Match Day Burger

Grassroots Sports Reportage. Grain-fed, well read.

Category: Rugby Union

Dog Day Afternoon As Students Throw The Book In The West (Deflated Lady Beckons Literary Gusto To Save Mismatch)

"Looks like Fido just chased his last ball..."

“Well I don’t know about you doctor, but I’d say Fido just chased his last ball…”

University of Queensland vs Western Districts; Queensland Premier Rugby, Round 13; UQ Field 7; 11/6/2016 

“…the scrum is probably the only place where the disparity of this contest can actually be pointed and snickered at…the ball shuffling around in there like it’s some kind of random fate generator that basically always has bad news for the dogs.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

The University of Queensland are hosting the Western Districts Bulldogs and no one is really looking forward to it. Approaching the half-way point of the competition’s second round, these teams are a whole ladder and more than 300 for/against differential points apart. The dogs have won just a single game this season. And the only side to beat the students did so in the first game of the year and just got vengefully and very thoroughly lynched in the second round rematch.  UQ are going to win and Wests are going to go home sore and disappointed. Everybody knows this at breakfast time. It doesn’t even qualify as prophesy.

The Gods, who evidently don’t give two hoots whose playing, have served up a belter of an afternoon. Cool and luminous, the sun uprooting the shadows of everything as it descends toward the stadium’s rear, with a neat little Champagne-chill breeze over a virtually neon green varsity pitch. To which you can add the tacky pitter-patter of spindly runners working up and down the straights of the field-encircling synthetic track amid the perpetual hum of a jumping castle keeping kids amused up near the steeple-chase pit. Sometime around the toss a magpie cracks the shits with a crow and chases it tauntingly – all clicks and claps – in a giant, florid, south-north arc the length of the field.

Game on.

For a few minutes nobody scores. Then Uni does, repeatedly and systematically and unrepentantly, for the next hour. They annihilate the dogs. The final score is 49-19, but all of West’s points come in a late bundle after most of UQ’s key players have been put back in cotton wool. Make no mistake; it’s an old-fashioned blood bath.

This of course leaves your correspondent with the seriously creative literary task of teasing out a good siren-to-siren yarn of what went down out there, the game having, truth be told, all the emotional intensity of a blow-up doll. And so in the interest of not just exhaling a whole bunch of rhetorical wind into a limp sack of plastic and making a one-way mockery of passion, what seems more appropriate is to drag the carcass of this game into a sterile room, throw on a white lab-coat, and perform a kind of CSI-type autopsy of a ruthless and indifferent slaughter.  To learn a little about the John Doe and the perp.

(Your correspondent will play the part of that smart-ass investigator that removes his glasses and strikes puns.)

It must be said, first up, that this was not one of those open slather games wherein some radical mismatch of individual size and/or skill makes for a long, unbroken blooper reel of dopey tackles and absurd, individual, Lomuesque tries. Wests, though undoubtedly the victim and the inferior unit here, are, man-for-man and cheek-to-cheek, pretty much UQ’s equal. Their defence is upfront and hard, they run unflinchingly with ball in hand, and they are determined, if nothing else, to make the students work.  With a little broken play, they have players capable of stealing big meters; 8 and 13 being especially good ball carriers.

In fact, the scrum is probably the only place where the disparity of this contest can actually be pointed and snickered at, Wests taking a backwards walk all day, the ball shuffling around in there like it’s some kind of random fate generator that basically always has bad news for the dogs. And maybe for a scrum specialist this would all seem much more granular, but for the rest of us a ‘Funniest Home Videos’-type voice-over probably qualifies as hard analysis. UQ’s first try comes through a casual eight-man stroll, arm-in-arm, from fifteen meters out. The halfback’s job of scoring is as close to a formality as you get.

UQ’s real dominance is ‘meta’ and must be appreciated across clumps of game-time if not the entire game. This is a win that they construct. They’re a smarter, better organised team, indifferent and disciplined as worker ants. They string together these long skeins of phases that unwind their opponents’ guard like some slippery cult-leader’s utopian promises.  Their second try is a pitch-perfect example of what practised, well-drilled sides like this do best; sitting well within their own defensive half, their opponents with plenty of field to defend, the students nonchalantly go about what looks like a fairly thoughtless attack, playing short pick-and-drives, a few one-outs, occasionally throwing flankers at centres. But over time they basically mine the structure right out of Wests’ backline defence so that it keeps compacting toward the ruck. Suddenly UQ flicks it wide to a deep, patient backline that never flinched or flattened all the while.

Which is one of the oldest tricks in the book. But so perfectly is this executed here, and so thoroughly have Wests consumed the proverbial Kool Aid, that from almost seventy metres out, and without yet technically having passed a single defensive player, the moment the fullback catches the ball he is home. There’s no question, no razzle-dazzle required. Just an afternoon cruise around the out-positioned winger who already knows he’s beat. Keep in mind that this is not a counterattack; there is no broken play here. Wests are basically ready. At least they probably think they are. And yet the last man on the field, the deepest player in his own territory, which is to say the furthest from the scoring zone, manages to receive the ball in such a way that he is already somehow undefendable. The students have effectively bent the advantage line toward themselves.

While it’s not exactly the thing of You Tube, purists will tell you that it takes a special sort of structural dominance to achieve this. But for it to go off this smoothly you’ve really got to be facing an opposition that buys the entire shebang wholesale, and in bulk. Wests, today, are evidently ripe for the plucking.

In fact, the dogs even manage to attack in a subordinate way. Late in the first half they win an offensive line out and finally have a chance to unleash some clean ball theatre on their own terms. Sadly the crescendo of this inglorious three-phase opus is a one-out pass to a vast blind-side where just two lonely props are standing in each other’s pockets and as flat footed as a pair of ducks looking over a cliff. The UQ defenders descend like ravenous hyenas on a pair of sunbathing hippos and come out with the pill that’s soon enough over the try line.

It’s the day’s low point for the visitors, who, though unquestionably valiant, are ultimately neither creative nor organised enough to handle the hosts. They’re caught in a web that enwraps them more thoroughly as they writhe. Which is of course the web’s genius.

The students are in their own sort of crow’s nest atop the Queensland Premier Rugby ladder.

