In case you’ve been avoiding all news sources for weeks because of the clear and present danger of reading about Australian Princess, and have somehow missed the 18,492 other references to it elsewhere in recent editions of The Glebe, the Wests Tigers – or as they are more correctly known, the Balmain Tigers – overcame odds of 150 to 1 to win their first premiership since 1969. Or 1952 if you’re from the wrong half of the joint venture. So it was quite a big deal, with the game on the big screen at Leichhardt Oval a party at the leagues club on Victoria Rd raging on until well into the night – and hangovers raging on for far longer than that.
Sydneysiders love a good sporting bandwagon, usually joining well after it becomes embarrassingly obvious that they’re only interested because a team’s winning. Take the Swans, whom most of us care about only to rub it into our mates from Melbourne. After their premiership, Sydney might actually give the team its attention in 2006, at least until their first loss.
Balmain’s triumph has also started a massive bandwagon of its own, so I’m not going to pretend I’ve been a fan since birth, whose first words were “Wayne Pearce”. Embarrassingly, I grew up supporting the not-exactly-mighty North Sydney Bears, and since they were shafted by the Sea Eagles, I haven’t paid much attention to the game other than at Origin time. All the fuss about a joint-venture club winning made me think every Tigers fan should be grateful they didn’t have to merge with those silvertail scum from Manly.
I did go to a Tigers game a few years ago with a friend who’s usually the loudest person yelling abuse at Leichhardt Oval. (And is yet to utter the word “Wests” when talking about his beloved team.) Remembering the game – and just as importantly the pub crammed full of black and gold afterwards – makes me think that the reason so many people got behind the Tiges this year is because they’ve reminded us what’s best about rugby league. Particularly after the Bulldogs have done so much in recent year to showcase what’s worst.
The game is a tribal, suburban one. It’s about the ground down the road from your house where you grew up, the local leagues club where you learnt to play the pokies, and coming together with your mates to support your team and hate Manly. And that’s why Super League was such a disaster. It took the game to a bunch of people who didn’t give a stuff about it at the expense of people who did. Really, the Adelaide Rams? Western Reds? They actually paid someone to think up that strategy?
But we are talking about a game with so little understanding of its fans or its own nature that the Rabbitohs had to go to the Federal Court before the team with one of its proudest histories and biggest fanbases was actually allowed back into the competition. It still hasn’t entirely recovered from the people who half-killed it in order to save it. You can’t tell me people in the Illawarra like having to support the Dragons. And even today, I’ll bet more people care about the Newtown Jets than the Melbourne Storm.
With all the mucking around by its administrators, it’s taken a long time for the code to win its way back into the hearts of Sydneysiders. Balmain’s win may be the turning point. The team that still means something in its own community, and plays the majority of its games in the suburbs it came from. They won over the whole of Sydney, reminding us all why we fell in love with the game in the first place. So congratulations, Tigers, for the against-the-odds success story of the year. And who knows? If they can keep thrilling Sydney like this, the game may actually survive. Let’s just hope Manly doesn’t.