Students Wield The Cane As Beastie Boys Turned Back To The Bay (Parentheses Overhaul: Thanks For Staying Hungry – We’re Back Baby!)
Sydney University v Eastern Suburbs, Shute Shield, Round 7; University Oval No.2; 30/4/2016
“Early in the second half, Uni’s fullback lines up for an absolute gimme….a kick whose sole plausible difficulty lays in the risk of letting oneself be distracted by the absolute shame of discovering a way to miss it. Which he does.”
Report by Scott Gittoes
Sydney University are warming up. There’s about thirty of them all told, including coaches and support staff. The players stand in two tight circles, observing rugby’s most fundamental of divisions, forwards and backs, each man interlocked about the waist of his neighbour via thick arms and bloodless hands, to the overall effect of big, crudely woven baskets of polycotton and flesh. An incessant, almost quarrelsome din rises from these huddles, reverberating through the near-empty courts and corridors of a university campus on weekend hiatus. Bass or baritone is the vocal delivery of choice, feigned or otherwise, always harried and ideally raspy. From a distance of less than fifty feet, the only intelligible word that one can reliably discern is the f-bomb or its myriad not-so-Shakespearean derivatives. One wonders at the innocent ears of a four year old girl playing in the grass nearby. But she’s more compelled by bugs.
The warm up itself, the actual movement of bodies and ball, exudes the same nervy intensity. Today Uni is hosting Eastern Suburbs, the boys in navy, red and white from Rose Bay, known locally as ‘the Beasties’. Both teams have four wins to date and mid-season confidence and ascendency are the prize. The University coach now admonishes a prop for spending a moment too long on his back. He’s an archetypal (even old-fashioned) front-rower; flesh lumping out at the fissure between an undersized training shirt and the waistband of footy shorts, neck extending seamlessly to mug. All horizontal power. To the harangue he pays not too much heed. The captain yells repeatedly, hoarsely, and to no one in particular. Something about fitness.
Over at the main oval, the playing field is quarantined and obscured by a ring of temporary fencing that challenges spectators to choose between one of two entrances: one, into the new grandstand on the western flank or, two, into the sun-drenched north-eastern corner where a melange of perfume, liquor, hay bales and hormones spills from under a marquee tent. Today is ‘Ladies’ Day’. It’s also an inner-city derby so, in theory, the ladies haven’t had to cross the harbour or venture far beyond the gilded avenues of Sydney’s most prosperous suburbs to get here. They’ve certainly dressed for a good time.
University’s game plan seems obvious enough from the outset; run from anywhere and back your fitness. And it seems to work. Aside from a fullback who habitually passes left to right without looking, the Students’ backs possess dexterity and speed and the forwards’ doggedness is both authentic and admirable. Uni’s wingers are a contrast of complexion – one ghostly white, the other dark Mediterranean olive – but otherwise they’re virtual twins; short, stocky, spatially savvy and blisteringly fast. They find the ball regularly and are stymied only temporarily by Easts’ desperate last-line defence. After ten minutes, the left wing crosses in the north-west corner, the recipient of a selfless pass from a hooker who in the heat of the moment shows a flyhalf’s touch.
What makes the opening quarter of this fixture rather mouth-watering is that Easts – whilst occasionally kicking to open corners for easy territory – display a similar inclination to play expansively with ball in hand. Their outside centre runs from deep starts, connecting with the ball at just the right times and at just the right angles, the realisation of some sort of beautiful intersection on a physicist’s graph. In fact, the outside backs from both teams do this as habit; he’s merely the pick of them and has an enviable knack of exploiting half-gaps. With all this deep running and speed at the advantage line, opposing defenders are lining up with bulging eyes, spring-loading their bodies in anticipation. Colours fly in many-a fleeting gain-line encounter, though genuine hits are relatively rare. So far it’s a game of attack.
Easts cross in the south-east corner in much the same way their opponents had in the north-west; through unremitting, opportunistic support play. It’s compelling, skill-and-speed-fuelled rugby, eye-candy for both the purist and the novice. The Students respond shortly thereafter, left wing and hooker again combining, the latter flicking a no-look back-of-the-hands pass to pave the winger’s way to the line. As half-time approaches the rhythm of the game inevitably slows and poor decision-making creeps in. Uni skies a number of aimless bombs, straying from their ball-in-hand play. Easts’ fullback hobbles, injured, and their prop is left stranded in cover, forced to kick for touch for perhaps the first, and hopefully last time in his career. The Students lead 13 – 10 at the break. And in case you were wondering, the prop chose the banana kick.
Sydney University’s 1200-seat capacity grandstand is new, barely out of its wrapping, and the air of pride among the club’s administrators and supporters is as palpable and powdery as a mouthful of misaimed deodorant. A grandstand attendant presses a finger to his radio earpiece, eyeing a crowd which includes the most senior ARU brass and plenty of silver hair and gold watches. This is a club patronised by notable men, with seven premierships from their previous ten attempts. Their record of success in the new millennium is equal to that of the Randwick sides from the eighties and nineties. The new grandstand is a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of an underlying power that has a certain sort of foregone success written all over it. Behind the blue theatre ropes that demarcate an area either side of halfway, spectators are waited on with bottles of champagne and hors d’oeuvres.
Early in the second half, Uni’s fullback lines up for an absolute gimme. A penalty attempt; directly in-front and so close that the girl previously spotted on the grass would be odds-on to nail it. A kick whose sole plausible difficulty lays in the risk of letting oneself be distracted by the absolute shame of discovering a way to miss it. Which he does. Thereafter, goalkicking duties are assumed by the left wing, the scorer of Uni’s two first-half majors, who ends the game with four tries, three penalties and two conversions to his name.
Easts score no further points. Although the Beasties continue to move the ball around, their passes fall flat and possession is squandered. Conversely, the Students’ fitness and ball retention is telling. Forwards hold and recycle, wingers seize their opportunities. Their pack is fit enough and inside backs well drilled enough to support outside backs when they’re on the deck. Rarely are Uni’s speedsters found isolated, despite testing outside shoulders and running many metres into space and away from the scrimmage. As both sides tire and the realisation of defeat washes over Easts, individual confrontations and frustrations simmer. And so the referee – whose hair is cut cleaner and tighter than the edges of the Sydney University Quadrangle – reaches twice into his pocket. The home side squeezes the game to a clinical conclusion.
Over in the north-eastern corner, the Ladies’ Day revellers have hitherto been formerly delineated along the touchline into distinct tranches of clubmen and women. As the whistle blows the genders now dissolve into each other like two parts of a cocktail that needs little shaking. The men are no longer preoccupied or feigning preoccupation with the fixture. Some ladies depart, friends leading wearier-legged friends home. Most stay. In the long shadow of a grandstand where cleaners lurk like ibises, scooping up empty Moet bottles and oyster shells, the evening begins.
Match Day Burger Rating: N/A
MDB Service Atmosphere: N/A
MDB Cost: N/A
Match Result: Sydney University 33 def. Eastern Suburbs 10
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