This is Henson Park
THERE’ S NO RUGBY LEAGUE EXPERIENCE QUITE LIKE A NEW TOWN JETS HOME GAME. THE SUPER STADIUM S WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO MATCH THE CHARM, PASSION AND COMMUNITY SPIRIT OF A PLACE LIKE HEN SON PARK, A BEACON OF SUBURBAN FOOT Y.
Our correspondent takes a trip to an essential suburban ground, and finds footy with soul.
Amere seven and a half kilometres south-west by road from the centre of the Sydney CBD, in the giant and proud suburb of Marrickville, sits historic Henson Park. It’s a nine-hectare square of bitumen, brick walls, stone walls, wooden benches, beer taps and home to probably the biggest slope of grass in the city. In the context of the “super stadiums vs suburban grounds” footy debate currently being played out in NRL circles, Henson is routinely produced as ammunition for those who stress the importance of maintaining rugby league’s grassroots community culture.
And suburban Henson Park is, surrounded on all sides by the same dark-red brick residential houses scattered right across Sydney’s inner-west. On the outer layers of the Marrickville onion sit pubs, and primary and high schools, as well as various forms of light industry; craft brewers likely among them.
On a beautiful late-July arvo, we’re here for the Newtown Jets’ second-annual Beer, Footy And Food Festival-themed home game, put on with the help of The Music and Booze Company. Henson is accessible from the busy Sydenham Road. Normally, Newtown fans can watch their beloved former Bluebags through the windscreens of their cars, but not today; there’s too many people around for that. As such, the Jack Chaseling Drive, named after the legendary rugby league pioneering official, is closed off to cars. You can still walk up it though. As you approach the ground, you can hear the ground announcer reading out adverts for local club
“THERE’S HIPSTERS NEWTOWN’S MOST FAMOUS EXPORT , YUM MY MUMMIES, BOGAN S, RICH YOUNG KIDS ON THE BOOZE, FAMILIES.”
sponsors over sketchy speakers. You can smell the liniment from the players’ sheds … and you can already taste the sausage sizzles.
After paying your way past the friendly blokes standing in front of the Charlie Meader Memorial Gates, a glorious rustic brick archway older than your granddad and named in honour of the legendary groundsman and caretaker, you’re in. At the top of Henson Park’s giant hill is an ant-line of white-topped beer and food marquees. To access the good stuff within these stalls you’ll need some tokens. The lines are long, but the people selling the tokens are working wonders under pressure.
Local food purveyors Bloodwood Restaurant, Mary’s Newtown, Clem’s Chicken Shop and Cow and the Moon all have stalls. Footy-goers can take their pick from Young Henrys, Shark Island, Wayward, The Grifter, Colonial Brewing Co. Margaret River, Batch or Akasha to wash it all down.
Today the Jets are hosting the New Zealand Warriors. Your author was invited to a club fundraiser night at Petersham RSL a few weeks after this particular match, and was told this day attracted over 4,100 paying adults. The club’s success isn’t based on just winning. People are here at Henson – the site of its fair share of bloody and brutal characters and matches – for a real rugby league atmosphere, the type of experience you imagine crowds on those retro YouTube videos were having in the ’60s and ’70s. Except this is beyond the internet. You know, real life.
Blokes in new and old Newtown jerseys stand on the hill, enjoying the vibe, each other’s company, the beers in their hand and the winter sun piercing their vision of what’s happening on the field. A lot of the men watching on are dads, pretending to be their dads, jealous of the fun their elders used to have at the footy before the world went litigation-crazy. There are middle-aged people and old-timers who you can tell have been coming to this ground since they were kids, and won’t be done coming for a while yet. There’s hipsters (Newtown’s most famous export), yummy mummies, bogans, rich young kids on the booze, families, young couples on the ultimate first date, and even people here just for the craft beer. And that’s okay.
Today is popular Jets utility Kurt Kara’s 150th appearance in the Intrust Super Premiership. Kara, an off-spring in his arms, leads Newtown out of the bowels of the magnificent King George V Memorial grandstand and through a celebratory royal blue banner made to honour his loyalty and games milestone. Edrick Lee opens the hosts’ account in just the second minute of play, sending Henson Park into raptures. The former Raiders wingman, now Newtown right-side flyer, touches down with relative ease on the end of a wellworked backline shift.
Lee’s try is a trigger for one of rugby league’s unique characters to swing into action. For the past five or six years, John “Jet” Trad has been running laps of Henson Park on a BMX-style penny farthing after each Newtown try, much to the delight of the Bluebags’ younger fans who try and keep up with the flag-flying legend and true Newtown disciple.