 

Match Result: University of Queensland 49 – Western Districts 19

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Riverview’s Fiefdom Defended Against Coming Of The Kings (Blue Poles, Stubborn Tomatoes and Howling Carpets; A Rhyme For The Times)

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Reporter emerges from Motorway

St Ignatius College, Riverview vs. The King’s School; AAGPS (NSW) 1st XV Rugby, Round 4; Riverview No. 1; 28/05/2016

“The hosting team are lead through a tunnel of students by (in this order) a multi-rotor drone, a large flag bearing the Riverview emblem, the drummer, and finally a student wearing a discarded floor rug with teeth that it takes some deduction to realise is supposed to be a wolf costume.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

Exiting the M2 Motorway into Lane Cove is like stepping from a blizzard into a warm log cabin. The terror of Sydney’s arterial road network – a Jackson Pollack of multi-lane, eye-twitching anxiety – is now but the pillow-sweat of a bad dream from this bosom of expansive, rolling-lawn affluence.  From here, the car itself seems to sigh and ease into a sort of mechanical canter as it moves along an ever descending ridge into the immaculately hedge-rowed suburb of Riverview, a horseshoe shaped enclave carved in the east and west by wooded creeks that flow to two sparkling boat-loaded bays of the Lane Cove River.  It’s one gingerbread house away from a nursery-rhyme.  At the horseshoe’s southernmost tip, behind sandstone pillars on a landholding that would make a feudal lord flinch, lies St Ignatius College, best known by the name of the suburb in which its not insubstantial acres reside.

Today Riverview is hosting rugby fixtures against The King’s School and with respective first fifteen sides both undefeated, the afternoon’s final fixture has a big red ring around it for those closely following the premiership.

A bass drum thunders through suburban avenues, washing out the avian cries and the whisper of wind-swept leaves. The repeated boom beckons your correspondent and all those about him, lemming-like, downhill.  Riverview’s terrain (and not just the school but the suburb itself) sinks into a green basin that is the main oval of today’s contest. The first breaths of winter have recently brought rains and with tag-shoed feet churning the moist topsoil since the dew-sweeping slog-outs of the early AM, the oval has come to resemble a dill pickle slice, dark green on the fringes graduating to a paler, yellowing centre. The ellipse is divided in two; a rugby field closest to the western hill that rises up and under the university-scale campus buildings, and a soccer field to the east.  Into the hillside is set a concrete-block structure roughly 15 metres square; canteen and change rooms.  Recessed into the base of this building is an eight-row grandstand. White-shirted, dark blue-blazered students are crammed in there like rows of teeth set into a jaw.  As the showpiece game approaches, they spill out either side onto the wet grass like thickening strands of spittle, roaring in unison when prompted.  Teachers hover like anxious birds waiting to pick the gums of a yawning crocodile.

When Riverview’s first fifteen do appear, silence descends. They all but float down the hill on the autumnal breeze, between old gum trees, glimpsed but largely out of sight, before truly disappearing again into the change rooms behind the grandstand.  The student supporters promptly organise themselves for the send-out.  If one were in any doubt as to the coveted nature of the bass drummer role, maker of that near subconscious murmur that hitherto has themed the pre-game titillation, it becomes plain enough when the instrument is given to he who is preordained to thump its belly for the main game. The hand-over ceremony has all the quiet grandeur and gravity of a father receiving a blood- and placenta-speckled first-born.

The hosting team are lead through a tunnel of students by (in this order) a multi-rotor drone, a large flag bearing the Riverview emblem, the drummer, and finally a student wearing a discarded floor rug with teeth that it takes some deduction to realise is supposed to be a wolf costume. The visitors’ fifteen are released through a tunnel that is equally long but much leaner on fanfare.  Playing strips are identical but for the varied shade of blue hoop on guernsey and sock. It’s all and only white and Oxbridge blues out there.

In the opening stage of sporting contests there’s a ghostly uncertainty that stirs somewhere inside most participants. In rugby, it’s present in those moments when the players, technically ‘playing’ but as yet awaiting first contact with pill or opponent – milling with clean uniforms on the fringes of rucks or basking in the backline breeze – find themselves unable to express their excitement, a little lost, and generally jittery. Some players get yappy, others jump up and down or rub their hands together. Some go quiet. The scientific name for this condition is nerves. Transitioning fully into a game is, funnily enough, where evenly matched contests can be won or lost, and today this phenomenon appears to be up for proving.  Within three minutes, the visitors are on the receiving end of tries in either corner.  The first is a mercurial kick and recover individual effort from Riverview’s right winger.  The second germinates from some fundamental drawing and passing that creates space for a left wing who knows what to do with all that daylight and has the jets to act on his impulses.  To steal a military phrase – and with all that bass drumming and bellicose war-crying it’s surely not out of place – Riverview has seized the initiative.

Following those first ten unconverted points, in what proves to be a consistent theme throughout the remainder of the fixture, the team conceding a try immediately goes on the offensive. It’s as though the players are expecting an even contest and are intent on honouring the script.  King’s set up camp for a prolonged period inside Riverview’s quarter and leave with three points. Were it not for repeated infringements – albeit not repetitive enough for today’s official to reach for something yellow – King’s may have ended this stretch of honest toil with more.  As it is, the score remains locked at 10 – 3 and will remain so for all but the last dying minutes of the half.

Some patterns have emerged. Firstly, it’s evident that the backlines are willing to play expansively, but their skill in execution, primarily passing, is not in step with their plans.  Passes are lofted and frequently terminate below or behind the man.  Perhaps it’s the greasy pill.  Secondly, and possibly in support of the greasy pill theory (hereafter, the GPT), expansive forays are far outnumbered by hard, welfare-be-damned running at the advantage line, principally executed by hulking lock forwards and two fearless, fast moving inside centres, all of whom latch onto halve-fed shortballs with a bloodlust for metres.  Last, and by no means least (and approaching absolute proof of the GPT), the offensive commitment at the gainline is similarly matched in defence and it’s here that the (greasy) pill pops out regularly in all directions like a cherry tomato under force of a blunt fork.  And so it is that the teams spend the best part of the rest of the half trading blows in this fashion, mostly in neutral territory.  That is until the visitors’ rangy fullback, who’s shown flashes of his deceptive speed – long legs taking slow-cadenced but yard-devouring strides – swoops on loose ruck ball to run untouched to the line for seven equalling points.

The twilight of a rugby game’s first half is another one of those ghostly periods in which things can – and often do – go haywire. Here the nerves are a problem in reverse; certain players shelve the excitement one or two plays early, assured of a job more-or-less done. It’s as dangerous, if not more, than those opening minutes. And it’s just as often here, in these fatigue-filled final seconds, that tight games turn.  Indeed, in what proves to be the last play of the half, Riverview smell complacency and dump a heap of coal on the furnace. They get seven points for cunning, their right wing collecting a brace.

At halftime, relatives and alumni compare notes. They’re scattered across the western hill, donning oilskins or brandname outdoorsman jackets.  Most wear caps.  Behind them, ten or so men busy themselves on the grills.  In the canteen, women serve the sweet stuff.  And over on the eastern touchline, squinting into the lowhanging sun, middle-to-late aged old-boys talk commerce, mostly finance and real estate, or trade stories on their sons’ achievements.  And when play resumes, they’re not afraid to wear their old-school-allegiances on their sleeves, boisterous but reverent.

