July 14, 2024

It’s one small step for the Wests Tigers, one giant leap for Leichhardt Oval

On paper, the match should have been a dud. The wooden spooners versus the second last in the comp. Instead, Saturday afternoon’s wintry NRL match-up between the Wests Tigers and the Gold Coast Titans at a muddy Leichhardt Oval had the air of a carnival. Something magical was in the wind. All the Tigers had to do was step into their power and take what was rightfully theirs.

And yet, they made the crowd work for it. They made themselves work for it. Even among some sloppy play, and the missed tackles in the opening gambit of the match, the Tigers crowd, if not the team, grew stronger. Pulling together the black and gold gear, pride in the jersey seemed to be at an all-time high, despite the nine-match losing streak.

Wests Tigers players celebrate a try during their stirring win over Gold Coast Titans at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday

After all, only in the last few days had the government stepped in to save the illustrious ground that sits in the heart of the inner west. Suddenly, on this cold June afternoon, things were looking up.

The injection of cash into Leichhardt Oval will be a boon for the Tigers and the local schools that use the grounds. But it’s also a win for women’s sport. As Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said last week: “When the ground is renovated, our goal will be for 50 per cent of all of the content here to be women’s and girls’ sports.”

Now, call me sentimental, but Saturday’s comeback from the Tigers was what everyone was there for, and yet no-one dared believe it was possible.

Even earlier, a special feeling was evident as fans streamed down Balmain Road, wending their way through Callan Park and Lilyfield, with flags from the ’90s, beanies from the ‘80s and Balmain and Magpies jerseys from the ’70s leading the merry band on their way.

Crammed on the Hill under the Wayne Pearce scoreboard, kids and parents and aunts and fanatics stood in awe, and sometimes mass frustration, as they watched their beloved Tigers claw their way back into the match. The grey skies grew darker, rain threatened but never really arrived, and the misted breaths grew more pronounced as the final siren grew closer.

In the end, the well-aimed doggerel from the punters around me was enough to entice the final match-winning try from Fonua Pole in the dying minutes and stifle the dreams of the Titans. And the tribe? We celebrated as if we were holding aloft the Provan-Summons trophy ourselves. There was certainly enough mud to recreate more special moments.

Families retreated from the Hill, beaming. The merch van had been stripped bare, and an impromptu toboggan chute emerged, parting the crowd on the Hill. If this much joy can be brought from so little, imagine the power of pumping up the teams in this local area for the future.

We desperately need to ensure (not least for my nieces’ and nephews’ sake) that there is joy to be gleaned in not only donning the Tigers’ gear but in supporting their wins. That there is a future for women’s sport in Sydney, starting at Leichhardt Oval. And as Roy and HG so eloquently put it, that the “heritage” toilet blocks can be updated “in the most respectful way”.

And my family? While now we’re out-of-towners, the Tigers are part of our family lore. Our father, a Palestinian refugee, lived in Birchgrove when both he and the suburb were working-class, when the rules of rugby league were beyond his ken. (We won’t talk about mum’s passion for the Sea Eagles.)

Dad played basketball for the Balmain Leagues Club, but the foundations had been laid.

Now, in my children’s books, I have many subtle and not-so-subtle references to the Tigers and their colours. As a fan, I do what I can. So, thank you, Tigers. It’s only one match, but you earned your stripes this week and made the true believers’ hearts beat a little faster.

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