Half a century of rugby league: The grounds

Rhea Bonsey Roar Rookie

By , Rhea Bonsey is a Roar Rookie

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    In my last article, I talked about the 12 teams which made up the NSWRLFC and their home grounds. As I named the grounds, memories of watching games at them came back.

    In the 60s and early 70s, before teams outside Sydney were admitted to the competition, one game was played on Saturdays, and the other five played on Sundays at the various home grounds around Sydney.

    The competition worked out that each team played one home game and one away game in the ordinary rounds. In those days 22 rounds were played before the final series. The Saturday game – billed as the Match of the Day – was played at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground, and each team played a game there throughout the competition.

    To a St George supporter, the place to be at the SCG was the famous Sheridan Stand. Whenever the Dragons had a game there, the whole stand was filled with red and white. The SCG had an atmosphere of its own, and the Saturday game often took on the aura of a grand final – such was the atmosphere and crowd attendance.

    On Sundays, you could go to one of five home grounds on 2:30 in the afternoon and be treated to a great game of footy at a cheap price. My dad and I would walk to Jubilee Oval and take up a position in front of the grandstand at the players’ entrance. On a sunny winter’s day the sun would pass over the English St side, and you would spend most of the game with your hand over your eyes watching the great names who wore the Red V do battle.

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    Dad drove all over Sydney to various home grounds to follow the Saints (as we called them in those days) and it’s how I learnt to get around Sydney. Each ground was so different.

    At Henson Park, wherever you sat, or stood, you would always be able to see the ground. It was build like an amphitheatre, around the grandstand, and you could sit or stand and not block anyone else’s view.

    Leichhardt Oval and Belmore Oval was similar, although at Leichhardt Oval, if you sat or stood where the scoreboard is, you could sunbake and enjoy the game at the same time. These grounds had an almost picnic-like atmosphere to me; pleasant, relaxing – sometimes you hardly noticed the footy as it progressed along in a leisurely manner.

    At Belmore, the trains used to slow down, to allow passengers to view the game as the railway passed behind the goalposts at one end.

    The atmosphere at Redfern Oval was something else. Usually by halfway through the first half, the ground would be in shadows, but the atmosphere was a battlefield. In my early years of following the game, the Saints and the Rabbitohs were bitter rivals, and that carried over to the fans.

    If you wore red and white to Redfern Oval in those days, you were careful to conceal your colours until you got into the ground. However, once inside you were rewarded with some of the hardest and toughest footy in the comp, and were guaranteed that at least one player would earn an early shower!

    My few memories of attending footy games at Lidcombe and Cumberland Ovals feature muddy grounds, as the forwards churned the field up in their charges and defence. Both grounds would end up looking like the mud-run I remember so well from the Navy Recruit School. Neither ground seemed to see much sun and it would be freezing cold! I remember having to rug up for a trip to Sydney’s west.

    In contrast, North Sydney Oval was an absolute dust bowl! Drier than a parliamentary speech, it also had its fair share of rocks and gravel as well. It was – literally – the hardest ground to play rugby league on; it was a great leveller when it came to getting the competition points!

    Watching a game at Brookvale Oval, and the Sydney Sports Ground – home of the Manly Sea-Eagles and the Roosters respectively – had something of a carnival atmosphere. Brooky Oval on the Northern Beaches of Sydney was almost holiday-like, and for some Sydneysiders, a footy game meant an overnight stay, depending on how far you travelling. The Sports Ground was like a poor cousin to the SCG – it was only next door, yet never could attain the atmosphere of its famous neighbour.

    Of course, the southern beaches of Sydney had it’s rugby league ground as well- the rather picturesque home of the Sharks known in my early years as Endeavour Field. Situated at Woolooware, you drove past it on your way out to Kurnell to visit Cook’s Landing place. Like Belmore, Leichhardt, Jubilee, Brookvale and Henson Park grounds, Endeavour Field was a sunny place and it too, had a holiday feeling about it.

    Lastly, once or twice Dad took us on the then long drive out west to the foot of the Blue Mountains to watch games at Penrith Park. Before Panthers was built, there was very little out there; and it was pretty much a country town in those days. It wasn’t called the ‘Graveyard’ for nothing! Many a favoured side, expecting victory, would be buried by the Panthers on their home turf.

    When Illawarra and Canberra were admitted to the competition in 1982, I had grown up and was going to games myself – either driving or catching the train. The Illawarra Steelers had the old Wollongong Showground (now WIN Stadium) as their home ground and it was the first ground outside Sydney I went to attend a match between the Dragons and the Steelers.

    Seiffert Oval, Queanbeyan was the home ground for the Raiders, and six years later when the Knights were admitted, their home ground was Marathon Stadium in Newcastle. Dad was a born and bred Novocastrian, and despite his support for the local club Waratah-Mayfield, refused to change his St George allegiance.

    Roarers, what memories do you have of the various rugby league grounds?

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