAGE value. Two mighty, but largely untapped catchments in rugby league heartland. And a massive nationwide fan base crying out for a top-flight footy return.
For the North Sydney Bears, it’s these three key factors which explain why the game’s sleeping giant will never give up on a National Rugby League reawakening.
On the eve of their NSW Cup heritage home clash with Newtown Jets on Saturday, as part of the Bears’ 110th birthday celebrations, the Mosman Daily reflects on the club’s rocky recent history, where they stand today, as well as their possible pathways back to NRL action.
Photo: Greg Florimo will never give up on getting the Bears back in the NRL. Pic: Julian Andrews
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Bears last played in their own right in the NRL. But the flame still burns brightly at their Cammeray headquarters – and indeed right across the north shore, Central Coast and among supporters as far away as Perth and Darwin – for a return to the days of 15,000-plus fans packing into iconic North Sydney Oval for big-league matches.
Just last month the ground, looking better than ever after a $7 million facelift, was showcased to a large prime-time TV audience on Channel 9 and Fox Sports as it hosted the women’s State of Origin clash between NSW and Queensland.
But, as Bears CEO Greg Florimo says, the “high-energy” suburban ground is just one of several big selling points for Norths, one of the founding members of the NSW Rugby League in 1908, to get an NRL licence again.
Photo: Club great and fan favourite Greg Florimo, pictured at North Sydney Oval during the 1998 NRL season.
“We have such a strong heritage brand and we’re a massive opportunity and a solution for the game in a lot of areas, particularly in the wider catchment of the north shore and Central Coast,” said Florimo, who played a club-record 285 games for the Bears between 1986 and 1998.
“And we should never get away from the game’s tribalism. They can make it is a television product as much as they like, but for me the energy of the fans at suburban grounds is what has always made rugby league so special.”
TRAIL OF FRUSTRATION
NORTHS have mounted a litany of failed bids to return to the NRL since the Bears played their final first-grade game on August 28, 1999, beating the North Queensland Cowboys 28-18 in Townsville.
Backed by John Singleton, the Bears’ three-year marriage with arch-enemy Manly as the Northern Eagles ended in tears in 2002 after a failure to fully embrace the Central Coast’s role in it.
“Singo” continued strongly supporting the club, but the Central Coast Bears’ bid for an NRL call-up fell short in 2004, before the Gold Coast Titans got the nod for a licence a year later.
There were further attempts for NRL inclusion between 2010-15, which included support on both sides of the political divide, but each time there was no joy.
Photo: End of an era: A collector’s item for Bears fans.
Florimo still sees the Central Coast as a lifeblood of the game.
“It not only has many expat Sydney fans, but it also has a wealth of junior talent,” he said.
“To me, the game needs to shore up that fan base and junior talent and continue that circle of life. Without a team (to aspire to) it’s hard to keep that level of participation.
“I see the Central Coast as a key area and vital to the existence of the rugby league.”
Hong Kong-based investor Harry Cheung is now a strong Bear backer as the club eyes fresh interstate links.
Norths reportedly placed a $7 million bid to purchase the Gold Coast licence last year and earlier this year the Bears were in talks with a Western Australian consortium about the possibility of creating a franchise to mount an NRL bid.
“We’ve positioned ourselves as a heritage club with a strong base in rugby league heartland, and we’d be prepared to lend that brand to any new or existing opportunity that’s out there,” Florimo said. “If that means the NRL wants to start up a team in Western Australia, South Australia or the Gold Coast, and they’re looking for a platform for it, we can provide that.”
Mosman Daily asked the NRL last week about the options open for a rebirth of the Bears, whose two top-grade premierships came way back in 1921-22 before they arguably produced the game’s greatest ever winger in Ken Irvine during the 1960s.
An NRL spokesman said the game was “looking at expansion as part of its strategic plan for the future”.
He said while this “would not happen in the short term, the NRL is keen for clubs to demonstrate their financial and on-field strength through State Cups”.
Photo: Florimo in action for the Bears during his stellar playing career.