Much of the second half proceeds like the first. That is, repeated one or two-off kamikazes at the gainline that end in audible collisions or else mistimed ball movement when it does go wide.  In either case, the GPT is in full articulation and the ball develops a near-monogamous intimacy with the grass.  Riverview’s flyhalf squanders a couple of opportunities to extend the lead off the tee (he ends the game with 2 from 7 attempts).  Conversely, King’s take the only three points that are really on offer for them, their halfback knocking it over from forty metres to bring the visitors within four points and give them a sniff.  But it’s not to last.  The hosts shun a very kickable penalty, opting instead for the line, and one wonders whether it’s a decision born of genuine confidence or a kicker with an ever-worsening case of the yips.  The hypothetical proves moot.  Riverview apply more pressure, steal a defensive lineout a few plays later and cross for a try that is converted by the barest of margins.  In step with the game’s theme, King’s are instantly and intensely on the attack. They do enough to cross the line but fumble the ball just before the vinegar stroke. Riverview close out a deserved victory and take their place unaccompanied and undefeated at the top of the table after four rounds.

As triumphant drumbeats hark across a picturesque pocket of Sydney, your correspondent takes a deep breath and ascends into the harrowing truth of abstract impressionism.

Match Day Burger Rating: 6/10

MDB Service Atmosphere: 6/10

MDB Cost: $8.00

Match Result: Riverview 24 def. The King’s School 13

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Brother Francis Bears Witness As Maxi-Pads Supersoak Marist College’s Cotton Curse

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Marist College Ashgrove vs. Padua College; AIC 1st XV Rugby, Round 3; Brother Francis McMahon Oval; 14/5/2016

“From the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

The annals of bonehead sporting plays are a long and sordid record, and it is the quiet desire of all competitors to go undocumented therein. Sport is a contest first, but it’s also a performance, sometimes even a spectacle, and an unforced failure will make the most seasoned competitor wish she was water for the turf to drink up and vanquish forever. And if there is a stage more intimate and personal than schoolboy competition, your correspondent considers it rare indeed. Indeed, the Padua College 1st XV’s burly hooker is not the first player to upend a defenceless receiver in the echo of a rugby game’s opening whistle. He’s not the first to have a fixture brought to an affected halt before the pill has so much as kissed the grass. But as he waddles head-in-hands to the sideline, there’s little doubting he feels like an original kind of idiot.

In the context of a game here that matters mucho to his team and the thousand or so supporters that have travelled across the city to see them battle the spiritual giants of Marist College Ashgrove, to call this an ‘unfortunate brain-explosion’ would be seriously underselling it. Even for a dispassionate observer with a notepad and pen, the compelling hypothetical thrown up by the team sheets and history books for today’s contest between table-topping AIC teams seems to lose its titillating hiss and unveil an awkward silence, like a Webber that someone forgot to replace the gas-bottle for before a long weekend away.

For one, the home side of Ashgrove are not a team that requires extra confidence. At the beginning of the third round of the AIC 1st XV competition they have scored 136 points and conceded zero. Nor does any opponent especially want to kick the rather magnificent hive of destiny that is their history of success. In the sixteen years of the refined, eight-team AIC competition, Ashgrove have won ten premierships, seven of which were outright and undefeated. It has finished the race worse than second only twice, and never finished outside fourth. And nor, finally, does one wish to give them a special invitation to put on an exhibition for a big home crowd that isn’t used to concession speeches. Indeed, something self-fulfilling really does seem to be happening when after a few minutes of firing a potent-looking backline at a reeling defence that stumbles backward, helpless, the Ashgrove boys claim a seven pointer that looks, well, ominous.

You never in your life saw a sixteen year old boy who wished more that he was made of the kind of matter that could evaporate. The hooker’s ten minutes in the sinbin looks like it might get eternal.

It’s a cool twenty-two degrees, cloudless and crisp, one of those pseudo-wintery Brisbane days where it’s so nice in the stands that you could literally watch the grass grow. And Ashgrove’s home turf is a beauty. Beset on a sunny crest in the suburban north-west, its immediate surrounds describe a Neenish tart of tranquil Catholic school grounds abounding in pointy buildings and monuments, and a charmed neighbourhood of trees and stilted cottages lined up like dominoes. The playing surface’s fine, short-grassed ellipse of tree-snake green appears so rich and healthy it looks like the field is silently breathing. The western grandstand is teeming with mums and dads and boys in uniforms distracted by girls not in uniforms. While to the east two opposing wolf-packs of old-boys in thongs observe a cautious truce on either side of a picturesque scoreboard. Plenty of blazered schoolboys are scoffing down the output of a well oiled canteen production-line the way only teenage boys can scoff. Those non-uniformed girls try not to look disgusted.

The field is encircled by sinuous driveways across which C-Class’s and SUVs pump boys in and out of the place on a busy Saturday afternoon of hosting sport. But no doubt the more dramatic way to approach and appreciate the real estate here is to make the back-door pilgrimage from Enoggera Creek, compelled up a steep goat track and across a dramatic giant’s-footprint of a second field by the haunting vision of a bone-white 1930s seminary hanging in the clouds. One gets to feel the air as it thins.

As ten agonising minutes end for the banished hooker and he begins again to stalk the sidelines, the seven point deficit offers relative mercy to his shame. He soon gets right down to business, putting the blunt finishing touches on an utter scrum dominance that even a seven-man forward pack had begun imposing on the leaner Ashgrove frontline. As yet unmentioned, and absolutely crucial to understanding how today’s contest unfolds, is the almost exhaustive physical superiority of the leviathan Padua forwards; from the moment the visitors began their warm up on the field’s far side – tackle bags wheezing and whistling like emphysema-riddled geriatrics escaping house fires – it was pretty clear that they were a bunch of butchers ready to do unspeakable things to whatever flesh they got their steel-gloved mitts on. And without exactly needing to put eyeholes in your newspaper and sit inconspicuously to grasp the hubbub, one was aware long before the whistle that any spare spiritual currency among the Ashgrove supporters was paying for prayers that Padua didn’t really know how to manage all that heft.

And this small but critical bit of psychological second-guessing is why the hooker’s madness in the game’s opening moments almost blew the whole ambush that his team had conceived for their opponents. Because one has the distinct sense that Padua’s plan was to come out firebombing villages before their enemies could so much as get out of bed, and now there’s a thumb-twiddling sense of having to sit back and wait for a trooper that’s fallen out of line. And you just know that up here on Ashgrove’s thin-aired patch of paradise the home side aren’t going to sit around waiting to be incinerated once they’re wide awake.

No, sir. Instead the Ashgrove team down a heady elixir of their own favouritism and gravitas and bolt out with pitchforks. Their halves play like a pair of old friends that can call a three phase move with a wink. And the uphill task of stealing a win up here on the toughest roadtrip in the comp gets significantly graver for Padua.

