How I fell in love with Leichhardt Oval



  • 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.


    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/11/how-i-fell-in-love-with-leichhardt-oval



  • Wow! Awesome piece Masterton!
    Warning: For those of you who can’t stand to read about the ‘old days’ - don’t read any further……
    I also have memories of Leichhardt that will remain with me forever.
    One Sunday arvo watching bottom of the table Balmain and Parramatta fighting it out for a 28 all draw (no ‘golden point’ back then)! That game was full of Balmain icons - Jack Spencer, Olaf Prattle (yep, that was his name), Len Killeen (who pulled off an amazing try saver down his left wing, literally ‘collaring’ his opposite from behind - I mean, it was the only way Len could tackle, but it was a beauty), Gary Leo, Barry McTaggart - to name a few.
    And of course the ever present, larger than life Laurie Nichols.
    Of course there will come a time I am sure when the Wests Tigers will no longer play games at the Old Girl, but for now, for me, Leichhardt will always be part of a time in my boyhood, when 12 teams in Sydney battled it out two times each year to determine the top 4 (or 5) that would go on to ‘duke’ it out in the finals. It was a time when rugby league was tribal, when it was THE most important thing in the world.
    But hey - now we have 16 teams that play each once or twice and half of 'em make the semis and half don’t and no game ends in a draw (or rarely), and deadset ‘tools’ like Todd Greenslime run the game. Ah well - there’s still Leichhardt!



  • Hear hear!!



  • Nice read that. LO will always be HQ for me



  • Yep, I’m likely not as old as some of the members whom have already posted, but LO will always be a special place for me. If we were not to lock down one permanent home ground (which I personally favour,) we should back to 6/6 at Campbelltown and Leichhardt. They are our real homes.



  • Kudos to you Masterton if you are the author Michael McGowan for getting it printed in such a Lefty rag.! If it wasn’t for the obstinant Greens and Labor’s Verity Firth, amongst others, then the Balmain Tiger’s Rozelle Development would be long since completed. Sadly, the Guardian audience wouldn’t even know where Leichhardt Oval is, given that they don’t go West of Victoria Road. Hopefully, the article helps remind the Basketweavers of Balmain that there’s more to Inner City life than Chai Lattes.

    1998 Saw Balmain with 5/6 wins (3 at LO) at the start of the Season! But a string of 4 losses followed incl, 2 at LO which had crowds well in excess of 18,000!.

    https://www.rugbyleagueproject.org/seasons/nrl-1998/balmain-tigers/summary.html



  • It is the place of do many wonderful memories over the last 50 years.As far as i am concerned there is no better place to watch football.



  • I first went to Leichhardt Oval in 1950 - I had to wait until I was five years old before my Uncle Vic and his mate down the road, Laurie, would take me. The ground ran east-west in those days and my uncle always had to sit near the southern corner post (TV corner these days) - unfortunately we had the sun in our eyes all afternoon because we were always there for the third and reserve grade games as well. It still felt like a second home even then.

    Lots of good players around in my early years at Leichhardt - Billy Marsh, Billy Bischoff Jnr, Keith Barnes, Kevin Smyth etc. At the corner of our street in Balmain lived Mr Munro - who was the scoreboard attendant at LO for many years. In those days, to play for a club, you had to live within the boundaries of the club, so Mr Munro boarded some of the players to conform to the restrictions. (One of the reasons it was so tribal in those days). Keith Barnes and Geoff Hawkey boarded there and I would occasionally wash Keith’s car and as a reward he gave me one of his jerseys and Geoff gave me a few pairs of his socks (still have them)- I thought it was Christmas.

    I have so many memories of games at LO - more than you can shake a stick at. Barnes kicking a goal from 60 metres out into the setting sun, great wins against all odds, getting beaten by a hare’s breath after giving their all and then some, Laurie Nichols punching the air “Eeeeeaaah! Tiger, Tigers.” It was the fierceness of tribal warfare against your bitter enemies, you would wait all week to head out to Leichhardt, because it was not just a game - it was war. (how times change).

    Some of the blood shed at Leichhardt that I saw was by some of the Tigers greatest players - Arthur Beetson, Wayne Pearce, Dave Bolton, Gary Leo, David Topliss, Paul Sironen, Gary Schofield, (Dare I say it) Benny Elias, Ellery Hanley, Jack Spencer, Kevin Yow Yeh, Denis Tutty, Larry Corowa, Gareth Ellis, Bobby Boland, Benji Marshall etc, etc.

    There is something very special about going to a match at LO, just the same now, even 70 years later - we are at home, you guys dare to play on our soil - then we will whip your arses!!! (If only it could happen all the time).