He did not respond to questions about whether the NRL would concede grave injustices were done to the Bears by booting them out of the competition in 1999 over a $4 million debt which was significantly smaller than other clubs, such as Cronulla, West Tigers, the Warriors and Gold Coast, in later years.
A FORCE IN WAITING
GREG Florimo says the Bears have strong community, leagues club and private backing to ensure it would be financially viable in the NRL.
“We think we understand some of the numbers required around that ownership (of an NRL licence) and we think we can meet them,” he said.
Some of the game’s analysts think the Bears’ cards have been marked, but “Flo” and club chairman Perry Lopez see it differently.
“There is a new (Australian Rugby League) commissioner in place (Peter Beattie), new thoughts and new ways of running the business,” Florimo said. “(Our) cards may have been marked, but there’s a new pack of cards on the table.”
Mr Lopez said he strongly disagreed that the Bears would never get another NRL shot.
Photos: North Sydney Bears chairman Perry Lopez.
“We have an opportunity in the future to deliver some fantastic value back to the game,” he said. “It’s something that will bring back pre-existing fans as well as new ones.
“We have a total fan base of 250,000 people around Australia. Research shows they are avid supporters of the brand who want to re-engage at the NRL level.
“We’re looking to have a strong NSW Cup presence, right through to our juniors, so the NRL sees our value to the game.”
The Bears are battling to make the finals in the NSW Cup this season, winning just five of their 17 games as they sit in second-last spot and five points adrift of the top eight.
The club signed Todd Carney earlier this season, but he won’t line up in a Bears jumper in 2018 due to contractual problems. He reportedly signed with English Super League club Hull KR last week.
Florimo says it’s a on-field rebuilding year for the club, which is expecting a big turnout for the Frank Hyde Shield clash against the fourth-placed Jets at Bear Park this weekend.
“We had a personnel shake-up at the start of the season, but the young guys are doing really well,” he said.
AS the Bears keep one eye on an NRL return and the other on becoming a NSW Cup force, North Sydney Mayor Jilly Gibson is throwing her full support behind the club and its council-run home ground.
“There are no valid reasons why the NRL couldn’t host games at the ground. The recent women’s State of Origin game showed how good the ground looked on TV,” said the former wife of the late Channel 9 Wide World of Sports host Mike Gibson, a proud Bears supporter.
Photo: Big Bears supporter: North Sydney Mayor Jilly Gibson.
“So if it’s good enough for the girls to play a State of Origin match at North Sydney Oval, it’s good enough for the boys to play NRL games there.
“If the NRL would like to enter into immediate negotiations with the council and Bears, short-term projects (including a big screen and improved food and beverage facilities) could be fast-tracked.
“The NRL is welcome to call me any time and we’ll do whatever we can to get the Bears back into the NRL.”
Photo: North Sydney Oval on show to a big TV audience during the recent women’s Origin clash. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Florimo said “it ain’t over yet” in the club’s fight for a big-league revival.
“There is so much energy to get the Bears back in the NRL. It’s not just coming from me and the board; it’s from all levels of society,” he said.
“Do you let 110 years of history just blow away in the wind, or do you fight for it? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of life left in the Bears.”
EMOTIONS STILL RAW FOR FANS
IT WAS the cruellest cut of all to the diehard Bears fans who still talk about club’s 1999 NRL axing like it was yesterday.
Last week I was granted access to an exclusive Bear pit – a closed Facebook gathering of nearly 600 of Norths’ most ardent supporters – and it was immediately clear how raw the emotions are when it comes to the treatment of their beloved club by the game’s top brass.
Photo: A big crowd at North Sydney Oval salutes their team during the 1996 season.
I put up a post asking for the fans to share their greatest memories of the club and what it would mean for them to be readmitted to the NRL.
“I was born in the early ’60s and been a diehard Bears fan through all the bottom-dwelling years in the ’70s and our resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s, only to be devastated by the selfish actions of the NRL masters,” Brad Fossey wrote.
“There are Bears fans through Australia and our one true call is, ‘Bring back the Bears!’”
