The list of things a person can love unconditionally is necessarily short. For me it’s Mum, Dad, and the Balmain Tigers
Nestled in Sydney’s inner west, from the main gate on Mary Street the ground opens up below you like a volcanic crater.
Flanked by the Latchem Robinson stand on one side and the Wayne Pearce hill on the other, from almost any vantage point at Leichhardt Oval you feel as though you’re looming, deity-like, above the action on the field. Like Australian suburbia’s answer to the coliseum.
It’s a place where you can still sneak a smoke on the hill, where the bar remains stubbornly cash only, and where the gorgeous old scoreboard is manually operated.
It’s a ground famous for its unruly, slightly bolshie atmosphere. The legendary Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston, who never won a game there, once called it the toughest place in the NRL to play: “Even the 12-year-olds spray me there.”
The list of things a person can love unconditionally is necessarily short. For me it’s Mum, Dad, and the Balmain Tigers.
Ancillary to all three though is Leichhardt.
Home more or less for the Tigers since 1934 – interrupted only by a brief period of insanity in the mid-90s – Leichhardt is to rugby league what Victoria Park or Moorabbin were to the AFL, or Fenway Park is to baseball.
As a kid I remember watching the game between Dad’s arms, standing on tippy toes to see over the fence, and, as the smell of coffee and Old Spice cologne wafted over me, watching the late Laurie Nicholls shadow boxing on the sideline while Eye of the Tiger played over the rattling loudspeakers and Dad shouted himself hoarse with obscenities it would take me years to fully comprehend.
“Burrow it up ‘em, Tiges!” was his main go-to, and probably the only one even vaguely fit to print.
On most days, we left as losers. In my lifetime, Balmain – now Wests - have but for one glorious, astounding year in 2005 been perennial under-performers on the field, while lurching from one crisis to the next off it: from the humiliating to the infuriating, and, lately, the existential
The author Graham Greene once said that it’s only in misery that we’re truly aware of our own existence. If that’s true than nothing could make you feel more alive than supporting the Tigers.
One night in particular stands out. In August 1998, when I was nine years old, Paul Sironen played his last game of rugby league for Balmain at Leichhardt.
A burly, headband-wearing prop whose side gig was and remains modelling for discount clothes shop Lowes, Sironen was the final member of the Tigers last quasi-glory period in the late 1980s, when they played in (and lost) two consecutive grand finals.
I was there that night with Mum and Dad. We stood in our usual spot against the fence on the grandstand side looking across at the hill and watched, in what I remember to be near-monsoonal rain, as Eastern Suburbs dismantled Balmain in the same dispassionate way Javier Bardem offs his victims in No Country for Old Men.
Sometime towards the end of the game the Tigers scored a consolation try to make the score 40-4, and covered in mud and dripping with rain Sironen stepped up to take the conversion kick. A sentimental touch at the end of a less-than-ideal send off.
He missed, of course. I couldn’t find any video of the game but my memory tells me it was by a distance. We stayed for the lap of honour, then soddenly slip-slided our way down the hill in the dark towards home.
But despite the years, and years, of mediocrity, Leichhardt made us – still makes us – feel as though we had something other clubs didn’t. A tribal home which had managed to outlive the game’s open-armed embrace of commercialisation.
In an era when rugby league is so often defined by cavernous, half-empty “entertainment precincts” plastered in advertising and reverberating with asinine sponsor announcements, its chaotic, unreconstructed atmosphere can feel like a salve for an itch you didn’t know you had.
But, as a diehard supporter of any sporting team will maybe understand, loving a club or a stadium or a player is really about something less tangible.
In 2013 Dad had a stroke which, five or so years later, he’s never really recovered from. The booming, acerbic voice which used to make people crane their necks at the footy barely rises above a whisper. The loss of speech and mobility means he’s become mostly insular, and Mum likes to make glib reference to his “happy pills”.
In other words, his days excoriating professional athletes from the sidelines are probably over.
But when I return now as an adult I am flooded with memories like that dreadful night in 1998 when I stood in the rain with my parents and watched our team get pummelled again. And it is nice to know that I will always hold that with me.
Leichhardt has become such a symbol of the game’s past that it’s a truism to call it a throw-back rugby league experience. But history does hang around the place. The club’s, and my own.