Where rugby league can find what it has lost

Mark Levy is the host of 2GB’s Wide World of Sports radio show. Tune in from 6pm-7pm, Monday to Thursday!

It’s easy to lose sight of what rugby league was built on back in 1908, which is why It was important for the 2GB Continuous Call Team to return to Henson Park at Marrickville in Sydney’s Inner West on Saturday for ‘Thanks Tommy Day’.

It was suburban football at its best, with the smell of steaks and sausages cooking on the barbeque, combined with the dencorub emanating from the dressing sheds, where you could hear the coaches getting stuck into their players.

If it were an NRL match, you’d be watching your heroes in the sheds via the big screen and picking up your pre-cooked meal from a conveyor belt of hot chips and hot dogs; not to mention the absolute fortune you’d be paying for the privilege.

Give me a crowd on the hill at Henson Park over a half-empty major stadium any day of the week and the ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys is vowing to return the footy to the suburban grounds across Sydney, which should be music to the ears of every rugby league fan.

The rusted-on supporters fell in love with the game because of the atmosphere at matches involving the St George Dragons at Kogarah, the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Redfern, the Balmain Tigers at Leichhardt and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Belmore.

We’ve lost that tribalism in the modern game because of the money made by the clubs who take their home games to these major stadiums; which are fantastic when they’re full, but they unfortunately look like a ghost town if they don’t attract crowds over 20,000.

Let’s face it: the only time we’re getting big numbers of people through the turnstiles are State of Origin matches, grand finals and special occasions like ANZAC Day.

It paints a shocking picture for the broadcasters who are paying a premium to televise the NRL, it’s impossible to capture the excitement on radio and how demoralising is it for the players who are running on to the field in front of a half-empty stadium.

These blokes work their backsides off to crack the big-time and the atmosphere mirrors that of a park footy game, when it should be like the 80’s and 90’s when the fans were hanging over the fence and waving their flags.

V’landys made it clear when he became the ARLC chairman that the grassroots of the game are his priority and that’s where tribalism is built.

He told 2GB’s Continuous Call Team: “They (fans) want to be able to walk to their facility, they want to be tribal and we’re not going to give up until we’ve got all teams playing out of suburban grounds in Sydney.

“I was very proud to walk into Bankwest last week at Parramatta, it’s such a great facility, it’s got the latest technology, you’re close to the action, you’re well looked after, but that’s just one club – you need to do it for all.

“You need to do it for Manly, you need to do it for the Tigers and the Bulldogs, you need to do for the Panthers and that’s going to be one of the main objectives of the commission, to get these suburban grounds (updated) and go back to the good old days of tribalism.”

I walked away from Henson Park on Saturday with a renewed appreciation for the suburban grounds and my colleagues Darryl Brohman, Mark Riddell and David Morrow all said the same thing: “This is what rugby league is all about, this is why we love the game.”

It was refreshing to look out over Henson Park from our broadcast box on the third level of the kiosk as the fans lined up for a beer and a feed on the hill. The kids were allowed on to the field at half-time and full-time of the NSW Cup to kick the footy and the fans weren’t ushered out of the ground early; they instead sat on the hill to enjoy their afternoon.

The crowd number hasn’t changed at Henson Park in years, with 8972 people turning up to celebrate the life of Tommy Raudonikis and to cheer on the Newtown Jets, who returned home for the first time since August 2019.

If the ARL Commission is serious about restoring the tribalism in the greatest game of all, then it’s worth bottling whatever they’re doing at the Jets, because they’ve involved the local community and they’re kicking goals.

It’s important for the game to move with the times, but let’s not lose sight of what made rugby league such a success through the glory years.

**Would you support more games at these iconic venues and a return to suburban footy? Let me know what you think by emailing me via the Wide World of Sports radio show feedback page here

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