When a full thirty boys are back on the park the game hits its stride, and spectator asses separate from seats. Big hits go off hither and thither like landmines. Padua’s towering forwards go straight for the stubborn, outsized Ashgrove defenders who, desperately protecting an expectation of success, punish any high running with ball-and-all tacking that more often than not earns them scrum feeds. Which scrums, unfortunately, turn out to be not much of a victory for them because they’re basically a hockey puck going one direction and Padua might as well just put out their hands and be given free kicks directly.

While the contest remains dogged and compelling all afternoon, pure rugby’s flow-chart of virtuous play is in a state of systematic frustration. Ashgrove simply can’t win a set piece, and their much-touted backline barely sees the clean ball they so very much need to rack up points. On the other hand, Padua for all their power up front don’t seem to have a line out, so while they charge up the field through scrum penalties, more often than not they relinquish the advantage anyway.

Scattered running rugby punctuates all this but is frankly at a high premium. Ashgrove’s fly-half is a talent that requires a maximum-security prisoner’s attention round the clock, while Padua’s fullback makes two individual efforts that ought bookend any decent highlight reel of the match. Throughout passages of broken play, both teams tempt the sidelines, the torch passing again and again to eager, fleet-footed runners. Desperate defence scrambles, and the one try that does come on the flanks is belatedly disallowed to the bemusement of everyone but the touch judge. Even the scoreboard has to be wound back.

At the twenty minute mark Padua level the scores in a surge at the line that puts the game back in parity where it at very least belongs. In fact, Padua’s rugby is proving simply better. Their size has well and truly been legitimised and their battery life looks good. Ashgrove’s backs have bugger all chances to throw their much talked-up smoke around. And the best the home side have come up with for the scrums is to make them a lottery; the hooker swings the heel to the effect of a sort of pinball machine from which the pill could emerge just about anywhere. The odds of winning from the feed move back to even, which is indeed a solution of a kind.

But if the interest of the game has an epicentre now it is the question of Padua’s mettle and nerve. Their suitability to victory. Because if the visitors really are still underdogs it is not for reasons of rugby merit. Though here at the centre-stage of schoolboy rah-rah there is always some kind of meddler that ain’t on any team-sheet or game-day program, so as the half-time whistle looms Padua find themselves mystically on the back foot again. Ashgrove marches toward the line through short, tide-defying runs, taking the field piece by piece until a single human effort is enough to cross. And then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning on the clearest of days, a pair of legs involuntarily breech from the smouldering bodies, and the trilling of the referee’s whistle signals more trouble for Padua.

The net result is three conceded points and another forward in the bin for ten. But what’s perhaps most cruel, and most telling of the histrionics that engulf all aspects of this occasion, is the way this feels among the Padua supporters. Kind of necessary, or foretold. Like old Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back down the hill again.  The colour of the half time atmosphere is uncommitted, barely off-white. Despite everything they’ve already shown, the second half finds Padua at ground zero, burdened with the luggage of their own ill-discipline, and with everything and more left to do.

Yet to their undeniable credit they emerge unflustered and intent. Their first milestone is to keep Ashgrove scoreless during the manpower disadvantage. Which they do. The next is to find some points. To this end they launch an unbroken sequence of forward assaults that rock defenders one after another, the pick of the ball-carriers a brutal tighthead with all the hallmarks of a mobile, modern front-rower. One suddenly realises that Padua has been overly loyal to the underdog’s uniform, constricted by its no-longer-suitable cut. Now, in their most explosive phase of the afternoon, which culminates in a try, the whole heavy outfit drops off like an old skin and they play freely and very much like the superior side they are today. More points are certainly coming.

In a last bid at hoodoo, at the height of his side’s capitulation the Ashgrove flyhalf emerges from the sideline and shuffles eerily back into position. Unrecognisable following the rearrangement of something on his face, he is all blood and eyes and white bandages now, like some sort of life-sized cotton bud that’s just been drawn from a horrific wound. This blinking, running, run-calling horror – half athlete, half surgical-aid – seems for a moment like a kind of imp that’s come to put one more curse on the visitors’ improbable campaign. But by then the Padua boys have decided to deal only in material things. A superb run from their fullback to beat three if not four bemused defenders puts the game beyond a score and the visitors in a position to win that it seems they only now have permitted themselves to really occupy.

And not long after that an age-old rock finds a place to rest up there in the hills of Ashgrove. Scenes ensue.

MDB: untested

Match Result: Padua College 19 def Marist College Ashgrove 17

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ENJOY THE PROSE? You can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill to your inbox.  Stay hungry.

 

Students Wield The Cane As Beastie Boys Turned Back To The Bay (Parentheses Overhaul: Thanks For Staying Hungry – We’re Back Baby!)

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Sydney University’s members toast new grandstand.

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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2014 Queensland Premier Rugby ‘Game of the Round’; Round 4 (‘Books Of The Beach Blitzed By Big-Smoke Counterparts In St Lucia’)

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UQ ‘Red Heavies’ vs. Bond University Gold Coast ‘Breakers’; St Lucia Oval 5A; 12/4/2014

“As they parade before the bustling coup of second-and-third-champagne-in young things, hysteria breaks loose; the ladies rush the fencing, hooting and hollering, pawing and grabbing beyond the confines at the passing pack of ultra-suitable mates in all their pre-picket-fence-and-two-point-five-kid glory.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

MDB descends on the lustrous turf of UQ Rugby’s home ground on an afternoon of occasional sunlight and a little overcast steaminess. The visitors are the Gold Coast Breakers, now Bond University’s team, meaning that it’s a city/surf student showdown; loosely, aspiring doctors v aspiring plastic surgeons. It’s also, incidentally and yet in no way disappointingly, Ladies Day. UQ’s is by far the most coveted ‘Ladies Day’ ticket on the Premier Rugby circuit; where other clubs summons at best a considerable handful of singles to amble free-range inside the sectioned-off space wherein paper bracelets denote free drinks, here at UQ they’re jammed in so tightly that they’ve hardly room to scratch themselves. Their pretty and much made-up little heads poke awkwardly through the temporary fencing in a way that recalls those horrifying ads that ask us to boycott battery farm eggs. The inside word is that this afternoon’s fundraiser sold out in just under 36 hours. By the looks of it, even that was overselling the space.

On a side note, the style of the season is fluorescent and shimmery; all the girls look a little like deep-sea fishing lures.

About five minutes before the opening whistle, the UQ side completes its warm up and heads for the dressing rooms. As they parade before the bustling coup of second-and-third-champagne-in young things, hysteria breaks loose; the ladies rush the fencing, hooting and hollering, pawing and grabbing beyond the confines at the passing pack of ultra-suitable mates in all their pre-picket-fence-and-two-point-five-kid glory. The players, somehow, retain their game-day Zen, keep their heads down and faces expressionless. I’m not terribly sure if I’m opening myself up to reverse, inverse or inverted sexism by suggesting that, for all their effort to block it out, the players probably don’t mind being on the butt end of out-and-out objectification today. I mean, if they’d like to be less interesting to women, they’d have chosen to play at Wests…Zing!

