Last Saturday at North Sydney Oval the wool was lifted from over my eyes. The disconnection between the professional and amateur game in Australia has never been more prominent.
The energy around the ground was electric. Rats fans came up to watch their boys warm up. Around a hundred-people gathered on the top oval at North Sydney and cheered all their local heroes onto the warm up field personally. With their spare time, they sledged the University team.
Even before arriving at the ground a few things indicated my friends and family were more interested in this game than a Waratahs fixture.
Firstly, I had more good luck messages than usual prior to the game. Secondly every piece of Sydney University paraphernalia I owned *(and I have built up a strong collection over the years)* had been loaned out. I even had to choose between my vest and hoodie. Apparently, I didn’t need both.
Finally, people were talking and asking about the fixture.
At the local coffee shop, when catching up with mates during the week, even people who I share my apartment block with and hardly ever spoke to were asking “Playing at North Sydney this week? How’d you think you’ll go?”
There was a real buzz around the rugby community for the game. Something I haven’t experienced in the same way for a few years.
This buzz carried through to the game. When walking out of the sheds through a tunnel of blue and gold fifty metres long I had goose bumps on the back of my neck, and pride in my chest.
*We all did. Warringah and University players alike.*
The electric energy coming off the crowd was contagious, and the game started at a frantic pace.
The reports say there were almost 16,000 people there at North Sydney Oval last Saturday. It felt equivalent to 30,000 Waratahs fans. These people were so engaged in the game, they oooo’d and ahhhh’d, they cheered and booed, they encouraged and they sledged.
Is it the stadium experience? *There is argument for that.*
When the Waratahs took two fixtures to Brookvale this year (a trial and a Super Rugby game) the crowds were certainly more engaged. Many people said how much they loved being allowed on the field after the game to kick the footy about or engage with lingering players.
When put to a couple of non-rugby supporting mates this week, they spoke of the family connection people clearly felt to their Shute Shield club. These mates had borrowed some old University jumpers and sat in the ‘Kids Section’ of North Sydney Oval.
They spoke about the Dads with their sons and daughters barracking for a team that their family had always supported. It’s tribal – clubs are families with shared values. Values imparted from the club to the family, and vice versa.
When I think of my own rugby experience, my love for the game was born at my father’s knee.
The first two teams I supported were Sydney University and St Joseph’s College. A University jumper was one of my first ever pieces of clothing, and still to this day it is worn by one of my sister’s teddy bears at home.
My love for the Waratahs and Wallabies came from watching them with Dad and his mates.
When the game finished on Saturday and the University fans stormed the field, blokes from the club – seasoned, hardened grade players – *were crying.*
Tears of joy from a canary yellow clad mob jumping up and down in a mosh pit with their players.
How do we connect our state team to the public like this?
The Waratahs did more community hours than ever before this season. So why don’t people care for them as they care for their beloved local team? *Because they don’t feel that connection.*
Bring the Tahs to the suburbs. To country towns and suburban rugby ovals. Wherever the rugby faithful will come.
North Sydney Oval would be a good start. As would somewhere like Mudgee. A town that could be a genuine weekend destination for Sydneysiders and country people alike. Rugby on the Saturday afternoon, vineyards on the Sunday. Spend the weekend in a town.
While we’re at it – allow the men’s and the women’s teams to interact with people. They are, I assure you, brilliant ambassadors for our great game.
What’s a good conversation topic on a Monday at work? How about, *“Kicked the footy with my kid and Kurtley Beale after the game on Saturday – he’s a good bloke!”*
*Return the game to the people, and the people will return to the game.*
Paddy Ryan – @paddyjohnryan
*Paddy is a self-described ‘Bush Wallaby’, a current NSW Waratah and a proud member of the FRU (Front Rowers’ Union). Paddy is also an ambassador for youth mental health group, Batyr.*