The public bar door of The Henson swings open at 2:20pm Saturday to an impressive sight – men and women from across the generations, decked out in varying degrees of royal blue, warming up for the Newtown Jets’ last home game of 2014.
It’s a raucous atmosphere inside the refitted Marrickville institution. People stand three-deep around the 20-metre L-shaped bar, jockeying for position and the bar tenders’ attention to order not KB or Tooth’s but Young Henry’s Newtowner, the current local brew du jour.
For the true believers, a lone Resch’s tap sits at the end of the offerings; a throwback to simpler times for your common Sydney suburban street-corner pub.
Old drink coasters and random bric-a-brac dot the walls, the Jets memorabilia now consigned to a dusty corner above the pool table. Footy cards of Tommy Raudonikis, Phil Sigsworth and their peers are plastered above off-white tiles that would’ve been hosed down by the publican when the last drunks had been hauled out of this joint circa 1981.
Reunion Day is traditionally the biggest day of the year for the Jets at their Henson Park home, and today is bigger than most. Given the Sydney Roosters’ recent shock decision to end the feeder-team affiliation that has stood with their fellow foundation club since 2006, there’s uncertainty in the air.
It’s not just the Newtown old boys, specifically the 1974 NSWRL reserve grade champions, being recognised today, who are here to show their respects. If this is to be the Jets’ last run around in NSW Cup, seemingly every grassroots footy fan in the surrounding postcodes wants a part of it.
There are also the ghosts of Reunion Day past lurking, not least 2012’s miracle after-the-siren penalty goal from Jack Littlejohn – now looking every bit the NRL player when Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran need a rest at Manly – which dragged the Jets into the finals series and onto eventual premiership glory.
Daniel Mortimer carried the illustrious (c) next to his name when the Jets downed Balmain-Ryde-Eastwood 22-18 on grand final day, joined by Daniel Tupou, Alofa Alofa, Peni Tagive and Mose Masoe in the famous royal blue.
This year’s Reunion Day comes with four rounds to play in the season and the Jets once again on the periphery of the Top 8, but with little of the (future) star power that dominated that squad. Journeyman Scott Dureau is back from Super League as injury cover for the Roosters halves with Mortimer now in the Gold Coast Titans’ No.7, while reformed bad boy Arana Taumata and mountainous young prop Kane Evans are the other names of note.
They face a third-placed Balmain Tigers outfit whose once-best player, Marike Koroibete, is 48 hours away from giving their NRL side nightmares in his newly acquired Melbourne Storm kit.
At 2:50pm the front bar and beer garden begin to empty as the procession subconsciously makes its way past the humble cottages of Woodland Street. One hundred metres up the tree-lined street, a tenner to the attendant lets you pass through Henson Park’s brown brick archway.
And the crowd is big. Real big. Not quite threatening the 30,000 capacity of an arena which in its heyday hosted the cycling at the 1938 British Empire Games, but at least double the season’s modest average.
Younger punters generously cover the amphitheatre-like grass hill, sunning themselves against a chill wind which feels like it’s blowing in from the snow-flecked Blue Mountains. More seasoned fans gather before the western side’s kiosk area, or in the cement confines of the intimate King George V Memorial Grandstand. Some sit at the southern end in their cars like it’s a drive-in movie theatre.
A two-foot tall four-year-old in Sydney Swans kit lugs a twisted six-foot branch across the vast green expanse without security descending upon him. Instead, adults duck and weave as the unintentional weapon spears past them.
Sausage sandwiches and canned beer are the cuisine of choice, provided you can acquire them – what looked like a throng assuming their standard standing arrangements beneath the north-east corner’s scoreboard is actually an Origin-esque queue for the bar.
The scoreboard isn’t even working when Dureau crosses wide 12 minutes into the first half, though someone at the controls quickly toggles the clock forward to catch up.
“Newtown is coming,” Frenzal Rhomb roar the club song, penned by Ricky May, over the Henson Park PA. “Hear the Bluebags humming. Newtowwwwwn. Newtowwwwwn.”
On cue, No.1 fan Johnny Trad appears from beneath the grandstand on his mini penny farthing.
