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Rugby league is doing well when the Grand Old Lady sings

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Expert
2nd September, 2019
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The sold out sign was posted on the Wests Tigers’ social media accounts at 7pm on Sunday night.

The Grand Old Lady, the Eighth Wonder, the Lilyfield Rectangle or just plain Leichhardt is set to host another golden moment. It is a venue with a rich history of special times for many of us rugby league fans.

Yeah I know that parking is difficult and extremely frustrating, the toilets are putrid – the amenities block at the northern end of the ground would not be out of place in a Dickens novel – and the food options will hardly inspire the next MasterChef.

This is the NRL reaching down to the grassroots and it still has a place with the fans, albeit on only a few occasions throughout the season.

The NRL and the Wests Tigers could not have hoped for a Round 25 encounter more intriguing than this if they had planned it for the last 12 months.

A top-eight berth is on the line for the Wests Tigers and the lads from the Shire. It’s a mathematical chance – yes, the old mathematical possibility – that both teams could be playing finals if they happen to finish with a drawn result and Brisbane go down to the Bulldogs.

That scenario is about as likely as Robbie Farah playing on Sunday. I mean, what specialist is going to tell a player that broke his tibia less than a month ago that he is good to go in one of the toughest contact sports in the world.

Robbie Farah

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Farah, being the competitor he is, will do everything he can to be there but it appears Michael Maguire may have already moved on, talking up the success of his dummy-half options in the last two matches.

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The combination of Benji Marshall in the early stages followed up by an energetic Josh Reynolds at hooker is proving a handful for opposition defences.

The most unlikely occurrence of all is ScoMo turning up and plonking himself in the middle of the Leichhardt hill faithful wearing that scarf. The banter alone would be worth the admission price.

Unfortunately I won’t have Mr Morrison’s option. I will be watching on the small screen some 15,000 kilometres away at seven in the morning.

Despite the early start, I will play out the rituals in my mind that I followed for many years. The pre-game beer in the Orange Grove Hotel, the march down Glover or Mary Street passing the hot dog vendor on the corner of Church Street, in through the dated turnstile block to the inner west’s version of the Theatre of Dreams. The generators will be humming and the smell of deep-fried food will waft around the ground.

The anticipation of making a finals series for the first time since 2011 will have the Leichhardt crowd on edge. The last time they were in this situation they were flogged 52-10 by Canberra in front of 18,634 fans in 2016. They finished ninth that year. It’s a familiar position for the club having finished one place outside finals on five occasions in their short existence.

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The Sharks, after being pipped by Canberra on the weekend, will bring a physical approach and a sentiment that they don’t want Robbie’s Leichhardt farewell to be the last match for their own warrior Paul Gallen.

The Tigers, while not possessing the class of the Raiders in their line-up, have been playing with renewed confidence and determination.

The Leichhardt crowd will bring their own intimidation factor as they perch in spitting distance of the sideline.

Leichhardt

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The ghost of Laurie Nicholls will shadow-box as he makes his way around the ground waving and calling out to anyone and everyone.

The black-and-gold boys from yesteryear will gather near the Keith Barnes Stand and talk about the glory days.

The days of Leichhardt hosting NRL games are numbered. It is a sad but inevitable conclusion that the top level of the game will be played exclusively in modern stadiums.

The Bradford Bulls played their last game at the iconic Odsal Stadium after 85 years of residency last weekend.

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When I speak to fellow rugby league tragics around the world about Australia, they point out Leichhardt and Henson Park as grounds on their bucket lists for a pilgrimage. Bankwest and ANZ are similar to the multitude of big sporting venues that have found a place in every major city.

Whatever the final result, it will be a great day out for many reasons. I have a feeling that Big Baz, the Leichhardt Oval scoreboard attendant, might leave the creaky door ajar one last time in case Robbie wants a final beer gazing over what has been his rugby league domain.

At 2pm on Sunday, that well worn saying about South Sydney and rugby league doing well should be substituted for a packed Leichhardt Oval and rugby league.

There is no better sight or feeling. Bring it on.

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