Henson Park, 1982
Henson Park, 1982

The Healthy Hate, Part 3: Stadiums of the Suburbs

On the cemetery-side of Woronora Bridge I’m a “westie cunt”. Further east than Broadway Shopping Centre in certain attire and the slurs are similar. If by some stroke of ill fortune I find myself closer to the River Wear than the Tyne then I’m lost. And maybe a “Georgie bastard”.

But at Kogarah/Jubilee Oval there are no targeted taunts. It’s a similar story at Belmore Oval, for the handful of times every decade the rugby league commission feels charitable enough to let the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs play a game at their traditional home ground.

Aside from minor discrepancies in the surviving square metres of grassed spectator hill, the type of segregation techniques used to isolate the Drunk Blokes from the increasingly more popular Child Play Area and favoured brand of mid-strength beer served, attendance at either of these two grounds is interchangeable with turning up to Remondis/Toyota/Shark Park on any given Sunday afternoon. Distinct differences in latitude and longitude values, yet ultimately these experiences are solely separated by their pre-game drinking rituals. Tiled pre-war pubs or longnecks missiled into mangroves ahead of mandatory entry-gate breath tests. A sneaky six pack in some shitty park in Allawah or hunting down the best BYO-and-Lazy-Susan lunchtime banquet special on Beamish Street.

The players themselves might attempt to squeeze some misguided sacredness from these suburban stadiums. Some false historical link to the unprofessional black-and-white era. Maybe the legacy of the uniform, squinting at the change-room mirror until it reignites its lost magic, before the once-complimentary colours were diluted after a forced merger with an unassociated club 50 kilometres away and/or every available square-centimetre of the skin-tight lycra jersey was auctioned off to corporate endorsements, ensuring the 300 ex-players-turned-trainers are adequately paid for their own dedicated years to whatever this club once was.

But this pride, genuine or not, rarely extends to those in the stands. Sure, they wear the matching colours and all proudly quote their club’s particular crowning achievements – consecutive championships (1950s/1960s Dragons), the exploits of mythological characters (Martin Bella) or colloquial tales (how many teammates’ wives did Andrew Ettinghausen really sleep with?). But there’s little value in these historical threads, as the hear-and-now bares almost no resemblance to these selective snippets of romanticism. This notable disconnect between the past and the present, brokered through countless top-level managerial decisions that favoured evolution over preservation, leads to a limited investment in the club’s most valuable commodity – unwavering pride.

Of course, there’s that guy by himself. In since gates opened, decked head-to-toe with merchandise from various eras. Radio ear-piece and a copy of Big League scrunched by pre-game nerves. He’ll defend this club until he’s dead. He’ll quote obscure rulebook alterations – not on merit, but on their legal application. He’ll know the names of the reserve-grade prospects, those they shouldn’t’ve let go and spend hours debating hypothetical head-to-head battles between players from different decades.

But he’s an anomaly. The average guy/girl/kid in the stands has a far smaller stake. It’s an entertaining afternoon, nothing to get worked up about and definitely not something worth staunchly defending in tribe-like scenarios. There’s no us vs them, it’s just us, all enjoying a day out of the house, with our family-discounted tickets we heard advertised on the radio earlier that day.

The boom-voiced bloke over the stadium loudspeaker introduces this as the “derby” match. But that unmistakable tension we’ve felt from attending sports with actual rivalries is non-existence here. A visiting team from Melbourne, Townsville or ten minutes away on the other side of a dividing river. There’s no difference.

Thus, hatred is exclusively reserved for the men in the middle. Even with the league’s recent decision to double the number of officiating representatives in order to better apply the grey letters of the rugby league law to real-time scenarios, rarely do the chicken-legged whistle-keepers dodge the unified taunts of the fans from both sides. Chants of “bullshit” with choreographed hand chops are as close as the active fanbases come to any sort of war-cried charge.

The easiest target of blame for the cause of the systemic uncommitted nature of rugby league factions is the casim spawned from the Super League millennium split and the resulting post-Murdoch merges, which saw decade-old rivalries set aside in favour of survival. Yet, it’s also something intrinsically tied to the ground (forever-known by its traditional name) – Stadium Australia.

Favoured as the evolutionary improvement of the suburban park ground, Stadium Australia has become the official resting place of two of the game’s proudest clubs – Canterbury and South Sydney – as well as the part-time home ground for Wests Tigers, Parramatta and St George. Weekly – as if subservient to some sort of agreement between the stadium owners and the league – the 80,000 capacity coliseum hosts a game on it’s hallowed forever-neutral turf in front of a 10,000 strong crowd that are squashed together in half-a-dozen seating bays – a necessary mirage for the infinitely larger television audiences.

Beyond this pathetic physical function, Stadium Australia equally stands as a representation of what rugby league has become. Bigger is better. There’s no place in the modern game for those poorly constructed suburban grounds, sandwiched between terrace houses and narrow streets and tightly protected, secret parking spots. No place for honour in a specific geographical patch. Just shuttle buses to the purpose-built complex in the designated ‘entertainment precinct’ part of town. A controlled laboratory of monopolised food and beverage markets and PG-rated, family-day-out entertainment. And where all celebrations of post-game pride are solely reserved for fans of the victor.

 

nails

Jonny Nail is a writer and code beast. He is a regular contributor at New Albion.