The highlight of the 2016 Australian rugby season?
It wasn’t a Test or Super Rugby fixture — which often led to frustration rather than inspiration.
It was instead a late winter’s day at North Sydney Oval when all in attendance were reminded that grassroots football remained potent despite every attempt by the authorities to undermine the foundations of the Australian rugby.
More than 10,000 people were lured to a rugby event that meant something. Northern Suburbs — a Sydney club which has had its share of tough moments — were trying to win their first Shute Shield premiership since 1975 and, and they were up against the toffs – Sydney University – who had in recent times taken over from Randwick as NSW club rugby’s overpowering force. In the previous decade, Uni had accumulated the state’s best players and with it seven Shute Shield titles as the champions of the Sydney club competition.
On grand final day, they came from everywhere. Those who hadn’t been sighted at a Norths matches for decades appeared from the shadows wearing old moth-eaten garb, and they revelled in a day when club colours, history, heritage and being part of a clan was shown to be such a powerful, motivating force.
There was high emotion. Scuffles broke out before kick-off between opposing fans. There were stinks up on the hill, and the final had to be called off early when hundreds of Norths supporters — overwhelmed that a 41-year-premiership drought was over — invaded the ground.
Past Norths players congregated on the rock-hard cricket wicket after the win, and Reg Smith, the Wallabies lock who was North’s captain in 1975, made the poignant point: “It’s days like these which shows how much spirit there is in club rugby. It’s all very well for the 0.1 per cent of the guys who make a living out of rugby, but for the rest of us this is the real heart and soul of the game.”
On Saturday, some of us headed back to North Sydney Oval for the next instalment in the Norths vs. Uni battle. The crowd size was considerably smaller, but the club spirit was still alive and kicking.
This was a day that emphasised the importance of the badly neglected junior and club ranks to the wellbeing of Australian rugby. The Norths players wore the socks of their junior clubs. Most wore ill-matching socks, indicating that several junior clubs were instrumental in their development. Then before kick-off, hundreds of young kids – from the various local clubs — played matches on the ground.
You could not fail to see the importance of volunteers to the running and well-being of the game. The gate, barbeques, food stalls and junior matches were all run by those wanting to put something back in the game, while an old-fashioned ‘Blue D 53’ raffle for a meat tray from a local butcher saw volunteers circling the ground selling tickets.
When so many put their heart and soul into it, you can understand why the club ranks are furious they only get scant interest from the alickadoos who run the game — as shown from them getting zilch funding from the Australian Rugby Union. Remarks from ARU chief executive officer Bill Pulver last year that “I’m not making any money available for the Sydney clubs to p— it up against the wall” understandably infuriated the district ranks.
A year on, the ARU hasn’t learned. Pulver once more antagonised the troops a few weeks ago when he told the Manly Daily that the clubs “don’t need funding from us”.’ This prompted Warringah president Phil Parsons to respond that Pulver had a “complete lack of understanding of grassroots rugby”.
“Bill gets paid so he should shut up and worry about his own backyard,” Parson said. “In fact, every [club] player pays the National Participation Fee to the ARU to ensure Bill gets paid to look after one team, that to be honest isn’t going that well.”
At club level, it was value for money. In the University ranks on Saturday were numerous notable representative performers — including Will Skelton, who had to play in No. 17 as the usual club jersey didn’t fit him, Paddy Ryan, Tom Kingston and Dean Mumm.
Tolu Latu, the Waratahs hooker overlooked for Wallabies selection as coach Michael Cheika didn’t think him fit enough, used the fixture to get back some match hardness. He lasted the game – except for 10 minutes sitting on what was termed by the ground announcer as “the naughty chair” following an indiscretion.
Whether it was a performance that will get Latu into the Test 23 is debatable; but he put in.
Even Tom Carter, who is becoming Australian rugby’s version of Dame Nellie Melba in making yet another comeback after last season retiring for the umpteenth time, was running around for Uni — and giving spectators someone to sledge. He played up to them.
Then again, some weeks earlier former Wallabies hooker Adam Freier, who now runs the ARU media website which is refreshingly and brutally honest about its own organization, through numerous pointed articles, was sighted at the same venue with Randwick’s firsts, and was never lagging behind. Not bad for a 37-year-old.
Again there was spirit. Uni supporters were there in numbers, rallying their team through some tight moments. And the ground announcer kept the opponents honest, especially after taking an eternity to appear for the second half. Due to renovations, Uni’s dressing rooms were in demountables outside the ground.
Out went the call: “Can someone tell Uni they have to come out and play the second half?” A few seconds later the Uni players came sprinting through one of the entry gates from the direction of the old Percy’s pub over the road. Maybe a glass of sherry — one of former Randwick coach Jeff Sayle’s famed half-time stimulants — had steadied the Students nerves as they picked up their act in the second half.
And so Uni lifted the John Thornett Cup — named after a renowned Wallabies captain who played for both teams and put in for his country in those rich amateur days when club footy was everything. It wasn’t that long ago.