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Even in the bitter Bulldogs-Eels rivalry, forgiveness reigns

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Junior Paulo of the Eels pushes from a tackle during the NRL Round 14 match between the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and the Parramatta Eels at Accor Stadium in Sydney, Monday, 10 June, 2024. (AAP Image/Steven Markham)

In the early 80s my uncle, a brash seven-year-old, came home from his cousin’s house and uttered five unforgivable words: “I like the Parramatta Eels.”

Absolutely not, not that team. The only flag that would fly under my grandmother’s roof was the blue and white of Canterbury-Bankstown, a point she quickly made very clear.

My uncle’s tenure in navy and gold was extremely short-lived, but his fatal mistake is now an iconic moment in our family history, passed off for laughs every now and then because of its near-unforgiveable nature.

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This weekend my family’s beloved Bulldogs once again took on the Eels for the annual King’s Birthday clash, ironically playing for the i4Give Cup, now in its third edition.

Ironic, because like my grandmother in that moment, they are the two teams least inclined to be forgiving of the other.

The Dogs and Eels have been at each other’s throats on and off the field for what seems like millennia.

Both defined by their golden eras in the 80s with four premierships each (including one each against the other in grand finals), the matchup is always one both sets of fans mark on their calendar with keen intent and genuine hatred for the other.

So, amidst one of the greatest club sporting rivalries down under, is there any room to be a little more forgiving?

Photos: George Al-Akiki

While the onslaught of beeping cars, blasting music and jeering Bulldogs fans on the way out of Accor Stadium after a gutsy 22-18 win on Monday might suggest “no,” there is perhaps a lot more room for tolerance than many fans would like to admit.

That’s the whole idea of the i4Give Cup, started in 2022 by lifelong Bulldog Danny Abdallah and his wife Leila, who in recent years have been models for forgiveness in Australia.

“Sure, it’s a sporting event, a game fuelled with rivalry,” said Danny, who I was able to catch before the game.

“But at the end of the match, there’s that time to reflect, appreciate and forgive, and to just get on with life.”

While Leila was certainly happy with the win, which she hoped would come for her son Anthony’s June birthday (lost tragically in the Oatlands crash in 2020), she was keen to point out there’s more to life than a scoreboard.

“Forgiveness shows the human heart more than what happens on a field,” she said.

Frightening scenes late in the first half showed that despite bitter rivalries, goodwill can always come to the fore.

After suffering a serious (but accidental) head knock while attempting a tackle on charging Eels prop Joe Ofahengaue, Bulldog Josh Curran lay face down motionless on the floor.

Arguably the most memorable moment in a blistering game, Ofahengaue—in a blink and you’ll miss it moment—quickly realised what happened.

He abandoned his own team, who had begun a serious attacking play, to roll Curran into the recovery position and remained with him until the medical team arrived.

“At the end of the day we have a duty as players to look after each other,” Ofahengaue later said online.

“Our parents and families are watching, so for me to step in is a no brainer. Much love to Joshy and hope he recovers well.”

Bulldogs-Eels rivalry - The Catholic weekly
Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2021

Fans want their gladiators to deliver the big moments, not least against their arch-nemesis.

But when the time calls for it, hatred steps aside and humanity comes first, regardless of which colour jersey you’re wearing.

These moments serve as a reminder that real rivalry is not just a matter of scoring tries, but also outdoing each other in the virtues—in this case, compassion, honour and loyalty to the game, not just the team.

So, while the Bulldogs and the Eels need each other like a hero needs a villain, some things are bigger than footy.

We can debate which team is the hero, and which the villain, until the end of time. You certainly know how my grandmother would answer!

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