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.

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY JAMES SMITH

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.

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