Ron Ulrick recounted travelling from the Hunter Valley to watch the Bears play at North Sydney Oval from the mid-1960s to the club’s first-grade demise three decades later, while Ian Carragher reflected on his playing and coaching days at the Fig Tree Lane ground.
“I was born at the Mater Hospital, a stone’s throw from Bear Park, in 1955 and I’m a third-generation Bear,” Mr Carragher wrote. “I played in the Norths juniors for McMahons Point (1966-1981) and played SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and Presidents Cup for the Bears.
“I coached junior and high school teams in the district and worked as a trainer at the Bears in the mid-80s. I’m very passionate about getting them back in there, but I think the NRL has a different agenda.”
Frank Fonti said “some of the best memories of my childhood were sitting on the hill (at North Sydney Oval) with my brother and father watching the Bears go round”.
“Dad loved to watch all three grades and so did I. It was the best place to watch footy,” he wrote.
Photo: Fans get a spot on the big fig tree at North Sydney Oval to watch the Bears play in 1991.
Ros Dare said the NRL was “missing out on the most loyal and passionate supporters in rugby league”. And Jason McDonald, a former ’90s reserve-grade forward with Norths, summed up the thoughts of many when commenting on what a Bears’ NRL rebirth would mean to him.
“Easy. I would start watching rugby league again on a regular basis, and many of my friends and ex-Bears supporters would do the same,” he said.
A TON OF TRADITION
NORTH Sydney have a long and rich history as one of the founding members of the NSW Rugby League in 1908.
They were initially known as the Shoremen and captured their only two premierships – in 1921 and 1922 – before becoming the North Sydney Bears during the 1950s following a sponsorship deal with Big Bear supermarket at Neutral Bay.
Photo: Golden era: The Bears’ 1922 top-grade premiership-winning team.
Over the next decade the club produced arguably the game’s greatest ever winger in Ken Irvine.
Now in line for Immortal recognition, Irvine made his debut for the Bears in 1958, playing 178 matches and scoring 171 tries in a stellar 12-year career with the club.
He ended up with a record 212 first-grade tries from 236 games after ending his playing days at Manly.
The NSW and Kangaroos star was that quick that in 1961 he equalled the professional world record of 9.3 sec over 100 yards (91.44m) at a specially-arranged event.
Bears CEO Greg Florimo, a club great himself after playing 285 matches between 1986 and 1998, said Irvine had left an “enormous legacy” for the game.
Photo: North Sydney’s legendary winger Ken Irvine.
“Ken’s rightly in line for Immortal status now – and for a guy to score that many tries throughout his career is phenomenal,” he said.
Irvine – who died in 1990, aged 50 – was inducted into the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2004 and two years later he was named as a winger in the Bears’ Team of the Century.
Despite Irvine’s stunning individual heroics, the Bears endured a lean run through the ’60s and then into ’70s and ’80s.
Long-suffering – but extremely loyal – fans then enjoyed a decade of four finals appearances in the 1990s, but the club fell just short of a new addition to their trophy cabinet.
Photo: From back in the 1994 archives ... Greg and Stephanie Florimo, with sons Jay and Blake, together with Gary and Kate Larson and their bub Poppy.
The Bears remained loyal to the Australian Rugby League during the Super League war in the mid-1990s, before they were booted out of the NRL in 1999.
There was an ill-fated three-year marriage with Manly from 2000 as the Northern Eagles, before several failed bids to get back in the NRL.
Norths have been the NSW Cup feeder club to South Sydney Rabbitohs since 2007.
BEARS’ TEAM OF THE CENTURY
Fullback: Brian Carlson; Wingers: Ken Irvine, Harold Horder; Centres: Jim Devereux, Greg Florimo; Five-eighth: Tim Pickup; Halfback: Jason Taylor; Props: Gary Larson, Billy Wilson; Hooker: Ross Warner; Second-rowers: David Fairleigh, Mark Graham; Lock: Peter Diversi. Bench: Sid Deane, Ken McCaffery, Billy Moore, John Gray. Coach: Chris McKivat