A Brief History of Time: From Birchgrove Oval to the Colin Best Express

Filed in Other by on December 8, 2010

It was a moment of great solitude. A series of both fortunate and unfortunate events had led me to the Sydney Cricket Ground on the Sunday afternoon that rugby league in Australia celebrated one hundred years. The final siren had blown some ten minutes prior and humanity and rugby league covered the sanctified turf. Fingers of sunshine poked through the clouds and you could have been legitimately mistaken for figuring you had stumbled upon Heaven. Looking out from the corporate suites, home of The Professional, tears welled in my eyes and thoughts of a metaphysical nature filled my head. The beauty of rugby league stood in the very portrait that moved with ease before my eyes and I could do nothing but bow to the game that has been a central force in so many lives. Through war and depression, boom and recession, rugby league had not only survived one hundred years but had woven its way into the fabric of society and the hearts of a people, as reliable as the browning of leaves in autumn and as heartwarming as a rainy day hot chocolate.

Every winter, when the cricket bats are stored away and the requirement for sunscreen is long passed, rugby league has been the life and the love of most north of the Riverina and east of Broken Hill. As the days fill with rain and grey, the tribal colours of each and every team are worn with pride and excitement. The once sunburnt paddocks are now lush and the boundaries of war are drawn and revered. Goalposts are raised and meat pies are ordered and Sunday afternoons are spent only at the footy. Each week the build-up begins, driving to an almighty climax at game time. The laziness of summer is replaced by the intensity of winter, expressed in the deep howls and wild hoots of The Fan. The love of rugby league runs deep and the fires of passion roar bright. The sights and sounds and smells of something loved, filling up the Depression Months, are wonderfully comforting. They are the sights and sounds and smells of home. The guttural war cries of kick off. The nervous twitching of a video referee call. The unbeatable frustration of defeat. The golden rays of glory. The smell of deep heat and sweat. Fate residing in a chunk of oval rubber and the pea of a whistle. Joy. Hope. Despair. Feeling.

Dear Reader, rugby league means many things to many people and even Samuel Johnson would struggle to compile anything authoritative on the subject. This author would never desecrate the game by dealing in arrogant generalities and the pretense that my feelings are the feelings of all. No. This will be personal. For some rugby league is the memory of Dragons glory and the time honoured greatness of Gasnier and Raper and Provan. For others it is the noble gentility of Mick Cronin and his pub in Gerringong. Rugby league to some unfortunate souls is the memory of laying the Bulldogs in 1995 at 33/1 and closing the curtains and going for a long sleep once Terry Lamb had slotted the match-securing field goal. To others it is waking up on a Saturday morning and heading to places like Oberon and Tumut and Lake Cargellico.

It is doubtful that those honourable founders of the game, the forefathers who were there at Birchgrove Oval a century ago when rugby league kicked off for the first time in an official capacity in this country, had even the slightest inkling of the beast they had created and the impact their sport would have. Rugby league may have derived from pragmatism but it would soon become a philosophy, a way of thinking and a way to love.

To this author, who fell in love with rugby league at a tender age and still lusts after it, rugby league is life. I stalk it, I drink it, I breathe it and I take comfort in it. My waking hours are spent watching it, reading it, considering it and pondering it. It is everything and has been for as long as I can recall. Rugby league is the be all and end all, the shining beacon of hope, the torturous bastion of frustration and despair and, occasionally, the repository of glory.

Rugby league is, to this love-struck pen man at any rate, is searching the house for enough spare change to buy a packet of footy cards and running down to the corner store with hope in my heart. Occasionally the rewards would be plentiful. The consolation was always powdered gum. And if you had balls and a good sense of value, you could swap and trade your way to The Dream of the full set.

Rugby league was that first blue and white jersey opened on a birthday long forgotten. It is also the Berries retro jersey that has been well worn into comfort.

It is about rushing home from school with your brothers and playing through to dark. Grabbing the footy and jumping the back fence and running to the nearest set of posts and drop kicking and chipping and fantasizing and competing and tackling and fighting and laughing. Games were replayed and heroes emulated and knees muddied and dreams lived.

It is playing Frank Hyde’s Footy and League Premierships and the self-designed Footy Card Game while the rains poured down without relent. If mum was out, a soft ball would be found and the living room became Belmore Sports Ground or Lang Park or the Sydney Football Stadium or Wembley.

It is Cliff Lyons taking me to the rooms of the Manly team and joyfully assisting in the autograph hunt when staying in the same hotel, with the guitar shaped pool, somewhere in Tamworth. The sight of Owen Cunningham in a towel is something that is, for good or ill and probably ill, etched in my memory.

It is about ET’s Rugby League on the Commodore 64 at Pokey’s place. Cronulla seemed disproportionately good yet still managed to choke it up come finals time.

Rugby league is taunting Cronulla fans, casually informing them that the only measure of success is premierships. This never gets old and is a highlight of every winter and even most summers. It is also about Parramatta’s failures in September and South Sydney losing constantly and Steven Clark continuing his vendetta against Canterbury.