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The game kicks off with the usual technical quibbles and feet-finding of week-four play. In a first half that gives little away, UQ have the upper hand but not by much. While the Gold Coast team has clung tight, they’ve got some systemic issues that are as plain and unpleasant as warts. The first is that, despite at least a half dozen genuine early chances to swing it wide, they fail to shift the ball past the centres. And not because the defence is particularly brisk; simply because they drop it cold or else throw it wildly; it all just goes to the dogs far too repeatedly. I find myself wondering late in the half if they’ve managed to field an all-left-handed backline, since the first time they actually find the winger is the first time the assignment is right-tending.

Which brings me to the second issue that should well be on the Gold Coast whiteboard come Monday; their outside backs make terrible running decisions. Ball retention in counter-attack and near-sideline play is just crap, largely because isolated runners tend to decide to stop dead and flop to the earth in solitude. It’s a classic symptom of trusting neither back-up runners nor loose-forwards and/or being unpractised in effectively stalling play and/or just not being strong enough, and it completely bones any chance Gold Coast might have to steal a couple of tries; frustratingly enough, they’re outside runners are clearly quick enough to threaten.

The breakdown today is not nearly a thing of beauty. The game just doesn’t work out that way. UQ are, as usual, an across-the-board fit and physical side, organised above and beyond all else, clinical in the mould of Brothers and GPS. For the first half of the game they play OK but with a lack of sting, crossing over for a pair of tries that are more inevitable than exciting. But once the second half gets going, the true character of the game reveals itself. It’s a mismatch.

The second half goes; try (UQ), try (UQ), try (UQ), try (UQ), try (UQ), try (UQ), try (UQ), give or take a try that can only be to UQ because I’m absolutely certain about how many points Gold Coast score and that’s none. There’s not really all that much to learn or single out except, yes, UQ have some great inside-back vision, and look like they’re going to do their scoring this season through the middle. Gold Coast, on the other hand, just get the bad end of it and they accept it pretty early on. Their big number four seems to play by his own rules once he reckons it’s all over, skulking behind the defensive line, waiting for a chance to step in and make at least one UQ player feel average at full time. It doesn’t work out quite like that; instead there’s one more gap for the city boys to score through.

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The inevitable result is sorted by about twenty to go, and attention wavers beyond the sidelines; even the pre-teen manning the scoreboard walks away from the monotonous job and starts making sand castles in the long jump pit. On the synthetic running track between us and the field, a match race between a five-year-old princess and a Ninja Turtle restarts every few minutes and it’s usually the turtle that wins. Around us in the stands fully grown men in mum’s-dressed-me-for-a-birthday-party combinations of tucked-in pastel and branded Ralph Lauren caps and leather sandals are pretty common.  Over in the eligible bachelorette enclosure, shirtless boys in bow-ties hand out trays of cheap champagne, their pants’ seats worn thin by pecking hands. And up in the sky a camera drone hovers as a near pitch-perfect symbol of something that’s too hard to describe here and now. In short, it’s by no means the most boring afternoon to endure a forty-point romp.

As for the outcome of Ladies Day; it is in a spirit of journalistic rigour that MDB stays abreast of social media feeds into the night as these frenzy-whipped women are served up and get to party with the victorious doctors’ sons in an after-match and all-night orgy (to use the word only in the PG-rated, ancient Roman sense of there being much food and drinks and whatnot to gobble up). Plenty in the way of solid records come over the interwebs into the early hours, but perhaps the soberest and most family friendly and exquisitely understated tribute comes from UQ Rugby’s own Twitter feed the following morning:

“A red UQ Rugby tour jacket with car keys in the pocket has gone missing at the Ladies Day event tonight… If you have taken the jacket please return it to the club house on Monday morning and no questions will be asked.”

If the beholder of said jacket is among MDB’s readership, let not shame withhold her from doing the right thing.

Match Day Burger Rating: 5.5

MDB Service Atmosphere: 4.5

MDB Cost: $5.00

Result: UQ 47, def. GC 5

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2014 Queensland Premier Rugby ‘Game of the Round’; Round 3 (‘Local Swoopers Saddle Equine Guests In Finger-Biter on Chipsy Wood’)

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Souths Magpies  vs. GPS Gallopers; Chipsy Wood Oval, Yeronga Park; 5/4/2014

“GPS’ flyhalf is a practitioner of cross-bow like service, his flat, accurate passes open space for outside backs running exquisite, well-practised lines, most devastatingly a number thirteen who moves like a Basque bull and has a consistently threatening impact on the game.”

Report by Scott Gittoes

Chipsy Wood Oval is a special patch of earth.  The specialness I speak of here is not the hallowed turf, legends-of-yore type (though not to deny that quality, either) but rather of a far more plain and empirical nature; this oval is Souths Magpies’ solitary field.  It’s a modern day botanic miracle that the soil is capable of supporting any grass-life whatsoever, be it that nine separate tag-shoed teams train and host games on these scant few square-metres week after storm-addled, sunburnt Queensland week.  But today, owing to some favourable early season scheduling and, rumour has it, a new groundskeeper with a sixth sense for lawn nutrients, Chipsy Wood is in as good a state as one’s ever likely to find it; deep shamrock green, duck-down soft on top and firm and fast underneath, on what is yet another textbook autumn afternoon in Brisbane.

The curtains are drawn for a free-flowing contest and based on recent form – namely, GPS Gallopers’ tantalisingly close premiership bid last year and the Magpies as-yet undefeated start to the season – one suspects the protagonists will eagerly oblige.  After no more than ten minutes, it’s evident that today is bound to be a spectator’s delight; equal parts free-flowing, physical and impassioned.

It’s expansive across the park.  GPS’ flyhalf is a practitioner of cross-bow like service, his flat, accurate passes open space for outside backs running exquisite, well-practised lines, most devastatingly a number thirteen who moves like a Basque bull and has a consistently threatening impact on the game.  Only rigorous three-quarter defence prevents the visitors from collecting any material points from these incursions.  As it stands, Souths have crossed first on account of some deft hands and opportunistic support play from a skilful, mobile forward pack whose biggest are also amongst their quickest and most dexterous.  But for all their damaging size – the front row recalls images of Easter Island’s Rapa Nui – natural talent and clean set-pieces, the Magpie pack’s inferior discipline and structure at the defensive breakdown is their undoing. photo (1)

The Gallopers are far more calculating.  They choose their battles wisely, committing few to the rucks and mauls and so conserving health in defence and exploiting gaps that appear with increasing regularity at the fringes.  It’s from this platform that GPS establishes first-half ascendancy, scoring three unanswered tries, including a chip-chase one-two from flyhalf and inside centre that is a certainty for the season highlight reel.  To deepen their woes, the Magpies’ notoriously volatile flyhalf earns a late-half yellow card for a hit that is much more shoulder than arms.  At 25 – 8, if the writing’s not yet on the wall for the home side, the paintbrush is certainly wet.

