April 20, 2024

The Wests Tigers CEO has forgotten who rugby league is for


Wests Tigers chief executive Shane Richardson is fond of saying he will speak to any supporter who can tell him their membership number. Well, mine is 2940322. Now that we have that out of the way, Richo, I’d like to talk about Leichhardt Oval.

Deep in the heart of the Inner West, Leichhardt is one of Sydney’s last true throwback rugby league experiences. A heady, inconvenient, dilapidated mess of a place which, when it’s full and the Tigers are rocking, creates the kind of raw, chaotic atmosphere that modern stadiums cannot reproduce.

In the days since the Tigers tore through Cronulla last Saturday, on one of those magical nights only Leichhardt can deliver, its future as a professional rugby league venue has become endangered.

There have been calls for the club to abandon it, in part due to a lack of corporate facilities, long queues and, amusingly, our poor record playing there (if someone can find me a venue where the Tigers don’t regularly lose I’ll be all ears). Richardson cited its “decayed” facilities during a press conference in which he refused to commit to a future at the ground unless the state government stumps up funding for an upgrade. In a separate interview, he complained the club was only able to have “300 corporates” at the game against the Sharks.

“We could sell 700,” he said. “We will play where we believe we can grow the Wests Tigers club.”

Some of this is theatre. The Inner West Council has been urging the Minns government to help fund an upgrade of the ground, but the premier says he has no intention of helping. Minns plans to spend $309 million dollars on a new stadium in (the conveniently marginal seat of) Penrith, but says there is no money for the jewel of the Inner West. In that context, Richardson’s intervention is partly an attempt to lean on the premier to come to the table.

But it is a conversation which has left me asking: who is rugby league for?

Standing at the top of the Wayne Pearce hill last Saturday, there was a moment when I looked over to the grandstand and remembered my dad lifting me over the fence to have my copy of Big League magazine signed by Steve “Blocker” Roach. I’d say I was about seven, which places it circa 1996-97. Roach, a Balmain legend who at that time was doing sideline commentary, happily obliged. He was standing with star Parramatta player Jim Dymock, and asked if I wanted his autograph too. To the delight of the contingent of Tigers fans surrounding the fence, I declined.

The memory is not so much about Roach, or Dymock, who probably didn’t spend too much time worrying about a smart-arse kid, but of the huge grin on Dad’s face when I turned back to look at him.

It is not unusual for these flashes of memory to come back to me when I visit. I don’t want to over-sentimentalise it – I spent a good portion of last week’s game telling a group of Sharks fans how brave they were to support such an, ahem, second-rate football team – but it is not an exaggeration to say that Leichhardt is a sort of layer cake of all the people I have been in my life so far. A companion piece to the story of my family.

I know I am not alone. Like most tragic fans, I did not choose to be a Tigers supporter. It was foisted upon me in utero. And, but for that increasingly distant, vaguely mythical season in 2005, following the club has mostly been one long misery-march in the 34 years I’ve been alive.

So why did 16,000 of us show up again last Saturday? Was it the warm contentedness of knowing the corporates were happy in their boxes? Were we really concerned about short bar lines, when nothing could ever be longer than the wait for our club to stop being so awful? Did we yearn for our voices to disappear into the hollow din of that awful stadium in Homebush, the rugby league equivalent of a symphony in a Westfields?

The afternoon before the game I had been at the Manning Base Hospital in Taree, where my dad has been a patient for the past week or so. I leant over him, bedridden and only sporadically conscious, to say goodbye and tell him I was headed to Leichhardt the following night. I told him I’d arrange a win. It was enough to get half a smile out of the old man.

The reality is that for a good deal of rugby league diehards, famous grounds like Leichhardt, Henson Park and Belmore represent the last link to the reasons we fell in love with the game. They’re our last link to the sport’s unruly working-class roots, and an authenticity that stadiums named after banks and hotel chains can never replicate.

Sports administrators love to talk about Fan Experiences, and of leveraging the brand. In Leichhardt, despite its shortcomings, the Tigers have something no other rugby league club can rival. We would do well to remember it.

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