By J.P. Pelosi
The game was at 3pm - two hours away - but I'd forgotten to print our tickets. The wonderful thing about digital technology is that it allows organised people to excel at saving time. For those less prepared however, the option to have printable tickets delivered to email is rife with problems. Chief among them, is remembering to print your tickets before you leave the house.
We bundled into dad's sky blue Citroen with my brother Alex behind the wheel and the rain blurring the view in front. Dad sat shotgun and I manned a Google page on my iphone in the backseat, hoping to pinpoint the quickest way to the park. Leichhardt Oval is one of those hidden gems, a cosy suburban stadium nestled between Sydney's cove, its old cottages and tall greenery. It's also a venue which, after 80 years, has changed its look more times than Madonna. It has a bizarre mix of spectator perches, including a wide grassy hill, an old grandstand named after Balmain icon, Keith Barnes, and a more modern bleacher that shields fans from the elements but not those closer to the pitch. Dad later tells us he met Mr. Barnes a few years back and that he was a nice guy. Well you'd have to be after they named a grandstand after you, right?
Thirty minutes in Leichhardt's Sunday traffic, which is something everyone should experience really, and we hit another snag: a suddenly stubborn printer at dad's office. With our day out slipping away, I could hear Dennis Denuto yelling on the wind. Alex suggested that he'd buy some pizzas while I tried the local library, where thankfully the lady running the joint was eager to help. She was also determined to make me leap through more hoops than Evel Kinievel. And so after 25 minutes, I not only had the tickets but a brand new library card, pamphlets with more instructions than the launch sequence for an atomic submarine, oh, and a well-bitten lip.
We scoffed down our pizzas, using the pamphlets as plates, while Alex navigated the neighbourhood's narrow passages looking for a parking space. There were none. Not a spare inch. I assume locals get around Sydney by hopping one of the many flights that rattle over their homes every two minutes, leaving their cars dormant out front as generous monuments.
Dad threw his hands up and I couldn't blame him. It was raining jungle cats and junkyard dogs, fans were still filing in twenty minutes after kick-off and the speed at which we devoured our pizzas was wreaking havoc on my belly. We took an endless street that runs parallel to the park but drops so far down into nearby Lilyfield that the bright lights above faded from view. Close to conceding defeat to this inner-city labyrinth, once a blue-collar village but now a paradise for coffee aficionados and obsessive joggers, we spied a non-descript driveway that led to the foot of the arena. Alex turned our French-built tank left and we edged our way to a puddle riddled lawn, where he finally cut the motor and we hiked up to the ground, chasing the roar of the fans just beyond the treetops.
The rain pounded the hill, where we finally stood huddled under a small black umbrella, which itself seemed reluctant to be outside, with its fabric peeling back from its metal frame. The top of dad's ice cream toppled over his knuckles, the cone able to save at least the lower half and a sprinkling of nuts. I was reminded of how he always told us that he didn't feel the cold much. My well-selected canvas shoes were soaked and that, believe me, I felt.
People that brave bitter winds and icy sheets of rain to watch football should have their license revoked really, my dad, brother and I among them. Well, Alex drove, so maybe he was solely deserving of an enquiry. But the other 16,000 fans at the park on this particular autumn afternoon must have included some crazies too. Then again, maybe raucous and tireless crowds that pack into such small suburban spaces deserve praise. I mean, they must line up for hours for a slice of pie in these parts. We had ours over at Moretti's on Norton Street and it was the one thing that came out faster than Wests Tigers that afternoon.
The home team played in a jersey that would apparently be the result if a tiger hit it off with a magpie, which is both weird and ironic, because the amalgamation of the Balmain footy team with that of the Western Suburbs club hasn't always been seamless. That the marriage has been on the skids lately, may have prompted the sudden swelling of support at Leichhardt, though I'm certain the beloved venue - which not only has a distinct lack of seats but might suffer the league's muddiest ground during a storm - is a distinct drawcard.
There were plenty of drops and slides, and the kind of tackles that set up blokes in their post athletic career as turnstiles. But there were also some delicately placed chip kicks and quick hands along the backlines, which inevitably led to the outflanking of defenders. Landing a crossfield kick too, and in just the right spot when the ball is water-logged, seems an incredible feat, and players like Manly's Daly Cherry-Evans did it effortlessly.
When we shuffled in for the second half, the Tigers were up on the visiting Sea-Eagles by 26 - 4. It was a remarkable performance that featured relentless battering on defence and powerful runs up the middle in attack, which absolutely defied the slippery ground. The Tigers weren't just ferocious, they were inexplicably salivating. Must have had some trouble getting their pizza.
All I could think was how wonderfully vocal the people around us were on the hill. While our tickets were for seats on the far side of the stadium, here we were by chance, standing amid a half-monsoon, among drunken fanatics in orange and black striped tracksuits, trying to catch a glimpse of Manly's brilliant halfback dart down the flank.
There just aren't many sporting events that have retained the simplicity of a day at the rugby league. I still remember dad taking us to games at the Sydney Cricket Ground when we were kids, where we'd similarly brave the winter cold to cheer on our favourite teams. These folks were no different and I was pleased to be reminded of it. After all, we're so coddled in the current age, with everything having to be at a 'premium' standard and everyone pursuing luxury. Indoor sports like basketball and tennis especially have succumbed to such superficialities, where in short, the game can sometimes come second to other frills, many of them the imported trimmings of other big leagues around the globe.
Our soaked day atop the risen ground wasn't just nostalgic but uncomplicated. This is the point: our shoulders were drenched, our shoes were heavy with mud and I took in more second hand smoke than one would meeting with Don Draper. But it was indeed breathtaking. It was Sunday sport in Sydney as it was meant to be.