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You can rattle off any number of statistics in describing 2005 as the best season of rugby league on record, but you didn?t have to go any further than it?s heartland on Sunday to measure it?s biggest asset ? the fans.
I was part of a group of mates that headed down to Aussie Stadium to watch Wests Tigers square off against Brisbane for the right to meet St George Illawarra this week. For the first time in a while I was surprised by what took place, and I?m not referring to the splendid display of footy produced by the Tigers ? that speaks for itself.
The day began poorly. I committed my first unforced error by failing to take a jumper, leaving myself at the mercy of the cold drafts that inhabit the members section. Trying to encourage circulation through my upper limbs by rubbing my hands up and down them in a cross-armed fashion only made me look like I?d just been released from a straight jacket.
Myself a Dragons fan keen to observe our future opponents, I began to notice the multitude of fans from clubs other than the Tigers and Broncos who had come along to see something special. The family of Souths supporters behind me was a good case in point.
Mother, father and two sons were swathed proudly in their clubs colours. She scolded us for not wearing something warmer before offering a procession of treats to take our minds off our chilly disposition. Snakes, Chuppa Chups and a variety of assorted nuts flowed like we?d just stepped in to the Willie Wonka factory.
Soon enough, we began talking about why they were at this match. The mother explained that she had encouraged her husband to purchase a membership so they could take their kids to watch sport at the ground because it?s just not the same as on TV. She said how they followed the Bunnies, Waratahs and Swans and when summer came around they would be off to the cricket and A-League. As she removed a container full of Greek salad and passed it to her husband, she began to explain that they would miss next week?s game because they were heading to Melbourne to watch the AFL Grand Final.
It was then universally accepted amongst my mates that her husband was indeed the luckiest man in the world.
To my left was a man whose years were hard to gauge. But one thing is for sure, he had a look that told of hard experiences. He was the textbook definition of what us young fella?s call ?old-school? but he didn?t carry on like he was some sort of well of knowledge, even though he was.
He used to play hooker, I?m not sure who for but he was a Balmain boy through and through. We discussed the game at large and exchanged thoughts on favourite players over the years, agreeing that you cannot compare generations. He invariably directed conversation back to Langlands when discussing the greats of the game.
At nil-all the Tigers received a penalty in a difficult position and he scoffed a little at their choice to take a tap. Again some time later Brisbane kicked-out on the full and another penalty was blown at half-way, he wanted to see Hodgson line it up from 50m out. I suggested with trepidation that it was a pretty hard thing to do these days. He began to explain how this sort of thing was the bread and butter of the great Keith Barnes before going on to point out that the Tigers only made three metres from the kick to touch.
He told me of the day in ?89 when he wept for ten minutes after Balmain went down to Canberra. We discussed what Lamb did to Hanley in ?88. He then digressed to a traffic incident he was involved in with the stocky Canterbury five-eighth in the early 90?s. Apparently in confrontations with Terry Lamb all you need to do is bring up that stiff-arm on Ellery and things seem to resolve themselves. I told him how Meninga squared things up in the ?94 decider. He seemed to enjoy that.
He was from the central coast and left five minutes early so he could beat the rush.
To the right of the family of Souths fans, a father and son were both wearing Saints jerseys. I began to talk to the boy. He was 14. He was the smartest footballing 14-year-old I?d ever come across.
It turns out that he?s a junior referee in the South Sydney competition. Why? Because he loves the game. He wants to referee in the NRL one day because he?s unsatisfied with the current standard of officialdom. But unlike most kids with starry-eyed dreams of one day becoming an astronaut, this boy?s resolute attitude towards his goal was so evident that it?s impossible to entertain the thought of him failing to achieve his ambition.
In between discussing how we thought the Dragons would go next week against either of the sides on the park, he pointed out how Andrew Leeds was continually on the field and at some stages looked like he was trying to set the Tigers defensive line. He said he wouldn?t allow that sort of thing to go on if he was out there in the middle.
After the game we entered the Captain Cook hotel to the raucous celebrations of Tigers fans. It was unchartered territory for them - unable to hide their immediate pleasure but remaining cautious that the job is not finished. Chants flowed thick and fast. Almost on queue, every time the noise died down a man would run through the pub with his child on his shoulders screaming ?Tigers?. The child could not have been more than five years old and every inch of him was covered in his club?s colours. Time and again he received a swag of high-five?s and head-rubs. Although it was a somewhat unorthodox approach to brain-washing your child into following your team, I?m sure it will be an effective one. It?s a moment that kid will never forget for the rest of his life.
There are all sorts of fans in Rugby League. Over the past few years they have had to endure traditional clubs merging, exclusion from the comp, any number of scandals and being charged obscene prices for jerseys. Despite all this, they still love the game.