Confidence: nigh on impossible to practise and bottle but easy enough to recognise – a whimsical, organic element that more or less floats on the wind. It’s directly proportional relationship to instinct is well acknowledged; ‘natural’ players are all but nothing without a gullet-full of the stuff.  Fifteen minutes into the second half, moving along a seemingly inevitable trajectory towards a GPS victory, the instinct-laden home side receives a telling shot of confidence in the arm.  A bullocking maul pushover is immediately followed by a stunning kick-off return from a fullback who has an utterly dependable (and, for the visitors, consistently annoying) habit of finding routes through barely-there gaps like water.

This dramatic shift in momentum is decelerated only by an engine-room fracas that results in a second Magpie in the bin and a local crowd baying for pounds of officialdom flesh.  Rendered largely impotent by preceding defensive phases, the Gallopers are unable to gain any relevant advantage against fourteen men.  Upon recovering their full suite, Souths execute an authoritative landslide scrum pushover.  GPS cling to the lead by a lonely point.

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The conspicuous absence of an official match-clock is part of the uncultivated beauty of rugby at this level.  The referee’s wrist is the sole arbiter of time.  Spectators are left guessing, pointing at watch-faces, blind to the seconds that remain.  In a game that has been a tale of discipline versus flair, both teams must now exercise the former.  The Magpies maintain their composure and, against historical form, prevail in this final test, repeated pick and drives drawing out a penalty within range.  The unpredictable wind on the Chipsy Wood plateau ensures silence until the flags are raised.  Souths scrape home for consecutive wins at the death against the best from last year.

Result: Souths 30, def. GPS 28

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2014 Queensland Premier Rugby ‘Game Of The Round’; Round 2 (Vegan Match Wrap; No Burger)

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Easts vs. Souths; David Wilson Field, C.P. Bottomley Park; 29/3/2014

“The subterranean mud stinks like a pig pen and the only thing missing is a swarm of what the Yankees call buzzards.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

Only a week ago C.T. Bottomley Park put on a feast for the senses; a nail-biting Championship game at dusk, the conditions between the sidelining native trees so poetry perfect you could just about snatch a handful of summer’s last leaves from the weightless autumnal air. Nigh on perfect conditions for rugby – both play and spectatorship.

Today it’s a markedly different aesthetic experience. After two days of non-stop rain that threatened to wipe-out the whole round, the turf of David Wilson has a distinctly fragile quality, that of a sheet of soggy cardboard resting on a pudding. It’s as humid as cling-wrapped hell in the stands and staying stock-still won’t save you from sweating. The subterranean mud stinks like a pig pen and the only thing missing is a swarm of what the Yankees call buzzards. And to top it all off, the sun’s taken to occasionally screaming from behind the clouds in a way that’s almost purely unpleasant, kicking just enough heat around to keep a simmer on the nasty brew throughout the afternoon.

Last week the East’s Tigers took on the interstate might of Sydney University and narrowly slipped off the Club Championship trophy in a noble pre-season scrap. Today their task is the much less predictable South’s Magpies, a club that has fairly reeked of talent in recent years without managing to play out a full season of appropriate standard.  In stark contrast, the Tigers have made a job of ultra-consistent rugby in any situation, culminating in a truly special grand final that brought last year’s flag to the clubhouse.

Predictably, in these oily conditions, the ball is as elusive to the hand as a greasy marble to chopsticks. Dropped, stripped, fumbled and/or blithely misthrown pills come at a rate of one every two minutes for much of the first half. Easts are keenest in early attack, their outside backs make repeat work of treating the defence like a sieve. But their two run-away efforts fail titillatingly close to the line. Flyhalf is an absolute stand-out for level-headedness and opportunism in difficult conditions. Not to mention watertight with the boot.

In the levelling conditions, the contrasting styles of the teams is somewhat depleted. But generally speaking, Souths adhere to a less formalised brand, sending mobile loose forwards and stocky inside-backs hard at the line. Their own flyhalf is brutal in head-down one-on-one defence, accelerating in a single-minded rage; one lowly Easts’ player that receives the pass of death learns this the hard way, spared utter physical reconstitution by a matter of degrees and pot luck. Late in the half, the Magpies move up the paddock and maul toward the line for an easy one-out-and-over. They’re blessed by some quality, running forwards and lightning outside backs of unusually rigorous defence.

By half time the ‘mugby’ quality of the game is largely writ. Loose forwards are having a busy day and for all the hoo-ha out wide, here at the coalface is where the big gears of the game have shifted. Defence has been the paramount narrative, and discipline in defence has become the increasingly relevant sub-plot; three penalties to Easts have kept the scores levelish at 10-9.

I should mention somewhere (like, here) too, perhaps by way of illustrating how these two teams philosophically differ, that while the Easts kicker is a picture of patience, routine and discipline, a product of emulating the style that trickles down from the contemporary professional ranks, Souths’ counterpart is today firing them through the posts with little fuss and (ask someone who was there if you like – none of us in the stand could quite get over it either) right off the ground. No tee, no Buddhist mind-emptying routine, no two-minute ass-out-hands-together pause to envision success. That both are eminently effective is as good an indication as any that whatever the means of attack from either side, today’s result will probably be close.

After many exchanged blows and changed leads in the second half, the Magpies gradually wriggle into a two score advantage. Which it turns out they’ll be desperately needing, because in the dying ten minutes of play (having already upset the ref in every ruck-related department, culminating in a first half sin-binning), Souths’ quickness to the defensive line falls under the sort of intense official rapid-fire that recalls Umpire Hair pinging Muralitharan, and they’re taken on a handful of consecutive backward strolls that have the captain looking skyward for answers and the Magpies’ sideline faithful howling murder, grievous and blue. The East’s crowd, fittingly, find this all to be very suitable, and make something of a game of helping the officiator in finding subsequent offenses. Meanwhile the Tigers on the field, exuding the kind of professionalism that wins flags, show no form of remorse; they make Souths pay for every infraction, and go over with a couple of plays still in the game. A home-side come back seems virtually inevitable, but in this game the clock is the truth.

So for two weeks in a row the home ground of Tigerland and it’s heaving spirit just aren’t quite enough; the Magpies grit their beaks and hold on.

