Fun and Football in the Apple City

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Friday night was what we in the business call uber-fun,  a rampaging feast of rugby league and regional Australia and rollicking good times that was as successful as it was memorable.

It was fun and football in the Apple City and anybody who was caught up in the hit parade won’t quickly forget it.

It was like the final scene from Field of Dreams when your intrepid author arrived in Orange on Friday afternoon. Cars were bumper-to-bumper along Cargo Road and were at a standstill all the way to Lucknow down Bathurst Road. Orange was the place to be on Friday. The return of big time rugby league to Orange had made the town the place to be, a Mecca for football fans across the Central West and rural and regional New South Wales. It was the biggest rugby league match in Orange since the 1979 British rugby league team popped in.

By the time I had reached The Parkview, the town was buzzing and rugby league was the only thing that mattered. The mayor could have been held hostage in Town Hall by six crazed machete-wielding pony boys, St. Joseph’s may have been burning to the ground and a band of wild biker types may have been on a rampage of ultra-violence down Summer Street and the focus still would have been rugby league. Even Benno, one-third of the iconic Lime Fridays, had returned from London to involve himself in Orange’s greatest night. Pubs were overflowing, footballs were being passed down every street, jerseys of every team were worn proudly.

There were only a distinct few in Orange who held no interest in the City-Country match: the ignorant, the mentally infirm, that small section of the community who profess to have no interest in sports (a strange and weird people who must always be treated with the utmost suspicion – i’m still not sure what these types do on a weekend…it must be like February, the most awful month for any sports fan in Australia, all year round). The rest of us, the great and wise majority, converged on Wade Park with those of us lucky enough to hold tickets entering and the rest hanging over the fence or remaining in nearby public houses.

In Arctic like temperatures, the smell of steak sandwiches and Dencorub filling the air, 9000-odd country folk stood to watch some of rugby league’s finest performers play their game, the game of the people and the most important sport north of Deniliquin.

The match itself was outstanding. There was a genuine passion and love for the Country team, who had spent the week ingratiating themselves to the locals. When they ran out it was to a guttural roar of pure joy and eager excitement. When Country hit the front early after James McManus flew like Matthew Richardson to tap the ball back to Jamie Lyon for the opening score, the Wade Park crowd cheered as if they had just overthrown an oppressive monarch. Alan Tongue was revered as a modern day God: he could have walked on Lake Canobolas and he still wouldn’t have been cheered any louder than when he scored his try. The crowd was hushed by the brilliance of Michael Jennings, the creativity of Robbie Farah and the deftness of Peter Wallace. It was a brilliant display of rugby league and one well worth the title of a representative match. Country and City were engaged in a brutal arm wrestle early and when Country seemed to have gained the upper hand, City let loose and ran away with the win. The final score of 40-18 was not nearly reflective of the quality of the match. It was high end, thrilling, skilful, brutal rugby league.

The celebrations and commiserations that followed at The Royal also held many of the same qualities. High end drinking, thrilling conversation, skilful wit and a brutal Saturday hang over. The details are patchy and the timeline is somewhat debatable but the scribbled notes and drunken photographs attest to the truth of most of the following. Kiki and Sassy, the Oh Errol girls who reached a level of major local celebrity throughout the week, delighted all with their rugby league gossip and sharp banter though I was disappointed to reaffirm to Sassy that there was no big orange in Orange. Chris Heighington, in spite of the gun show, was delightful and only got more pleasant with each fresh vodka. The General gushed about the greatness of Kevin Moore and vowed never to talk to a number of the most loathsome traitors in rugby league history while we waxed lyrical about where we will drink on that first Sunday night in October. Post-premiership, of course. My buddy Flanners demanded answers from Terry Campese relating to Josh McCrone and Marc Herbert but was disappointed at the diplomatic response. It looks like his Silverton Shrews didn’t get any inside info. Ronny Palmer philosophised about fear of commitment. Tony Butterfield called for a biggest nose competition between John Cartwright and your author just after I had delivered Carty some well placed advice on field goal kicking and the need to devise a plan to take the one-point at every opportunity (9 starting forwards, three speedy return men, one half with a lengthy boot). Butts called it a dead-heat. I called Butts a dirty unionist and walked away.

Fun and frivolity were had by all. The players had a chance to enjoy the hospitality of the country and were able to enjoy a public drink without fear of trouble. The locals got to meet their footballing heroes. We all got to be part of something special.

Those who knock the importance of City-Country have obviously never been to regional Australia to watch the match. I would be surprised if they even watched a highlights package on TV.

For starters it played out like a genuine selection trial. A number of rangas made their mark in, ironically, Orange. Peter Wallace locked up the New South Wales number seven jersey. Joel Monaghan, currently involved in a Fanta Pants feud with another NRL ginger, made a fool of those who suggested he was in danger of losing his Origin position. Michael Jennings proved himself to be the Blues answer to Israel Folau. Michael Weyman put on the best performance of any Blues prop over the weekend. Craig Wing and Alan Tongue both laid pretty strong claims for the Blues bench utility position. 

The game also recognised a number of deserving legends of league. Players like Luke Patten and Andrew Ryan were honoured for their form. Luke Patten, in particular, is what City-Country is about. The General has never given less than 110% on the football field and is a player who genuinely cares about his club, his fans and his performance. He is little hope of playing for New South Wales yet he deserves recognition for his excellence. A Country jersey is the way to honour such a warrior.

More importantly, City-Country is about rugby league giving back to the bush and that is something that rugby league has failed to do in recent times. I know it is a well spouted line but it is true: the bush is important to rugby league and rugby league is important to the bush. You only had to witness the City-Country game or even the faithful few who made it to the Cyms-Hawks local derby at Wade Park on Sunday to see how important rugby league is to the country. People bleed for the game outside of the city like they don’t within it. An opportunity to see big time rugby league in their backyard is a memory that will last most a lifetime. Having Cliff Lyons take me around The Golden Guitar hotel in Tamworth to meet the Manly team before they played a preseason cup match against Cronulla sometime in the early nineties was a formative moment in the development of my love of rugby league.

The City-Country match is a good start but the NRL should do more.

The week preceding City-Country should be named Country Round and all NRL matches should be played in regional centres. Matches in Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Coffs Harbour, Tamworth, Bateman’s Bay, Gladstone, Cairns and Ipswich. Every team plays in the bush over the weekend. City-Country is then played as a stand alone affair the following weekend or at the very least share a weekend only with the Anzac Test. Not only will there be the City-Country Origin match but a City Seconds-Country Seconds match and a Toyota Cup City-Country match. It would be a festival of rugby league in the country.

The important thing to remember is the positive impact the City-Country match has on rural and regional New South Wales. It has a profound impact on the local community lucky enough to get the match. That is how it was in Orange last week. The NRL would do well to remember that and foster that love of the game. If the NRL shows some leadership instead of pandering to both the clubs and the agenda-driven Sydney media, they will embrace the bush and give something tangible back to it. Country New South Wales will certainly return the love.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.