While I was in Sydney the other week for the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 2014 conference - an event filled with much interest, but probably not for people outside of that intellectual milieu, and besides, it could get messy - I wondered how I would spend my time outside the long conference hours.
Once my status as a presenter was confirmed, I looked ahead to the dates of the conference to see what kind of sporting events would be on, hoping for both an NRL match and an NPLNSW match. On the latter front, sadly the only available option was a Saturday night Marconi - Rockdale match, and without any of my possible Sydney contacts in town to get me there and back, that was going to be unlikely.
The one NRL match on the Friday or Saturday that I was in town was Manly vs Wests Tigers, which was good from the point of getting to see a Sydney suburban ground, but bad from the point of view of how was I meant to get out there on public transport? I'd been lead to believe that it was going to be a nightmare, but was pleased to find that there was actually a bus that went straight to Brookvale Oval from the city.
The task then became to find the place where the buses left from, because I didn't want to fork out cash to get from Museum to Wynyard station, because of the (as far as I know) lack of crossover of Sydney train and bus ticketing. So I ended up slogging it all the way up there, getting lost to the point where I ended up coming in from the north side of Carrington Street instead of the south (the direction I was heading from).
It took me a while to realise that I needed a prepaid ticket to get on, but where to get one from? There was a convenience store across the street, but where in Melbourne every two bit outlet where you could top up your Myki credit (or before thatl, purchase Metcard tickets) had a sign out the front letting you know you could do that there, Sydney in general is just too good for signs. Even street signs seem to turn up once every three or four blocks, and on occasion have to be searched for on buildings.
Road markings telling pedestrians to look left and/or right? Check. Signs telling you where you are? Get stuffed. Luckily, and perhaps logically due to its location, the convenience store did sell bus tickets, but this being Sydney where they apparently don't believe in return bus tickets, this meant getting two tickets instead of just one.
The only other time I'd been to a rugby league game was when I went to Australia vs England at AAMI Park back in 2010, and as discussed in this article, it was hardly the best or even most authentic introduction to the game for all sorts of reasons, so this was a chance to rectify that experience somewhat.
The stadium lights were incredibly bright, and even more unusually there was a sausage sizzle going on outside, possibly as a fundraiser of some sort. I didn't buy a snag, but at the same time I couldn't help but think that if this was the AFL, those people wouldn't be there, or anywhere within a kilometre of the ground for that matter.
While staring at the antique ticket booth a bloke came up to me claiming he had a spare ticket in the grandstand, and offered it to me for $30 instead of $40. It was like my Melbourne Rebels experience all over again, except this time time it would be tinged with a moderate bit of disappointment, as the seat turned out not to be in either of the two grandstands - one along a wing, one behind one of the goals - but instead in seating in front of the wing grandstand. Hey, it was two rows from the front, so it could have been worse but more on that later.
Brookvale may be described as Fortress Shithole by one of my rugby league following Twitter acquaintances, but really, I found it kinda charming. There was grandstand seating for those who wanted, cheaper exposed seating, and even a hill for those who wanted either a family day or just the right to stand and watch the game without being hassled or being squeezed in as you would be in most AFL standing room areas. Indeed, it felt a bit like a more upmarket NSL ground, which made it more endearing.
The game was supposed to start at 7:45 - it said as much on the scoreboard - , but was delayed for 15 minutes, probably because of the sick kid who was being flown in by helicopter onto the field. Tony Abbott was there, too, which makes sense because it's apparently his local electorate and all.
If you thought the atmosphere at the average AFL match was flat, being made up mostly these days of people there to socialise. the atmosphere at Brookvale was somehow worse. Like my previous and only other rugby league experience the game was a stinker, with Wests making error after error, but it was only the tries that actually managed to raise the cheers from the crowd, apart from a couple of early Manly chants.
In fact if wasn't for the three or four homophobic, racist and sexist dingbats sitting directly behind me there I would have heard barely a peep out of anyone. Their banter, such as it was, wasn't at the extreme end of things, but it stuck out because it was the kind of thing that AFL crowds nowadays more or less self-censor and self-polices. At least their mocking of Phil Gould was funny.
Of course, the NRL doesn't do itself any favours on these matters, and I'm specifically talking about the cheerleaders here, who were sitting right in front me near the ten metre line at the scoreboard end, and copped a fair bit of attention from the blokes behind me. I don't get why they're there. They basically do very little for most of the game, maybe get off their seats after every home team score, and do a little dance before the game and at halftime.
They provide nowhere near the entertainment or skill of their American counterparts. I doubt there's any bloke who specifically goes to a game to see them as opposed to the game itself, and I can't see the appeal to women or girls. If anything the experience of the several women and girls was probably made worse by the kind of attention the blokes behind me were giving to the cheerleaders, and then the pyrotechnic guys - and why does rugby league insist on fireworks for every game? - who came around for a photo.
Amid all this and the two Sea Eagles mascots - one of which inexplicably had a green beak and legs - there was a game on, a pretty one sided one as it happened as Manly destroyed their inept opponents. Last time I was at a rugby league match, I was on an elevated area behind the goals, which just didn't work. This time I was at a low level near the goal line, which also didn't really work. There were too many heads in the way, the ball got lost in a pile of bodies too often, and instead we watched what action we could on the scoreboard.
Indeed, the scoreboard at an NRL match gets more attention than at any other sport I've been to unless, I assume, you're sitting in a kick arse, elevated seat on the halfway line, and even then the video referee will take up a good ten minutes or more of the game day experience. Ah, the video referee. It is now the chief arbiter of the game. It almost seems pointless to abuse the officials on the field, even for non score related decisions, because in the end it will the video referee who will decide a team's fate more than anyone else.
Overall, the feeling was that rugby league was stuck between a rock and hard place in a cultural and commercial sense, and unable to decide upon its future. There are those who love their suburban grounds warts and all, but staying there won't grow the sport commercially or significantly increase attendances if that is at all possible. On the other hand, do Sydneysiders want to make their NRL experience a clone of the Melbourne AFL experience, with two grounds and no home ground identity?
That I didn't enjoy the game - apart from one late Manly try with a clever mini chip kick, followed by a grubber kick and then a kick off the ground before th try was scored - is beside the point. For the time being at least, the Sydney NRL experience has some soul left, in the suburban home grounds that are still being used and all the things that come with that, such as the pilgrimages to get to the grounds, the sense of belonging, and the experience of visiting hostile or foreign territory. With the New South Wales government apparently deciding to no longer fund redevelopments of suburban NRL grounds to focus instead on major stadia, it feels that the decision to move into the future - as with the Melbourne AFL experience 20 years ago - will be made for Sydney NRL fans.