Stolen Stags & Sibling Rivalries: The history behind the Gordon & Northern Suburbs rivalry

By Matt Findlay

As the water cooler talk inevitably rolls around to rivalry rounds it’s quite natural to get lost in Manly and Warringah’s famed Battle of the Beaches, certainly for this era of Shute Shield fans at the very least.

But while hostilities resume at Manly Oval this weekend, it’d be remiss to cast aside the fierce, long-standing rivalry between Gordon and Northern Suburbs.

It’s one that dates back to the 1930s when the former club were admitted to the top division, was inflamed through the 80s and 90s in particular and will once again be reignited at Chatswood on Saturday afternoon.

Like any rivalry it’s ebbed and flowed over the years and the two sides’ imbalance in recent times has led to the competition’s bigger, more-publicised grudge matches casting somewhat of a shadow over it.

Well, that’s how it appears from the outside, anyway.

In reality you need only ask players and supporters from either club to find your proof that the rivalry is still very much alive, in fact it’s never even gone close to petering into nothingness.

Rugby News did just that this week, speaking with former Gordon coach and celebrated rugby union and rugby league writer Norm Tasker, who’s insight is quite unique.

“Perhaps that imbalance has undermined it as it used to be a little bit … but that underlying rivalry is still there and always has been,” Tasker, who actually ran this very publication at one stage in his glittering media career, said.

“There’s a lot of factors at play, for instance it’s a professional game now so people aren’t as local and they haven’t grown up together like they used to. That sort of thing will always make it a bit different to how it used to be but as I said, the rivalry is still there.

“I’m seeing emails coming through now saying ‘it’s Norths on the weekend, so let’s get serious’. There’s plenty of the rivalry of old maintained through the people supporting the clubs and I’m quite sure all the players will be trying pretty hard to win on the weekend.”

The story of Norths being relegated to the second division following the 1981 season, all but at Gordon’s hands, is a fabled tale and it of course inflamed the two clubs’ rivalry, which once again came to the fore when the Shoremen earned promotion in 1990.

Gordon dominated the derbies through that decade though, including a 40-17 victory over the Shoremen in the 1998 decider.

“Gordon was perhaps the stronger of the two for many, many years and Norths, of course, tried to upset that,” Tasker said.

“There was a lot of things that grew from that rivalry (and) there was always a lot of cross-club antics.

“I remember one night a Norths bloke knocked off the stags from the Gordon club and another night the Gordon guys knocked off the John Thornett painting out of the Norths club, but generally speaking they were all mates and the rivalry was built out of the fact that they were so close.

“I think it was always a pretty friendly rivalry (and) one of the things that drove it back in the day was all the local schools. Players came out of North Sydney High and North Sydney Tech and there was a lot of cross-over, people knew one another.

“That built a bit of sibling rivalry in a way and that was always there.”

Likening the rivalry to Manly and Warringah’s is an obvious way to give a modern-day outsider the chance to relate to it, with Tasker suggesting they’re not dissimilar.

“They’re very much the same I think, very similar local clubs who share the same sort of values, live in the same area, attend all the same things … those kind of rivalries by proximity are very natural, and outstanding,” Tasker said.

“It’s a bit like Easts and Randwick in a way or South Sydney and [the Roosters] in the [NRL], right now the rivalry is so strong in that Manly-Warringah area because Warringah have built up so far.

“In my time they were basically also-rans but these days they’re a very powerful, very progressive operation and both of those clubs have grown enormously. That rivalry is certainly up there in the very top bracket.”

The Shoremen have established their dominance in recent seasons and won seven of the two clubs’ past 10 encounters – including a ridiculous, 97-14 drubbing last year – and hold the Baxter-Mortlock Cup as a result.

But Gordon are surging under Darren Coleman’s guidance in 2019 and with that promising a far more competitive clash on Saturday, the buzz surrounding the round eight game is nearing fever pitch.

“They’ve had an amazing recovery this year, last year was just an absolute disaster but they’re coming back very strongly,” Tasker said of the Highlanders, who won just one game in 2018.

“Probably against Eastwood last weekend was the first time this season they’ve been the definite second, but even then at half-time they should’ve been about 10 points up.

“In every other game this year they’ve either won or could’ve or should’ve won, so that recovery has been quite outstanding.”

Sitting third through seven rounds the Shoremen must be considered among the competition’s early-season title contenders and while Gordon are eight points further back in ninth, the 2019 season appears as close as any, and Tasker said it’s simply too tight to predict what could happen over the course of the season.

“If I did the normal thing in these circumstances, I’d say Gordon,” he laughed, when asked if he’d hazard a guess at which club might go on to hoist the trophy.

“But I think it’s there to be won, Eastwood are very strong, Sydney University are always capable and I think every one of those top six or eight clubs have the capacity to do something extraordinary but I don’t think it’s possible at all to predict it just yet.

“You just don’t know, everything is so movable and nothing’s as continuing as it once was. 

“Gordon’s aim is obviously to win a premiership and they’re certainly in much better shape to do so now than they were last year, if they can maintain the progress they’ve made this year for a couple of years, they could do anything.

“I think they’re up there in the same category as every club that’s aspiring to win.

“They played Sydney University a few weeks ago and won three grades and drew the other, they were unbeaten on the day, that has to say to something about their progress so I think anything is possible.”

Gordon host Northern Suburbs at Chatswood Oval on Saturday afternoon, kicking off at 3pm.