The Jets are completely dominating the Warriors, and take a 28-0 nil lead at half-time. The word no doesn’t exist in these parts. So are the kids allowed onto the field at fulltime, unlike at your typical NRL stadium? Hell yeah; they’re even encouraged to go on at half-time. Take your ball out there and score a try under the posts, kids.
Henson Park’s history is as unique as the clientele it attracts on game days. Long before the Jets arrived, it was the site of a brickyard belonging to the Standsure Brick Company (1886 to 1914) and operated by a Thomas Daley. Today, the park is set within a shallow hollow, formed by the upper edges of the former brickpit. This explains the giant hill, which is of rugby league lore. If you can’t relax here with the sun tanning your face, a beer in one hand and a pie or sausage sizzle in the other, you’re of a different make to the rest of us.
According to the internet, when the brickworks closed, the pits filled with rain and ground water. The largest waterhole was known as “The Blue Hole” and was up to 20 metres deep in some places. Marrickville Council bought the site in 1923 due to the dangers it posed to the local community (nine young boys are said to have drowned in the old water hole).
The sports oval you see today was established a decade later in 1933. Newtown is a foundation club of the original New South Wales Rugby Football League, which conducted its first season in 1908. A good way to start a fight amongst rugby league geeks is to suggest that either Newtown or Glebe was the first RL club to be formed in Australia. Both claim they were established a day before the other, much to the humour of outsiders.
Whether it had anything to do with the fact it played its homes games on top of an old brickyard is debateable, but the club, known as the Bluebags from 1908-1972, became famous for its gritty, never-say-die fighting spirit. Newtown won three premierships (1910, 1933, 1943) and was runner-up seven times during the club’s time in the top tier of the game Down Under. Some of the sport’s greatest legends have either worn the royal blue of Newtown and/or played at Henson. Its most famous are arguably Frank “Bumper” Farrell, a legendary policeman and footballer who played 250 games for Newtown between 1938-51, and ruthless, competitive halfback Tommy Raudonikis, who skippered the Jets in the club’s last grand final, against Parramatta at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1981.
We’re not paying him due homage here with this mere mention, but another all-time great player, Brian “Chicka” Moore, like Farrell and Tommy, and a massive star across the ’60s and ’70s, can be carried around with you for life via his images which adorn Jets club merchandise. Indeed, the club’s famous royal blue Paramount Shirts-sponsored jersey is still among the most well-known in rugby league.
The Jets’ controversial dumping from the NSWRL at the end of the 1983 season for financial reasons – despite several attempts by many parties to revive them – attracted plenty of anger from the die-hards. But as the club’s famous song goes, Newtown is the club “that will not yield”. For the past 17 years it’s been playing in the second-tier NSW Cup and its various forms. Today, the Jets are a feeder club for National Rugby League outfit the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, but their fans are as dedicated, and players as proud to wear the royal blue, as those of any NRL club.
The feeder club set-up works both ways between the Shire Boys and the Bluebags. Today at Henson Park the Jets are benefitting in a big way from the services of NRL-level, 150-game-plus second row/prop Sam Tagataese. The New Zealand-born Samoan has played for the Melbourne Storm and Gold Coast Titans in seasons past, and came off the bench for the Sharks in the club’s glorious first-ever NRL premiership win in October last year. Also out in the middle for the Jets is Joseph Paulo. The lock/backrower/five-eighth utility has played 140-plus games of his own in the NRL for Penrith, Parramatta and Cronulla since 2008. The 29-year-old has played internationals for Samoa and America and is showing his class out there in front of a bumper crowd which “Bumper” himself would have been proud of.
Mid-way through the second half, a jumbo flies over Henson, its jets accelerating it into the stratosphere and completely drowning out the conversation of every footy-goer in attendance. The Jets have had an up and down season in 2017, but have put in a mighty performance so far today.
There’s flannelette, Ned Kelly beards, manicured beards, beer bellies, gym junkies, black people, white people. They’re a knowing crowd footy-wise, too. Dozens of families are sitting on the stone wall that runs the perimeter of the oval at the base of the hill. Some of these are sitting where their ancestors sat for years before them. People are allowed to bring their dogs. Children are allowed to bring their plastic threewheelers and pushbikes.
They’re a unique entity, the Jets. Every fan of every other major club in Australia often poses the question: what time are we playing this week? Seeing as though every home game the Jets play is on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm, the query amongst the Jets faithful then becomes merely “are we at home?”
