Leichhardt Oval has – rightly – assumed almost mythical status in rugby league. It signifies all those romantic images of a bygone era of Winfield advertisements, Frank Hyde commentary, Newtown playing North Sydney, 3pm kickoffs on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s the antidote to modern rugby league. The furthest thing from the lifeless ANZ Stadium, Americanised monickers like ‘Storm’ and ‘Titans’, TV-tailored kickoff times and synthetic jumpers plastered in tacky sponsors logos.
There aren’t many suburban grounds left in Sydney – and none with the heritage of Leichhardt. Brookvale has housed the Sea Eagles since their inception in 1947, but lacks the charm of its black-and-gold counterpart. Kogarah played host to the greatest side of all time throughout the 50s and 60s but recent renovations have improved facilities at the expense of character. Campbelltown is a funny little ground that was only adopted when the Magpies relocated from Lidcombe in 1983. Penrith is a decent joint but lacks history. Leichhardt stands alone as the great symbol of Sydney rugby league.
It’s made all the more special by how rarely we get to enjoy it. If you asked Tigers fans I’m sure they’d love to play more games there, like how if you asked a five-year-old he’d want it to be Christmas every day. But likely the eponymous hero of ‘Elmo Saves Christmas’ learned, “if it was Christmas every day, it wouldn’t be Christmas at all”. Leichhardt is a treat that we only get to unwrap four times a year, so we savour it every time it comes around. Especially when the football gods turn on a dazzling Sunday afternoon like yesterday.
I hadn’t been to this inner-west venue since I was eight years old – still young enough to enjoy my Elmo Christmas films – in 1999. That day, in front of 7733 salt-of-the-earth Tigers who weren’t going to let torrential rain get between them and their then-mediocre side, the Roosters prevailed 22-10. My ticket cost $5 – about half of what you pay for a mid-strength Tooheys at ANZ these days – and my dad and I sat in the old stand at the southern end, which has since been demolished for termite damage. That game 13 years ago was the second-last time Balmain played on their famous ground, their home since 1936 after moving from Birchgrove via Drummoyne.
This time around, Leichhardt Oval was pulsing with humans. 20,327 of them. The facilities are hopelessly deficient (a week of rain, a thirsty gallery and some outdated plumbing transformed the gents at the northern end into a rather smelly lake) and when a capacity crowd rolls in, it’s hard to nab a decent vantage point (luckily for me, arriving at midday to watch Toyota Cup, we had a terrific spot in the north-east corner, fourth row, 10m line).
But it’s as if everyone’s happy to go along with the pageantry of it all. People are willing to queue up an extra five minutes for a can of Carlton and wade through a flooded bathroom and put up with a crap view because this is how they did it in the olden days – or at least that’s what the Leichhardt experience symbolises.
The Tigers’ supporters – and unlike many ‘spectators’, they truly ‘support’ their club (you could sure feel it when they stacked on three unanswered tries to come within eight points of the Roosters, before the Tricolours wrapped it up 42-28 in an entertaining, if not terribly polished, game of football) – add to the occasion. They love their team colours. The most common jumper, no doubt, is the 1980s number – gold with two black stripes forming a V – with Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce, Paul Sironen, Garry Jack and Benny Elias sewn into every stitch, and the heartache of the ill-fated ’88 and ’89 campaigns died in the wool.
Yesterday’s match took on a far more significant kind of emotion, with the death of Robbie Farah’s mother Sonia after a long battle with cancer. Before the match, Benji Marshall wept during a magnificently observed minute’s silence. It was well-handled by a genuine club in an era of franchises. A series of local juniors competed for a trophy that a proud group of kids paraded at half time, presented by Balmain Tigers GM Sironen, and the legendary Ellery Hanley visiting from England. Tribute was also paid to Kay McNamara, who was posthumously awarded the Tigers’ Woman of the Year award after passing away this year.
It was a warm and fuzzy kind of a day where the football seemed secondary to the Leichhardt pageant. Even the post-game traffic jam up Mary St had its appeal in the form of the hotdog salesmen who line the footpath. It’s easy to see why Phil Gould is so enamoured with this stuff. I love my Sunday footy too, Gus.