It is Clayton Friend’s field goal and Terry Lamb’s field goal and Nathan Cayless’s field goal. They will live on forever and a day.

Rugby league is the 1995 semi-final series and the Bulldogs defying the odds in every match in their march to eternal glory. It is about Terry Lamb and his timely trips to the sin bin. It is about Albert Fulivai and his Paul Cariage like performance. It is about Simon Gillies scoring tries. It is about the guilt of a Catholic boy and his pledges of abstinence to his Catholic God if it would ensure premiership triumph. It is about taking Jenny Boss to the cleaners who, after fancying her Saints, took the Dogs on double-or-nothing all series and paid the price. Of course, I took even money the whole way through and with the benefit of hindsight, Jenny seemingly had the best of it. She was from fine illegal bookmaking stock.

It is about Grand Final day and the overwhelming excitement that brews inside. It is about the 1988 Grand Final and Terry Lamb’s fair tackle on Ellery Hanley and that first taste of joy. It is about the tension and brilliance of the 1989 Grand Final and the utter disbelief at the Wok substituting Blocker and Siro. It is about Marty Bella dropping the kickoff in 1994 and the tears shed after the subsequent Bulldogs defeat. I can still taste the bitterness. I didn’t leave bed for two weeks; partly due to a bout of sinusitis and partly due to a broken heart. Rugby league is about the 1995 decider, The Greatest Day, with Terry Lamb holding the Winfield Cup high above his head the lasting image of a day that will never be forgotten. It is about Darren Albert’s try in the ARL Grand Final in 1997 and Scott Sattler’s tackle in 2003 and Benji’s flick pass in 2005. It is about the feeling of injustice in 2002 when the Bulldogs were, without reason, robbed of their rightful spot at The Big Dance. It is about sitting next to Adam Perry’s mum at the 2004 decider, right in line with Andrew Ryan’s match-saving tackle on Michael Crocker, and hugging her with some force when the final siren sounded. It is about Brett Stewart, dazed and confused, after being cleaned up by an army of Storm players in 2007. Even as an adult who has been hardened by love and loss and life, the giddiness of a child on Christmas Eve still resides inside on Grand Final day.

It is about the adoration of loyal heroes and the hate filled public floggings of traitors. It is about worshipping Polly and Chook and Relfy and Baa. It is also about strange fools who betrayed my team. Pay, Smith, Dymock and McCracken will never be forgiven by me or anybody else who understands rugby league and the Canterbury Bulldogs. They burned McCracken’s book on the hill at Belmore one fine afternoon. They should have burned McCracken.

Rugby league is the 1991 playoff between the Bulldogs and Wests, where the Bulldogs were robbed by a bunch of criminal Magpies fans who stormed the field before full-time as champion import Jonathan Davies streaked away for the game winning try, costing the Bulldogs a rightful semi-final berth. Mr. Rugby was one pitch invader and he knows that I will never forgive him for it.

It is about the redemption of the sport post-Super League, thriving when outsiders predicted death.

Rugby league is about possessing a sheer contempt for rugby union and the utter failure of the sport to contribute anything meaningful to anybody.

Rugby league is Barry Ward’s socks, which were kindly given to me by Barry Ward himself after a trial game against Penrith.

Rugby league is the litany of hardworking Bulldogs backrowers who have delighted for decades and who seek no glory.

It is about sunny Sunday afternoons at Bruce Stadium with Flash and Flanners and Boss and Beeker (“mip mip”) and Parko and The General and The Judge, overpriced hot dog in one hand and overpriced beer in the other, celebrating the game for its simplicity and beauty, its complexity and its ugliness, its brutality and its brilliance, its passion and its protagonists. It is also about the woolen lumberjack jacket purchased for the sole reason of staying warm at Bruce Stadium, the coldest place on earth.

It is about the get-out game on Monday night, trawling for team lists on Tuesday, collecting opening lines on Wednesday, purchasing Big League on Thursday, getting the late mail on Friday.

It is about having a house full of friends, associates and gamblers totally focused on The Game. Old names are recalled, beverages and cigarettes are consumed, points are argued, bets are made and cheers and jeers race down the street. It is about offending fiancés and irritating colleagues and humiliating friends with your occasionally over-the-top reaction.

Rugby league is about fantasy football and the almighty Geurie Greens. It is about arrogant taunting and vitriolic hyperbole. It is about crazed emails arguing the merits of “The Three-in-Five Rule” and surreptitious politicking ensuring the battle is won. It is about the high-stakes drama/tragedy of draft day and the psychological warfare of controlling your fate. It is hearing the sad lament of the manager who released Greg Bird and it is partaking in the chuckles after Barry Berrigan was selected in the third round of the inaugural draft. It is punching in scores, bleary eyed and buzzing, at the backend of a wild night on the town. It is a total commitment to players like the Colin Best Express, Shane Rodney and Paul Mellor.

Rugby league is life.

It has been a wonderful century. We all should probably drink to that.

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