Henson Park is for people who have lost connection with the perceived direction of the elite-level of the game in Australia. This is, again, stepping off the internet, and going back to the basics. Sure, the Jets want you to buy jerseys and T-shirts with Tommy Raudonikis’ ’70s footy card prints on the front. They have to make money to survive, but here it’s still real. Feels realer.
As you sit here on this brickyard-created hill at Henson, in the last rays of a magnificent latewinter Saturday afternoon in suburban Sydney, your mind starts to wander about just how popular this annual event is. More specifically: you wonder just how many people are here. Whatever the actual number, it would probably rival the turn-out for a typical Eastern Suburbs Roosters home game; their crowds are shocking, remind Bluebags proponents.
As the clock ticks down, and with just minutes remaining in the match, the answer is revealed over the scratchy speakers from earlier in the story. “Today’s official attendance, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is 8,972.” There’s a roar of laughter from the crowd. You wouldn’t get it unless you’re a true Bluebag. Years ago, when every club saw the Super League train coming and feared for its place in the sport’s proposed new Rupert Murdoch-owned game, the elite clubs were being judged
“TODAY’S OFFICIAL ATTENDANCE, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS, IS 8,972.”
on all sorts of markers: financial, infrastructure, community importance, and linked to the latter, gate takings. There were some pearlers being thrown about, pissing clubs like the unfashionable Penrith Panthers off to the point where their club management took photos of fans sitting in an almost-empty Sydney Football Stadium to prove to the daily rags that the Roosters were fudging.
Watching on from the then-Metropolitan Cup secondtier comp, the Newtown Jets thought they’d get in on the joke, announcing a roll-up of 8,972 people for a home game which, according to honest folk at the Jets, would have attracted no more than 60 people. Pure gold.
At the full-time siren today, Newtown is registered 38-12 winners. It’s been an up and down year, but this afternoon the Bluebags have finally won their first home game of 2017. Newtown’s win keeps them in finals contention. Heading into the bye, this win today is essentially a four-point result. Coach Greg Matterson is understandably pleased with the Jets’ seven tries to two performance and names Adam Clydsdale, Leigh Higgins, Jimmy Jolliffe, Paulo, Jack Williams, Jason Schirnack, Tagataese and Reubenn Rennie as being Newtown’s best on the day.
A Kiwi himself, Kara knows quite a few of the lads in the Warriors’ squad, who help the brothers among the Jets’ numbers with an after-match haka in tribute of Kara’s milestone game. You can feel the rugby league love in the air.
As the afternoon sun starts to fade, if you’ve had a good day out you’ve tried four, five, or six different beers and been able to fit in a sausage sanger or a curry or whatever. If you’ve bought a coat, earlier you looked like a numpty in the boiling sun, but now you’re the smartest footy goer this side of Leichhardt Oval.
The staffer in the mascot suit has had a big day. He actually looks more like a blue alien or a missile than a jet. But no one cares. That’s not the point. Shuddup and go and cash those tokens in for more craft beers before the stalls shut. Personal bugbear time: at said Sydney Football Stadium, or Allianz Stadium as it’s known today, the bars close 20 minutes before the end of the game. The roller-door shutters go up, making you feel guilty for wanting a few more plastic cups of terrible, factory-pumped, mass-produced brew. Here at Henson, you ask a groovy youngster manning a stall when the tents will be turning the taps off. “Oh, another hour after the game finishes, I’d reckon.” This is heaven. Not sure how I died, but I think I like it up here.
If you’ve forgotten the score, no worries, it’s still emblazoned up there on the board … again, an hour after the game has finished. By now, the 150-games-man Kara has camped himself on it in front of the numerals, Robbie Farah farewell to Leichhardt-style.
As night falls, there’s no need to rush off home. Stay as long as you like here. Don’t skol your beer; this is different. This is Henson Park. It’s been a big day, an important one for the suburban advocates. As the Dutch courage settles in during the final stages of his last craft beer, your author starts pumping out the images of that massive crowd that gathered on the hill across various Twitter accounts.
Hard to believe there’s talk that Sydney doesn’t love its rugby league anymore. That the sport in New South Wales is under threat from soccer and Australian rules. Tell that to the thousands who rocked up to a mere suburban, reserve grade match in Sydney today.
We’ll see you at Henson Park next year.
Wall to wall excitement at Henson Park. John "The Jet" Trad. Tommy Raudonikis scores in the '81 NSWRL grand final. . Sam Tagataese.
Henson Park attracts crowds some NRL teams would be envious of. Kurt Kara channels his inner Robbie Farah.
The Jets' merch gets a workout in the Sydney sun. NRL-experienced player Joseph Paulo. Newtown's mascot.