  • @:

    I first went to Leichhardt Oval in 1950 - I had to wait until I was five years old before my Uncle Vic and his mate down the road, Laurie, would take me. The ground ran east-west in those days and my uncle always had to sit near the southern corner post (TV corner these days) - unfortunately we had the sun in our eyes all afternoon because we were always there for the third and reserve grade games as well. It still felt like a second home even then.

    Lots of good players around in my early years at Leichhardt - Billy Marsh, Billy Bischoff Jnr, Keith Barnes, Kevin Smyth etc. At the corner of our street in Balmain lived Mr Munro - who was the scoreboard attendant at LO for many years. In those days, to play for a club, you had to live within the boundaries of the club, so Mr Munro boarded some of the players to conform to the restrictions. (One of the reasons it was so tribal in those days). Keith Barnes and Geoff Hawkey boarded there and I would occasionally wash Keith’s car and as a reward he gave me one of his jerseys and Geoff gave me a few pairs of his socks (still have them)- I thought it was Christmas.

    I have so many memories of games at LO - more than you can shake a stick at. Barnes kicking a goal from 60 metres out into the setting sun, great wins against all odds, getting beaten by a hare’s breath after giving their all and then some, Laurie Nichols punching the air “Eeeeeaaah! Tiger, Tigers.” It was the fierceness of tribal warfare against your bitter enemies, you would wait all week to head out to Leichhardt, because it was not just a game - it was war. (how times change).

    Some of the blood shed at Leichhardt that I saw was by some of the Tigers greatest players - Arthur Beetson, Wayne Pearce, Dave Bolton, Gary Leo, David Topliss, Paul Sironen, Gary Schofield, (Dare I say it) Benny Elias, Ellery Hanley, Jack Spencer, Kevin Yow Yeh, Denis Tutty, Larry Corowa, Gareth Ellis, Bobby Boland, Benji Marshall etc, etc.

    There is something very special about going to a match at LO, just the same now, even 70 years later - we are at home, you guys dare to play on our soil - then we will whip your arses!!! (If only it could happen all the time).

    Great post 👍



  • I too have so many memories of Leichhardt since the mid 70s. Some shaped my love of the ground, some of the tigers, some of other supporters and some of Rugby League itself.

    Something that has shaped me as a man was a very, very wet day in the late 70s or early 80s. Sitting near the fence and the crowd couldnt have been more than one or two thousand. We sat and watched as the tigers and sharks went at it. My dad and I sat in the rain, soaked through, I couldn’t have been more than 10. A sharks supporter with a sharks umbrella came over and sat next to us an shared what space was left under his umbrella. The three of us squeezed in underneath and screamed for our respective teams.

    It taught me that there are supporters from other clubs that love their teams just as much, and that’s rugby league. It taught me that no matter what, there is always room for kindness for other people - even sharks supporters.

    As I watched the players slip and slide and be covered in mud, I enjoyed that day as much as any of the hundreds of other days I spent at Leichhardt playing tackle footy with kids I didn’t know on the hill, the excitement if the very rare occasion we could afford to sit in the stand, or sitting in the car forever down the bottom of the hill stuck in traffic jams on a Sunday after 5pm and shouting at others as the walked past to their cars.

    It just doesn’t get any better.



  • I loved the place. Even stood in the flooded toilets with my shoes soaked in piss. It didn’t matter when you’re a kid.
    Cold meat pies and all.
    Used to sneak in under the fence near the pool and climb up the jungle hill to the western goal posts.
    Play our own game of footy on the grass patch behind those posts and emulate the tries scored.

    Good old days.



  • Love LO

    I’ve always lived in Newcastle but have relatives that live in Leichhardt just a couple of minutes walk from the town hall

    I 1st went to LO in i think 1982 for a game against Newtown Jets and have been many times since

    The Jets won 27 - 13 but i loved every minute of it

    It’s an amazing place

    All of my 3 sons had been there by the time they were 2yo

    I remember when my eldest boy was 18mths old i was walking out of the ground after a game and i saw James Langaloa up ahead

    He saw me carrying my son in his BT jersey and walked straight up to me with a big smile and took my son and gave him a kiss than handed him back to me

    When i was old enough i usedto catch a train to Sydney with friends to stay at my relatives and take them to LO

    I couldn’t convert them to being tiger supporters but they all loved LO



  • Long may it hold footy games for the converted, and for others who appreciate and can see value in preserving some of the traditions and simplicity of the past.



  • The great character ovals are fast disappearing. I liked north sydney oval too but leichhardt was always a great afternoon. Football requirements now have all but killed these grounds.

    Memories of characters and players remain long after they’ve ceased playing or passed. Laurie Nichols to be sure.



  • I also like the atmosphere at Leichhardt, but as an old man now with the inevitable prostate problems, i was horrified at the Titans game last year when a bloke tapped me on the shoulder at the urinal and said, my turn!, i hadnt even started!


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