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Those of you who are regular readers of my Roar columns will know that I am pretty much rusted-on when it comes to rugby, so it will be as much a surprise to you to find that I spent last Friday night watching St George at Kogarah Oval, as it was to me to find myself there.
Of course, it wasn’t an accident. Some old mates (who are as mad about the Dragons as I am about the Wallabies) were going along and offered me a ticket. Normally I just don’t have the necessary credits with the Ministry of Home Affairs to go to any football outside of my rugby commitments, but my curiosity was piqued, so I negotiated a special leave pass and jumped on the train to Carlton.
Thanks to the magic of the new-fangled electric internet, you can print the ticket before you leave home, so I was ready to slip straight through the gates.
The evening was fine and warm for June, and the train ride was typically Sydney – workers, office girls and students all heading home, whilst the party set were illuminated on the inbound platforms as the train flashed past.
Luckily I managed to grab a cab from the station but had to jump out close to the ground because English Street and Jubilee Avenue are both closed off to allow thousands of pedestrians to make their way to the gates.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the Princes Highway, and I noticed several families cheating death and hauling their beanie-clad offspring parallel to the ground through the Cannonball Run of peak hour Princes Hwy traffic.
No matter whether they were families dodging speeding vehicles, young men being dropped off by mates in fast cars, or hard workers celebrating the end of the week, they all shared two things.
The first is that famous symbol of the St George club – the Big Red V. It was everywhere. Kids had the V, mums had the V, and young girls had the V. Of course, it goes without saying that every man between the ages of 12 and 60 had the V.
If I’m making it sound like a disease, then that’s probably not too far off the mark.
Down Kogarah way, the V has clearly spread from house to house, leaving no stone unturned, until the authorities have given up and let it run unchecked through the population.
Clearly all the babies born across the road at St George Hospital are infected at birth, and to warn all the unbelievers, the nurses simply dress them in the ubiquitous white jersey with a scarlet V down the front – and they stay that way for life.
Not only are they dressed in the V, but they all have the same look on their faces. This is not just a footy match. When you go to watch the Wallabies or the Waratahs play, the crowd has a polite, party sort of vibe. It’s frothy, light and nobody’s hanging themselves if we lose.
That’s not the way it is down south at Kogarah when the Dragons are on at home. This isn’t entertainment, it’s a mission.
It’s not amusement, it’s commitment and it’s certainly not leisure. It’s more like a vocation or a higher calling.
These people take this game so seriously that when you walk into the stadium, you can feel the difference, and you start to question whether you’re really committed enough to the cause to be here.
“Do they allow mere spectators?” I thought. “Maybe I should have brought my passport and checked with Kogarah Council on the way in?”.
Not to say that there was any hostility. Far from it, in fact, the crowd was far too focused on the job at hand to worry about any non-Dragons in their midst.
But it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if someone had turned to me, in the same way that the high priest might turn to a virgin at a sacrifice, and asked “Are you sure this is the best place for you?”. All I knew was that it looked like it was going to be pretty good fun, so I grabbed a beer and a hot dog, and strapped myself in on the hill around the 30 metre line. (Note to ANZ Stadium – get a hill.)
There was a minute of silence before kick-off, remembering the diggers killed in Afghanistan, but it was punctuated by some muppet yelling out “You’re a legend Ben Creagh!”. That was the cue for the only outright venom of the night, when the crowd close by growled at him like dogs in a junkyard and the silence was restored.
Then the game was on.
The Dragons as premiership frontrunners up against the Tigers on a four game winning streak – irresistible force meets immovable object – although as it turned out, the Tigers were a lot more movable than anyone thought.
It didn’t take long for the Dragons to assert their dominance, as Darius Boyd sliced through a poor tackle from Tigers star Benji Marshall to set up an 8-0 lead.
The noise when this happened was a bit like standing on the side of the road as a semi-trailer goes past and the air buffer hits you in the face. Less of a sound, and more of a physical sensation. The union crowds could learn something from this sort of tribal support.
Jamie Soward, Brett Morris and Ben Creagh all kept the scoreboard ticking over, and the semi-trailers rushing through, but the experience was reversed momentarily when Michael Weyman planted Wade McKinnon in the ground head-first like a new season daisy. The noise when this happened was less of a roar and more of a massive sucking in of breath – imagine 18,000 vacuum cleaners turned on at once.
In the flat spots, the Dragon Army kept the vibe of the show rolling by singing, chanting, yelling and flag-waving.
An eclectic group they were, and in their midst I caught sight of a slightly built, middle aged man with glasses like portholes in a destroyer and an egg-bald head. He was bopping away like a nerd at a disco, singing along with the songs and occasionally breaking off to kiss the hand of a fellow supporter or raise a can to his boys on the field. He looked a bit like a pissed Hare Krishna in a Dragons jacket.
