The new year has rolled over and we are soon to enter into a whole new NRL season full of triumph, disappointment, scandal, shocks, success and failure.
It’s not often you watch your team cop a loss and can call it a win, but being at the footy in the flesh on Saturday night was a victory the likes of which I can’t recall ever having in my life.
Of all my vices, gambling just doesn’t feature, so I can’t complain too loud about never winning much – if you haven’t bought a ticket, you’re probably not going to get paid out on the lotto jackpot.
But a fortnight ago I pledged my 2020 membership fees to the Newcastle Knights. I was aware that made me eligible to possibly, maybe, hopefully but probably not be in the crowd at a very responsible, socially distanced game of footy, but I figured I’d be among the other 10,000 or so who got through the gates after 1 July.
Then on Friday morning my phone started blowing up. Turns out I’d been drawn out of the proverbial hat as one of the 50 Knights members allowed to bring a plus one and be at the game against the Storm at our ‘home’ venue of Central Coast Stadium.
Deadset, it was the first win I’d had in a raffle since getting a choccy egg at the St Joseph’s Merewether Easter draw in 1992.
So no, unfortunately my weekly offering here on The Roar wasn’t enough to get me a pass to the footy – my journalistic cred doesn’t get me there. But I was there.
And it was weird.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an awesome evening – if you have a bad time in a corporate box on the halfway line with free food and drinks all night, you’re living differently to me. But the atmosphere in a game of footy with around 100 people in attendance is something you’ve got to experience to believe.
When there are thousands of people turning up the volume, even if it’s just general hubbub, you’re not going to hear the specifics of the on-field noise. That’s not the case in a largely empty stadium.
The first thing that was apparent was the sheer ferocity of the contact. With 15,000-plus screaming fans in attendance, you can be excused for not appreciating the impact made when a human being of Nelson Asofa-Solomona’s size goes slamming into Dan Saifiti and Dave Klemmer.
But bloody hell, when the venue is empty, you just hear the thwack of it all. It really is a collision – rather than contact – sport.
The other thing that was odd was that there’s nowhere to hide for the crowd. A bit of noise gets piped through on the broadcast, but you’ll have no such sound in the venue, so your every comment is heard on the field.
Like, you see people and players registering your banter.
One of the better ones was legendary Roarer and Andrew Johns statue enthusiast Karlo Tychsen having a bit of chat to Cameron Smith as the Melbourne skipper lined up for a conversion on the eastern side of the park.
Karlo mentioned to Cam that he’s looking a little thinner on top these days. As Karlo put it, “He heard me. Pointed, applauded, fucking nailed it”.
Yep, Cam nailed pretty much everything on Saturday night.
I was interested that when the ref calls ‘six again’ off a ruck infringement, the ‘ding ding’ sound effect isn’t a TV introduction – it’s heard loud and clear on the ground. I suppose since the ref doesn’t blow the whistle for those calls, there needs to be a way of communicating to all the players that there’s been a significant change in the set.
The intimacy of the crowd had an interesting effect on the officiating too.
There was another moment when a Knights fan – can you believe we, the fans of the losing team were none too impressed with the refereeing of Ben Cummins? – yelled to touch judge Gavin Badger, “Hey Badge, think it’s time you took the whistle off Ben!”
Badger turned, looked up to the irate fan and gave him a big ol’ cheeky grin.
It was a level of intimacy that, frankly, I didn’t want because I honestly believe it worked against the home side.
When you’ve got a huge faceless mass of people booing a decision I reckon the ref subconsciously has a think the next time he has to make another call against the home side.
But when there are so few people in the venue the ref can hear you fart, I suspect abuse coming from the home fans works against their team – because the ref hears every word screamed in his direction and probably thinks (again, subconsciously), “Fuck you!”
The real kicker, though? Going to the bathroom was a bloody delight – and no-one in history has ever said that after attending a game of footy!
Tough school for the Knights, but they’ll be better for the loss. And other than the fact my team copped a beat down, I’d put it up there with one of the best sporting experiences of my life.
Even if the whole thing was just a bit weird.