With remnants of the old velodrome still intact, Johnny sets out for a lap of the ground whenever the Jets cross the stripe. Like the pied piper of Marrickville, he waves the Newtown flag above him with one hand and high-fives supporters with the other. A herd of kids follows on foot.
Dureau converts a difficult kick into a swirling breeze. 6-0.
It’s a scrappy encounter, with the Origin-esque scoreboard bar queue – now snaking 15 metres down the hill then 35m to the right as the dropped ball-a-thon continues – not reflected in Origin-esque intensity on the field. A “Newtown!”, clap-clap-clap, chant starts under the kiosk.
Still, for many the rugby league itself is an optional extra at a Jets game. Conversations about music and the vagaries of life from two years ago are picked up instantly. Disenfranchised North Sydney Bears fans sing their usual lament.
Talk turns to a friend’s cousin lost in MH17, his memorial the previous day held without a body. It might take three months to identify it if it’s already with authorities in Amsterdam – if it’s still lost amidst the shelling in Ukraine, it might take six months or more.
On a glorious winter’s afternoon like this, the clouds putting on a special-effects display as the sun starts its daily dip, you know you’ve got to breathe it in while you can.
The opposition today are in a predominately white strip with black stripe and orange highlights, one of several thousand Tigers strips in existence. There’s a fan in classic Philips-era Balmain jersey just inside the gates, another in our group in vintage Victa-era Magpies black and white.
These fans get something to cheer about as winger Setefano Taukafa slams the ball down under plenty of attention after 25. Not long after they’re in again when a speculative kick over the top from 20 metres out curls towards the cross bar, ricochets off the black dot and bounces into the arms of Kurtis Rowe.
Tigers 10-6, until Jets second rower Rhyse Martin finds space from 40 out and dashes towards the left-side corner. Tim Freedman of The Whitlams sings 13 Men All Dressed in Blue while Dureau slots a sideline conversion as if casually shelling peas.
Newtown 12-10 at half time. Inexplicably, the bar queue has doubled.
Kids of all ages leap the steel fence onto the Henson Park turf for the traditional half-time kickaround. It’s more oval than field, with Aussie Rules posts in place for the Balmain Tigers AFC, who share the ground, and the imminent Community Cup charity match between local musicians and music media.
As the players enjoy their oranges, field goals of various eras are recreated by crowd members, the best of which resembles Benny Elias’ crossbar-rattling shot from 1989. Johnny Trad idly cycles across the paddock, commentating on any action he deems worthy and parping his horn otherwise.
When the players start lining up for the second-half kick-off, it’s time to return to the hill.
The game opens up. On the hill, spritely team mascot Jetgir… umm, Jetman poses for photos with the crowd. On the paddock, Ryan Verlinden steps right close to the line and surges beneath the crossbar. Newtown 18-10 with 25 on the clock.
A minute late Samisoni Langi is in under the posts. Frenzal are singing, Johnny Trad is lapping and Roosters legend Kevin Hastings’ son Jackson pots the conversion for 24-10.
Meanwhile, on the hill, the beer line is down to 15 metres. Jetgirl/man unintentionally makes a small child cry. The ground announcer gives the official attendance – 8972, as it is every week, supposedly in honour of Newtown’s last crowd as a first grade team in 1983.
The crowd responds with a Bronx cheer and the announcer retorts: “Well it’s not far off, I can tell you.” It looks like 3500-plus, and sounds like more.
With 13 to go, fill-in fullback Jonathon Reuben collects a crafty grubber and dishes off to Martin for a second try. Hastings curls it through for 30-10.
The result is sealed and the game peters out. The Tigers cross for a last-minute consolation try in the corner but the Jets have prevailed 30-14. The players shakes hands, the field fills up for another kick, the fans line up along the eastern fence to high-five their charges, and everyone else plans which inner-west pub to move on to.
Except Johnny Trad and Jetgirl/man, who stand among the players and soak up the spoils.
Today’s big turnout feels like a fond farewell for the Bluebags, but the good news is it’s more like a ‘see you soon’ than The Final Winter. The Roar understands that the ink is now dry on a new affiliate deal with a top-flight club, ensuring the Jets’ place in the NSW Cup for the foreseeable future.
When the front office’s thoughts turn to 2015, hopefully Reunion Day bar staffing will be near the top of the agenda.