Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Home Ground (2012)

Every Sunday at sixteen hundred hours, members of the people’s army of National Rugby League, reach for the remote control and turn their television on to Channel 9 (or Channel 90 if you live outside of QLD and NSW) to sit and watch the delayed telecast of the game played that day.

And for the most part, those games invariably contain the Wests Tigers. As a Tigers fan this doesn’t particularly worry me too much, but the one thing that irritates many fans, including those supporting the Tigers, is the commentary by Ray Warren and his luminary Phil Gould about Sunday afternoon games at Leichhardt Oval.

These two old men, whose memories seemingly stopped recording data in 1989, will wax lyrical for the majority of the broadcast about AMCO Cup games and the old interstate clashes before Origin being played at Leichhardt.

If the game is in a particularly low point, we may even be subjected to memories of when the ground ran east to west (not north to south like it does today).

In fact, when you look at the TV guide prior to kick off and see “Leichhardt Oval” in the guide, you know, with military precision, exactly what commentary you will expect.

And with the precision of a Swedish clockmaker, they deliver.

Why is this irritating?

It’s because they are stating the bleeding obvious.

Leichhardt Oval is a magnificent ground. Unlike the plethora of stadia around the country and the globe nowadays, Leichhardt Oval has charm and a sense of loyalty about it. While the rest of the world has gone on to bigger and better things, such as 80,000 seated stadiums and the like, the grand old girl on the water has stayed true to her original self for nigh on eighty years.

The ground began as essentially park as far back as the 1880’s, with cricket mostly being played there. It wasn’t until Balmain Tigers planned a move there in the early 1930’s, that the ground was upgraded so as to accommodate fans who would invariably make the pilgrimage to the watersiders new home.

The first game the Tigers played at Leichhardt Oval was in Round 1 of the 1934 season, when they took on the best team in the competition and eventual premiers that year, as well as the team who Balmain would eventually merge with some 6 and a half decades later, Western Suburbs. Balmain lost 18-5.

From those halcyon days, Balmain turned Leichhardt Oval into somewhat of a fortress. From that first game in 1934 til the last game of 1950, Balmain won 61, drew 5 and lost 19 games there.

This period coincided with a decade of dominance by the Tigers, clearly their most dominant era in the games history in Australia. In that time, Balmain missed the finals just 4 times, appeared in 8 grand finals and winning 4 premierships.

Balmain would have success in the future as well, but not as consistently over such a long period time, yet they still managed to maintain an upper hand when playing at home.

Leichhardt was revamped in the 1970’s, her first major upgrade. The field was rotated ninety degrees and lighting was installed at the venue. Leichhardt Oval was a marquee venue. Before long it became home to Interstate games, preseason competitions and mid-week cup competitions as the lighting at the venue was a major drawcard.

The 1970’s and 1980’s were the busiest period in Leichhardt’s Rugby League life, hosting 395 matches between 1974 and 1987. To put this in perspective, in the 65 years either side of the 1974-87 era, there were 399 games played at Leichhardt.

The trees guarding the ground from the nearby water, the hill bereft of seating, grand stands and all the other mod-cons, the glorious old scoreboard which harks back to the days of a simpler but seemingly more honest time, are truly romantic concepts that warm the cockles of our hearts.

Even the betrayal by the Balmain club in the mid 90’s to change its name and move to Parramatta stadium couldn’t last. Leichhardt’s charm had won over everyone and Balmain soon came crawling back, like a child to its mother, happily reunited.

Not even a big screen can make the ground look out dated. It just reveals how much technology looks out of place in our true environment with nature.

With our home.

Our home ground.

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