Result: Souths 24, def Easts 21

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Students Endure Eighty Minutes In Bottomley Wildcat Enclosure, Live To Tell the Tale (Struggling Journalist Files Speculative Debt Claim Under Jungle Law)

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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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Archipelagos Aim Up On Either Side Of Lunch At Meakin Park (Scientist Argues Polynesian Playmakers Most Likely Key To Inter-temporal Travel, Conceeds Limited Application Of Research)

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Kings and Queens of Pacific Rugby Tournament; Logan City Rugby Club, Meakin Park; 23/11/2013

“They never seem to forget that they’re playing, nor that the beautiful side of a true sporting contest is that nothing’s ever really at stake. In other words, they take rugby easy.”

Report by G + T (Scott Gittoes & Nicholas Turner)

It’s an early dusk.  A thick broth of Queensland humidity has stewed into dark and brooding cloud.  The first swollen drops thud against spectators’ umbrellas and rainjackets.  Distant thunder murmurs.  It’s all that dares disturb the silence; a group of twenty or so Samoans, a couple of tonnes worth at least, are huddled tight near the centre of Logan City Rugby Club’s main field.  They drop to one knee, heads bowed, encircling a solitary figure who remains standing.  He’s glaring, fierce and intent.  Across the halfway line, fifteen paces away at most, the Fijians catch his stare. They’re gripping each other’s white jerseys, shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a tightly thatched wall of humanity; virtually watertight.  The Samoan protagonist pauses, sets his feet firm, pauses again. In one razor-sharp action, he lets out a multisyllabic call to arms, spearing his right fist into an open hand.  The kneeling blue jerseys rise, unfurl into a phalanx and creep forward, hissing occasionally.  From the sideline, their first collective eruption brings on a familiar and yet never-less-than awesome feeling for a rugby fan. So begins an expertly choreographed Pacific Island wardance; here, the Samoan ‘Siva Tau’.

Six such dances are performed this afternoon by men’s teams representing Queensland communities of Samoan, Fijian, Tongan, Cook Islands, Niue and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islands heritage.  Across three consecutive Saturdays these teams are vying, together with an equal compliment of women’s teams, to be crowned the ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’ of Pacific Rugby.  The talent here is rich, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Brisbane’s Premier and First Grade familiars.  In only its second year, this tournament already has a premature air of being well established, drenched in tradition and pride.  The final fixture of today, between Queensland Samoa and Brisbane Fiji, is the weekend’s showcase contest, and with modified rules including no penalty goals, it’s bound to be a free-running spectacle.

It’s curious that the game of rugby, an esoteric sport invented in isolation ten-thousand-odd miles from the South Pacific Ocean, could not have been more suitably scripted for that region’s inhabitants.  Pacific Islanders’ proportional dominance of the fifteen-man code is a genuine phenomenon; not so much because of the success of their national teams (for obvious justification of which, refer: population, GDP and funding), but more so their overwhelming presence on the rosters of local, representative and professional teams worldwide.  Watching a bunch of Polynesian kids toss around a ball on the sideline, one could be forgiven for suggesting that their rugby prowess is entirely innate.  I almost choke on my ‘bula burger’ when a boy barely out of diapers throws a deftly accurate bullet pass with one hand, behind his back.  Combined with an obvious natural size advantage and a warrior spirit, this instinctive flair with all things oval ball pretty much completes the major box-ticking where usefulness on a rugby field is concerned.  The brutality of the opening exchanges in today’s final match is evidence enough; the bone-rattling intensity will barely recede all game.  (It’s telling that Samoa’s most capped international is nicknamed “the Chiropractor”).

The Samoan fly-half out there today is slightly built in comparative terms, which is to say he is perhaps somewhat larger than your average man.  But he is the virtual embodiment of that aforementioned instinctive flair.  Behind a pack chewing up advantage-line yards like a coal-mining longwall, this kid is a deadly cocktail of pinpoint accuracy and prescient game sense. For long passages of play, his relationship to the taunted defence is that of a curious, magnifying-glass-bearing child to ant on a driveway.  An early punt sails every metre of fifty and maybe a little more, on the fly, cross-field.  From the ensuing lineout the Samoans notch their first points.  Soon thereafter, looping outside an impromptu backline move, the wizardly fly-half toes a crafty worm-burner infield to find a fast-moving teammate diving for a finger-tip try.  By halftime, the men in blue are up three tries to zip.  And yet despite the obvious impact of the number ten, the Samoan dominance is really due a team performance of ruthless go-forward that’s earned them the priceless rugby commodities of space and time.  The shell-shocked Fijians have spent twenty minutes flat-footed or else back-peddling, and without so much as a passage of play to call their own.

We arrived earlier in the day to find that all tournament play is suspended for a designated midday lunch-break.  A full hour and a half is set aside to feast; these are some almighty engines to fuel:

At the southern end of the main field, a row of at least ten separate stalls are vending all manner of traditional and not-so-traditional fare – generous, protein-rich portions.  We opt for a ‘hangi’, crammed with three meat and five veg, together with a ‘bula burger’ and a few ‘keke’ (Tongan donuts), leaving behind the raw fish and mussel fritter sandwiches for the enjoyment of those with more seasoned palates.  A grassy knoll is the perfect place to unpack the hangi and soak up some atmosphere.

Clusters of relatives, running the trunk and very thinnest limbs of family trees, mill around on straw mats.  Patriarchs and matriarchs oversee their kin, conspicuous among the troupes.  Packs of young Polynesian men and women relax together in the shadows of the gum-treed fringes if not the designated team tents, clowning around, all smiles. A rugby carnival is a perfect excuse to assemble these communities.  Even far away from island homes these cultures evidently retain much tradition; an incredible number of tribal tattoos are on display today. As we survey teams warming-up for the next fixture, a group of hulking lads – boots still on, perspiration fresh from the contest – wander by in sarongs.  One out of three is wearing an American basketball singlet, which is fairly representative of the young male contingent. (Wade, James and Pippen are held in particularly high esteem.)

There’s something special about the Islander affinity for the game of rugby that is out there to be seen even when play is suspended. The good ‘spirit’ of the contest, the playfulness of sport, must be surely be linked to the way they seem to approach life, or else the way they just are. The way they seamlessly break into song and dance without a moment’s inhibition, the rhythmic swagger with which they move from A to B. (E.g. At any given moment today, at least 15% of the gathered peoples will be laughing, another 10% singing and/or dancing to the eclectic mix of calypso/reggae/hip-hop/R&B/Latin-folk/afrobeat/90s-club emanating from the clubhouse.) If it’s true to say that the Islanders know how to ‘take life easy’, then this is also how they play rugby. They rarely niggle or personalise the contest. They rarely get flustered or narky. They never seem to forget that they’re playing, nor that the beautiful side of a true sporting contest is that nothing’s ever really at stake. In other words, they take rugby easy.

And perhaps that’s got something to do with them being so unusually good at it.

Back in the feature match, the Fijians have earned themselves some possession and are starting to really throw it around. Aside from the frequent, gasp-worthy smack of body on massive body (something like a blunt-axe striking old-growth timber), there’s little noise on the field. Players on both sides just seem to know where to go – what channel to defend, what line to run.  Time has a habit of slowing down when Islanders have the ball in hand.

