Sam Perry, From the Guardian
Monday 5 September 2016 10.20 AEST Last modified on Monday 5 September 2016 10.21 AEST
In rugby league’s wheel of emotional fortune, there is no surer bet than a good Sunday at Leichhardt. And while a line about “sure bets” may be a little close to the bone for some right now, the betting analogy is apt. The Wests Tigers carry the burden of expectation heavier than most, and so of course, in the most romantic rugby league setting available, they capitulated badly in front of their fans on Sunday. Even so, it was a great day out.
A few weeks ago, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg appeared on Sydney’s cult league radio show, Fire Up!. His unrivalled penchant for bald rhetoric reached its zenith on air when he bombastically declared that rugby league was, above all else, “in the entertainment business, baby!”
If rugby league is in the entertainment business, then where does Leichhardt Oval fit? For a game still not yet sure of its identity after the deep wounds inflicted by Super League, the rustic allure and suburban aesthetic is either novel or necessary, depending on whom you ask.
Leichhardt Oval: is it community theatre, off-Broadway, or the headline act?
Whatever your stance, the ground stands as one of the last remaining vestiges of 20th century Sydney rugby league. To enter it is not so much a trip back in time as a gateway to what league could be: local, distinctive, familial. It was in full swing on Sunday. Sold out before matchday, punters sensed something momentous in the air. The Tigers had negotiated the late season bend and found themselves an outside lane to the semis.
History may record it differently, but at 1.50pm yesterday, Leichhardt Oval was not heaving because of Robbie Farah. Farah became the story because the Tigers got belted. No, Leichhardt was heaving because the local team stood a hitherto unlikely, but now legitimate, chance of making the semi-finals. It was also packed because people adore the ground, the scene and everything about it.
What is Leichhardt Oval about? The hill (which must always be referred to as “sun-drenched”), the dubious PA, the cries of “hot-doggy-hot-dog” make for predictable copy, but Leichhardt carries a significance that transcends the rectangle in what many argue is actually in Lilyfield, not Leichhardt itself. In 2016, going to Leichhardt is the closest thing one gets to the experience of pre-Super League footy. While some may need reminding that century was nearly 20 years ago, for many it’s where the game’s heart still resides. And whether that’s right or wrong, opportunities to bask in it are few.
So you drink it in while you can. You’re close enough to breathe the freshly cut grass as soon as you enter, before being hit by players’ Dencorub as you walk purposefully past the changerooms to the always-alarmingly long queue for a beer. The seasoned Leichhardt campaigner also notices the whiff of heavy, stale oil that should’ve been changed a couple of hundred schnitzels ago. That, and the smell of dashed hopes and personal vendettas.
On good days the hill is supposed to act as a single entity, heaving and willing the home side on to victory. It may have been full yesterday, but its component parts didn’t gel. The different shades of orange retro jerseys – from 1960s yellow through to modern burnt orange – clashed when usually they complement. With credit to the travelling fans or 90s bandwagoners, flecks of green broke the normally ubiquitous gold throughout the ground. Raiders, fans and players alike, seemed to be everywhere, and most who took a moment to watch the game itself would have walked away with a view of what a clinical competition contender actually looks like.
No sport does low-rent pomp quite like rugby league, and so it was yesterday. Cheerleaders who look far younger than you ever remember, singers who wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sunday evening at your local, and Farah’s farewell. His half-time lap was inversely proportionate to namesake Mo’s recent gold in the Olympic 5000m – Mo was quick, Robbie was the opposite.
What Mo wouldn’t give for Robbie’s publicity machine though, who delivered Farah photographic immortality with an image of a solitary, reflective Farah perched on the scoreboard, skulling a beer. The presumably spontaneous moment of Farah in a suit drinking beer on a scoreboard had the effect of capturing the loneliness of a local legend scorned. It’s a provocative one, leaving many wondering not only how this stalwart could be treated so poorly, but also who gave the directive to paint “#YNWA” and what does Farah’s Premier League team have to do with his farewell from the club? Hardened Tigers will feel rightly aggrieved at the whole sorry spectacle of the Taylor-Farah feud, but there’s rarely been a more ostentatious and contrived display of self-pity played out in full view of the rugby league community. Even so, he had a great career with the Tigers, fully worthy of commemoration.
And you had to be there to see it, warts and all. Even though a 2pm kick-off seems too early (I’d like to have lunch) and a 4pm kick-off too late (the game starts in the day and ends in the night), there was, in the end, something fitting about the inaccessibility of this game on TV. Even though it was sold out, it wasn’t the TV game, so unless you had Fox you had to go to be a part of it.
The game is a fully fledged TV show these days; the match itself requiring a live audience in the way X-Factor might too. While we may be only years away from an “Applause” sign after a correct bunker decision, very occasionally the game delivers things only worth experiencing live, even if you do lose by 42 points.