The news this week that the iconic Lansdowne Hotel was finally closing its doors made me cast my mind back to my time there as a young barman in 1994.
As a boy from the country, living in Coogee, the Lansdowne was like the Tardis, a portal into another world which was definitely not the beach, and certainly not the bush.
“…most of the stories of the Lansdowne I heard began or ended with heady, fuzzy alcohol-soaked staggers through the open doors in the wee hours of the morning. There were stories of arguing with the bartender over the price of beer, of people making out clumsily on the couches, of untidy break-ups, of punch-ups, and of impromptu dancing on tables.
“It’s rarely a destination in and of itself. Rather, it is the beloved pub of last resort, eternally reliable in all its sleazy neon grandeur at the intersection of two busy roads.”
By the time I arrived, the Lansdowne, on the corner of City Road and Broadway in Sydney, had been through several incarnations. It had first had a basic Aussie bistro serving mixed grills, then a no-name style cheapo Italian, and then a Thai restaurant.
It had been through a gangland phase, and a uni-bar phase, and many live-band phases of one type or another. But for most of its life, the pub was one of Sydney’s hardest-core live-band pubs. At one stage during my tenure, you could see a live band every night of the week.
It takes a certain kind of devotion from the fans, and an equally mystifying optimism on the part of the band, to turn up to an inner city bar to play a show on a Monday night in winter, when you know for certain that there will only be 12 people in the room and 6 of those are the band and the barman.
Nevertheless, it happened week after week, and the quiet desperation of the musos and their excessive gratitude at the one-free-schooner rider cured me forever of any ideas of the glamour of a music career.
That said, there were big nights, with successful bands too – You Am I, Peabody, The Go-Betweens, Died Pretty and the Screaming Jets all played the Lansdowne at one time or another.
The Screaming Jets gig was a memorable one. The Lansdowne was snug with 100 people in it, and downright uncomfortable with 200. So you can imagine the mayhem when 400-odd crowded into the tiny venue to see the Newcastle band blow the roof off. There was a cover charge, but after the side doors were forced open, the guy at the front door abandoned his post with a wad of cash big enough to choke a donkey, and the punters flooded in.
The warm-up acts were hunted from the stage by the rabid mob with relentless chants of “Jets! Jets! Jets!”
Full schooners and the allied money for payment were passed back and forth to the bar staff over the heads of the 15-deep bar crowd, for the simple reason that with 400 people in there, no-one could move.
I reminisced about the night recently and unbelievably, former Wallaby Owen Finegan recalled being at the gig, with his mate, Aussie under-21 rep and now sprint-trainer to the stars, Mike Misson.
“I was there with Mike,” said Owen. “I remember it got so hot that eventually security did the only thing they could, and turned the fire hoses on the crowd. Absolute carnage, but a fantastic night.”
It was probably unlikely at that stage that rookie Waratah Finegan could have seen five years into his future and imagined that he would run near enough to 30 metres to score in the 1999 World Cup final against the French, who had sensationally beaten the All Blacks just the week before.
While the French may not have measured up against the Wallabies, the previous week they had torn New Zealand to shreds. There were several long-range tries – first from in their own half to Christophe Lamaison after a magnificent scything run from Christophe Dominici; then a magnificent 60-metre chip regather, again by Dominici.
Next, a full-length dive and forcing of a delicate in-goal chip by Richard Dourthe; and the final nail in the coffin, a hack ahead by Olivier Magne from a New Zealand error deep in the French 22, a desperate 80-metre sprint, and a sliding regather to score from Phillippe Bernat-Salles.
The odd Finegan/France/Lansdowne mashup brought to mind another famous day of French rugby – and another win against the All Blacks, this time in New Zealand at Eden Park in 1994, when I was still pulling beers at the landmark pub and Finegan was apparently drinking them.
Famous for ‘The try from the end of the world’, the French win was a staggering achievement in the annals of world rugby, a feat matched by a select few countries, and one which would be forever remembered. A 2-0 series win against New Zealand, in New Zealand.
I watched ‘The try’ in the front bar of the Lansdowne, switching the channel by reaching up and pushing the button with a sawn-off pool cue, just in time to catch the anthems.
The Test see-sawed as good matches do. As it progressed, the assorted group in the front bar of the Lansdowne became increasingly interested in the game. France led at halftime 13-9 and had scored a try through Emil Ntamack. New Zealand however, led with only minutes to go.
Pensioners and Lansdowne regulars Bernie and Ron gradually swivelled their stools and nervously sipped their ponies of Reschs.
“So this is rah-rah then is it?” Bernie had asked at the beginning of the game. “Never watched the bloody rah-rahs in me life.”
As time drew short, alcoholic former circus acrobat Maurice unconsciously flexed his bare arms out of his singlet like he was about to come off the reserves bench. Argentinian cabinetmakers and stimulant pushers Tino and Jose sat ramrod straight, watching intently. At least they knew what rugby was.
The rest of the pub was empty and our eclectic little band urged the French on.
Finally New Zealand won some ruck ball on the right side of the field and Stephen Bachop dabbed the ball into the corner. French wing Phillipe Saint-Andre fielded the ball and after a moment of decision, ran hard at the defence. He stepped one or two players on the 22 and was soon tackled just short of the 40m line in centre field.
Jean-Michel Gonzalez grabbed up the ruck ball and fed flyhalf Christophe Deylaud, who passed to Abdelatif Benazzi running hard and straight.
At this point Benazzi probably made the try. He ran hard at the inside shoulder of the rookie winger Jonah Lomu, whose indecision led him to turn to the outside runners. Benazzi slipped past Lomu and set his wing Ntamack away. Lomu was left behind without making a tackle.
Ntamack ran to the New Zealand quarter line, where he flipped the ball to flanker Laurent Cabanne. The French players were lining up in support. By contrast, the All Blacks were fast running out of defenders.
Cabanne gave a short ball to Deylaud, who stepped awkwardly, wrongfooting a New Zealand tackler who fell comically onto his backside. Looming on Deylaud’s left was the tiny scrumhalf Guy Accoceberry. Deylaud passed, and Accoceberry raced desperately towards the posts with the New Zealand cover scrambling towards him.
As Accoceberry seemed to be almost over the line, with the cover on top of him, he threw a last safety pass to fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny, who slid in for the decisive score.
In the Lansdowne Hotel we went berserk, screaming and cheering for a team that wasn’t even ours, but which had just played rugby football the way we always wanted to see it played. Needless to say, we all had a few beers that night. Allez savoir pourquoi.
Looking back, it seemed like a nice little omen that coincidental events this week brought to mind historic All Blacks losses. In both cases, the French won the game by taking the match to the All Blacks, by chancing their arm, running the ball and relentlessly supporting the ball carrier.
This is of course the only way to beat the All Blacks. It’s coincidentally the same advice that brilliant British television commentator John Taylor roared at Lansdowne patron and Wallaby Owen Finegan during his scoring run in the 1999 final:
“Just go for the line man!”
There it is in a nutshell. Bon chance Wallabies.