I soon found out however that there wasn’t much love and light about this guy. “That’s The Skull” one of my mates told me. “The what?” I asked. The Skull (real name Ross May) is the supporter that most Dragons fans would prefer didn’t exist.
He was once a big player in the Australian Aryan brotherhood and could be seen at most public events waving anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-everything placards.
A Google search turns up photos of him in full Nazi uniform at the Cenotaph; in his Brownshirt outfit at a gay pride rally in the 70’s; and close ups of him with a swastika flag in the background like some sort of demented wallpaper.
There aren’t too many funny stories about the Skull (he was jailed for bashing a journalist in 1972, so I’m probably taking my life in my hands here), but one of the few concerns Saints vs Souths at the SCG in 1971, when The Skull was in the stands supporting the Dragons.
Fortunately for the Dragons, but unfortunately for the Skull, they were being led around the park by a talented, Jewish halfback, Mark Shulman.
As columnist Jeremy Jones wrote about the moment: “When a Jewish player was directing attack and defence of the team he supported, The Skull was temporarily confused, perhaps conflicted, before determining that he could reconcile yelling antisemitic abuse at one team-member while urging on the other twelve”.
Whether The Skull is temporarily or permanently confused is a matter of debate, but he gets to come into the ground these days instead of climbing the tree out the front to watch over the fence like he used to do in the past when he was banned for spouting racist claptrap.
Anyway, after 80 minutes on the hill next to the Dragon Army decibels, and a Brett Morris try to bring down the curtain on the Tigers, my own hearing was suffering a bit, so there was only one thing to do. Go across the road to the St George Leagues Club and celebrate victory with the true believers.
The Taj, (short for Taj Mahal), has been a fixture down Kogarah way for as long as the oldest Dragons fan can remember. It was built in 1953, just before the Dragons began their run of 11 straight premierships in 1956, and has been holy ground for Saints fans ever since.
So many people headed over after the game, that the police closed off the Princes Highway to cater for the thousands of pilgrims. Again the Red V was omnipotent – mums had it, Dad’s had it, kids had it. You couldn’t turn around without being confronted by the V.
Luckily, so many of the pilgrims were members, that the member’s queue to get in was about five times as long as the non-members one. I slipped in with no problems, despite not being dressed for the occasion (no red V). It was like turning up to a black-tie ball in smart casual.
Once inside, it was like what Dragons supporters must see when they have a near-death experience. Lying on the operating table, being drawn towards the light – and then suddenly, seeing a bar selling cold beer and every man woman and child wearing the colours and supporting the mighty, mighty St George.
I sat in my chair admiring the passing parade.
An Asian woman in the V dragged a small child through the melee looking for someone. A group of young men cheered and thumped the Dragons crest on their jerseys. A young couple canoodled in the corner, joined by a Dragons scarf around both their necks.
If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you’d been transplanted into some sort of Nimbin for footyheads. It was great.
Suddenly, a middle aged man with a sideways nose and gristly ears plonked himself on my mates lap. “How yer goin boys?” he said before holding out his right hand to showcase a thick, heavy gold ring on one finger. As we looked closer it became clear that it was a premiership ring from 1977. He took it off and handed it around, and we all tried it on, marvelling at the weight.
Who was this guy?
We looked expectantly at the biggest Dragons fan in our midst, expecting him to know, but he looked blank, before reeling off as many Dragons front rowers as he could name, back as far as he could remember.
Pat Jarvis? Craig Young? Robert Stone? Well it definitely wasn’t Bob Stone….but who could it be? Finally we drew a blank, with no help from me.
The grizzled veteran held out his hand and introduced himself. “Russell Cox” he grinned. “Of course!!” the Saints fans laughed. Cox was one of the stars of the 1977 drawn grand final, where the Dragons won the replay a week later 22-0.
The replay was one of the most eventful games ever played. Touch judge Brian Barry was felled by a beer can and had to be replaced by a referee’s official in street clothes, and Barry Beath, the last of the Mohicans from the Dragons most recent victory in 1966, bowed out a winner in his final year of rugby league in 1977.
Cox wasn’t alone in the bar.
Closer examination revealed NSW and Kangaroos winger Steve “Slippery” Morris (180 games for the Dragons) and NSW forward Graeme Wynn (197 games for the Dragons) having a few quiet drinks with old mates.
Former Roosters, Dragons and NSW forward David Barnhill was over in another corner. 1985 Grand final centre Michael Beattie was at the bar.
Amazing what you can do on a Friday night in Sydney really. An historic stadium, a brilliant game of footy and a few legends thrown in. Of course, like a true child of the 80’s, I had to get a photo with the legend Slippery Morris before I headed home.
Thanks for having me Dragons fans.