Whilst Fiji now has some momentum, the Samoans’ defence is as staunch as their first half attack.  The men in white have busied the scorer but the tide, albeit slowed, is still running the same way.  With only a whisper of time left, a Samoan clearing kick rolls into touch just shy of the corner post, the result all but assured.

After the final whistle, both teams come together in a single huddle. Arm-in-arm. Between the sheer declaration of war and this quiet reconciliation, we have witnessed sport as culture.

Match Day Hangi Score: 8.0

MDH Service Atmosphere: 8.0

MDH Price: $10

Match Day Score: Queensland Samoa 28 def. Brisbane Fiji 7

The Grand Final will be played Saturday, 30 November at 3.30pm, Logan City Rugby Club, Meakin Park, 200 Queens Road, Slacks Creek.

If you enjoyed this match day report, you can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill to your inbox.  Stay hungry.

Cry of the Piping Bag Goes Unheeded at Miskin Oval (Thirsty Sharks Left to Frenzy on Sugar and Ice)

Brisbane Boys’ College vs. The Southport School; Queensland GPS Rugby 1st XV, Round 9; Miskin Oval; 14/9/2013

He’s like those birds that mosey out from under your car bonnet at the last minute, always unscathed…

Report by Nicholas Turner

The Brisbane Boys’ College walk-on ceremony is one of the most distinctive in the GPS rugby competition. Following a troupe of bagpipes and marching drums, the team moves in file down and along a steep hill-face, leaving behind the pale, institutional buildings that host the real business of this place. You hear the bagpipes first. The players emerge from the coverage of trees that obscures the upper reaches of the tiny goat-track like low cloud. It’s a slow and sombre descent, almost funereal. The sound of the bagpipes is distinctly humourless, even guilt-inducing. The captain holds the ball under one arm and looks like he’s written something in great detail on the tops of his boots, something he really wants to be able to recite in full by kick-off.

There’s a sense of resistance to this long and drawn-out descent, as though the players are being pulled down onto the field, summonsed, in order to perform a duty that others don’t envy or else don’t see themselves as up to. Sometime between the top of the hill and the centre of the field, their incredible physical size resolves from a distant apparition to a real and tangible thing. The green and black hoops of BBC will today be wrapped around a forward pack that averages a hundred kilograms, spearheaded by a prop that is a particularly unforgiving and downright mean looking one-twenty. I am expecting this team, for the simplest of reasons, to win. Schoolboy rugby, the vast majority of the time, is not that complicated.

But what’s ahead on the field today is a disclaimer for brute physics and a model for strict teamwork and directional shrewdness. Because the home side, who are talent-heavy as well as being just plain heavy, and who play a vigorous and seemingly indomitable opening ten minutes, will ultimately have their pants pulled down in front of a thousand or so spectators on this, the last day of the season. BBC come into the game with a clear chance of claiming outright second in the competition; they leave the field clinging sheepishly to a heat for forth. What’s compelling about it all, from a dispassionate spectator’s point of view, is how they are outplayed in a way that’s both utterly calculated and comprehensive, a fortifying experience for anyone who ever wondered how to take down the big guy with a little rock and a strip of leather.

The guests, The Southport School, have come in reasonable numbers to see their boys close out what’s been a tidy season so far. They wear the regal maroon and navy.  The team’s second on the ladder before kick-off, and this game will determine if they’ll stay that way for the history books. They have one or two seriously big boys, but nowhere near the all-round bodily spoils of their opponents. For the first half of this game they’ll go into tactical damage control, snagging penalty points at every opportunity. It’s nothing flashy or brilliant at this stage, just a good old fashioned ‘dig-in’ where disciplined breakdown investment and intelligent rationing of bodies keeps the defensive wall fairly airtight. It’s not easy against some fierce flashes from the home side, but they manage. They even find ways to score.

The sun is rudely focussed on the away team’s stand and the supporters from the coast bolt across the field at half time to hydrate at the bubblers and get in line for snow-cones. The scores are pretty even but already there’s a sense in the air that Southport are up to something. The canteen has run out of both drinks and plastic cups for anyone who’d hoped at very least to have some water to sip on during the second half. The last vendible refreshment is the aforementioned snow-cones and the line up for them is virtually infinite.

It’s a nice day out on a field that has every right to be as atmospheric as the few other ‘snake-pit’ pitches in the GPS competition, dug out as it is in the leafy hills of Brisbane’s inner-West. Of course, there’s more to engendering a formidable home ground than topography. The field’s looking sharp and the match day programme’s glossy and advertisement-strewn and it ends with a real estate section. You can snap up colourful-looking cupcakes from the ‘Support The Bagpipes’ stall for a couple of bucks. Luxury car brands have made their way onto the goalposts and the players’ kitbags today. Mums and dads in Ralph and Gant are reliably plentiful and the recent schoolboy-sports-event staple of a coffee barista is fixed in place. But perhaps the defining image of the day, or at least the most unforgettable, is a life-sized cut-out of a current Wallaby player standing beside the canteen with some A4 paper taped to his bust advertising ‘YUMMY CHIPS’.  What’s particularly disturbing and ‘life-like’ is the fact that the expression on the replicated player’s face is exactly the look you’d expect him to wear if he was actually forced to stand at the end of a canteen line at a schoolboy football game wearing a sign that said ‘YUMMY CHIPS’. Which is to say that he looks unbelievably humiliated and pissed about it. The cakes in that ‘Support the Bagpipes’ stand are homemade and delicious.

The second half gets going and Southport soon take charge and blow the scoreboard to pieces. At the centre of it is the visiting number ten, who saunters around with ominous calm and makes good things happen in an apparent half-sleep. The defence hardly gets a hand on him all afternoon. He’s like those birds that mosey out from under your car bonnet at the last minute, always unscathed. They see things on a different time scale.

But the win really belongs to a credible plan to set up second and third-phase plays that enjoy momentum and exploit confused defence. The whole team executes this simple notion with a professionalism that leaves their opponents appearing two-dimensional and unready. Playing loose forwards in first-receiving pivot roles from a number of set plays, Southport secure ultra-quick, dependable possession time and time again. It’s then that the backline, undepleted by previous phases, runs its best moves, front-footed and well weighted, picking-off a reorganising defensive line with relative ease. It becomes a bit of a clinic.

Match Day Burger Score: 6.0

MDB Cost: $6.50

MDB Service Atmosphere: 4.0

Match Score: TSS 51 def. BBC 17

If you enjoyed this match day report, you can follow us by entering your email in the ‘follow us’ box at the end of the page or by clicking on the black ‘follow’ tab in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  You’ll then receive our reports fresh from the grill to your inbox.  Stay hungry.

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