Students Endure Eighty Minutes In Bottomley Wildcat Enclosure, Live To Tell the Tale (Struggling Journalist Files Speculative Debt Claim Under Jungle Law)
Easts vs. Sydney University; Australian Club Championship; David Wilson Field, C.P. Bottomley Park; 22/3/2014
“…to see the game unfold this evening is to witness one of the most intrusive, palpable examples of home-ground advantage one could hope to find at a modern day suburban club rugby match; a call to yesteryear.”
Report by Scott Gittoes
Tigers tend not to go hungry in their element. But here’s one with a worried look, frisking for spare change inside his orange-and-black-striped, velvet-textured one-piece costume – presently unzipped down beyond his navel – his swaying tail the exaggerated tell of a few hours tilting cans and cups. Fumbling through his wallet, he turns his bearded head toward me, revealing a glazed, reddened complexion and a corkscrew-smile, his eyes fading-out beyond my left shoulder, seemingly fixated on something distant. An outstretched hand reaching over the cash register is expecting dosh that this dishevelled feline apparently doesn’t have. Without exchanging words, I hand him a few dollars and move on; it just seems wrong that the native cat should go hungry here at the place they call Tigerland.
We’re at Bottomley Park, home of Easts Rugby Union Club, for the Australian Club Championship, an ostensibly annual but historically irregular contest between the reigning first-grade premiers from Sydney and Brisbane. Sydney University, with an imposing local record of eight titles from the last nine seasons, is here to contend with an Easts team and, perhaps more tellingly, a vehemently parochial home-crowd still very much buoyed from recent premiership success. Far from descending into a hollow early-season trial, this evening’s fixture will end up attracting a few thousand spectators and turn out to be an utterly atmospheric grassroots rugby experience, equal parts memorable and memory-jerking and one that presents a compelling case for the relocation of Brisbane grade finals, at least in the preliminary stages, from Ballymore to suburban home-grounds.
It’s forty-odd minutes shy of dusk on a postcard early-autumn Saturday. Players from both teams are warming up in front of the grandstand, hitting the pads in unison, stringing the ball through the hands or else pairing up for stretching drills. Golden slivers of sunlight stretch out from a low hanging sun, finding gaps between the grand old trees that fringe all four sides of David Wilson Field and tower above the goalposts. These mature botanic dames are testimony to the increasingly rarefied existence of such inner-city grounds; this field is a considerable patch of real estate set amidst one of Brisbane’s more exclusive enclaves. (A neighbour sitting on the patio of her much-sought-after Queenslander would, in all likelihood, be closer to the action here than a patron in the front tier of any major stadium). The playing surface, not yet beset by the rigours of the regular season, is invitingly crisp and fresh. Juniors – as young as four and five years old – adorned in the stripes of the home club, are everywhere; some bounce around near the sideline absorbing the warm-up, throwing passes in emulation. Others play chase, flitting between and around adult legs near the barbeque-bar below the eastern end of the stand. The adults too are overwhelmingly adorned in Easts’ colours, forming a continuous stream of blue and gold that graduates from the mellower groupings of family and friends near the barbeque-bar area into a dense and imposing wedge of old boys and lower-grade players who occupy close to a quarter of a near-overflowing grandstand. The stand itself, within spitting distance of the northern touchline, runs ten to fifteen rows back and spans twenty or so metres either side of halfway.
What all of this amounts to – this idyllic suburban charm, this extended family of spectators, this vociferous block of clubmen – is what the Greeks probably called ‘atmos’. And to see the game unfold this evening is to witness one of the most intrusive, palpable examples of home-ground advantage one could hope to find at a modern day suburban club rugby match; a call to yesteryear. And the rugby Gods seem to be dancing to the local tune. After twenty-five minutes, almost every bounce of the ball, every counter-ruck, every clutch tackle – every low-percentage play – has gone the Tigers’ way. Following some enterprising forays from their halves and a scything run from their debutant inside centre, Easts are up 14 to 5. They’ve shown commitment but little in the way of consistent structure; the crowd is just ploughing them forward. Conversely, despite obvious flashes of brilliance, the students appear burdened, simply flustered. Their backline, in particular, has the feel of an expensive sportscar with the handbrake on.
Presently, the Sydney number five is feeling the weight of the crowd even more so than his colleagues. A recipient of a yellow card for repeated breakdown infringements, he’s seated not much more than an arm’s length from the rabid crush of Easts’ supporters. Led from the front by an erratic but unceasingly boisterous tiger (who now owes to your correspondent around 35% of a hamburger, a debt I’ll not even hope to call in), they’re chanting his name, raining down unpleasantries. His cauliflowered ears simply cannot escape the torrent. It seems almost every University line-out, scrum, penalty, fumbled-ball has occurred in front of this very same section of supporters, and now this lock-forward has to sit here, mere feet away, simply wearing it; the location of the sin-bin is surely no coincidence. But for a runaway try to their elusive and swift-heeled winger, University just can’t take a trick. The half closes 14 – 12.
The break is a perfect opportunity to walk the outside of the field. The golden beams and purpelish hues of late afternoon have now been replaced by floodlight, casting the lower sections of the fringing trees in imposing relief. Light dew precipitated from the cooler night air has drawn out the scent of freshly cut grass, reminiscent of evening training sessions. In the darkened shadows under the trees, in an almost continuous line, spectators lean or sit on the sponsorship-laden metre-high fence that runs the entire way around the field. Some even sit in the trees, be it kids or a seventy-year-old man replete in a polo shirt and chinos who has found himself an ideal location in the fork of a Jacaranda. Locals continue to wander down from neighbouring houses, bare-feet or bethonged, beer in one hand, son or daughter holding the other. Couples and groups scoop beverages from small eskies and cooler bags.
Even amid the comparatively tame shadows of the southern touchline, it remains an unmistakeably impassioned crowd. The banter, albeit subdued, is still relentless; the University winger is told to pull his socks up on more than one occasion. Early in the second half the students score, again out wide; their centres and outside backs now moving freely, threatening the line at every step; young, brash, skilful and fast. One gets the feeling that they’re used to carving up more hapless sides and are now starting to taste blood. Easts, however, still buoyed by this most atmospheric of home amphitheatres, are defending stoically, committed and hard-hitting, camped as they are in their own half. It remains this way for most of the rest of the game. But five minutes from time, in what again appears to be largely supporter-induced fortune, the Tigers find themselves in a position to steal the fixture at the death. The crowd is boiling, and short of scoring the winning try themselves, they will Easts’ mercurial fly-half within inches of the line. The fairytale doesn’t read to script though and the students hang on, adding a little interstate silverware to their busy cabinet.
Match Day Burger (Tigerburger) Score: 7.0
MDB Service Atmosphere: 7.0
MDB Cost: $5.50
Match Score: Sydney University 19 def. Easts 14
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