Cleary column: "Brookie full has that ephemeral, know-it-when-you’re-amongst-it thing called atmosphere"

Super Rugby
by Matt Cleary

Leading Australian sports writer MATT CLEARY attended the Waratahs-Hurricanes at Brookvale Oval for Here is his take on a night of Super Rugby in the suburbs. 

Brookvale Oval is a storied old chunk of concrete and multi-coloured grass, a blotchy field of dreams bordered by established oaks, industrial zones and red brick suburbia.

Famous St Augustine’s College is on one side, on the other is a pet shop, a servo and Macca’s.

The Leaguies call it Lottoland, but it’s Brookie and will be forever. And the joint, tonight, is jumpin’.

Well, not really. It’s not “jumpin’”. It’s a game of rugby not Freddy Mercury at Wembley. And truth be told, first half anyway, the game’s something of a damp squib.

There’s 17,111 people in, which means Brookie is full-to-heaving. It’s just that the footy on the field leans to the attritional. 

But it will become markedly better. Indeed it will become nearly golden, particularly for a local kid from said college. 

But there’s butting of heads to do first.

For now we’ll travel back in time and tense to a Brookvale brewery with the same name as a nomadic biker squad; a bustling warehouse full of bearded men drinking tins of pale ale.

Severely understaffed, it’s four-deep at the bar, and cash only.

We debunk immediately, outwards, northwards ho, to the famous Brookvale Hotel where dozens of blue-shirted lasses provide a steady flow of fluids to the big match masses.

The Brookie Hotel knows a crowd for a big game. There are mighty steaks and many big TVs. It’s the beaches’ pre-match boozer du jour. Helps that it’s a hundred metres from the ground. 

Soon enough we’re up the road among the evocative smells from barbecued sausages. There’s white rolls, snags on the burner, onions, dead horse from a plunger. It’s footy food. Soul food. Nothing flash at a dinner party. But here, in context, accept no substitute. 

Into the ground and up into Ken Arthurson (Stand), and you’d describe the crowd as healthy. They’ll declare a sell-out and when there’s 17,000 in Brookie, that’s as many as you’d want to fit in. Yet there are pockets of seats free here in Ken Arthurson, and many southern end corporate boxes sit empty and dark like spooky churches of the night. Or something. 

Regardless, we take a pew front row and there are few places you’d rather be. Looking out over the ground, at high-quality footy, yapping with your pals. Old boys love this stuff. Behind us sit Tahs’ alumni Dean Mumm, Brett Sheehan and Julian Huxley. Phil Waugh appears, today some type of blazer-wearing ambassador. They meet and greet, yap about the game. People love a day at the rugby.

NSW Rugby is not unaware of this – how could they be?

They are these people, albeit like Waugh, blazer-wearers, officials. But they’ve seen thousands at the derby game, Marlins and Rats, at Manly Oval and Rat Park. They’ve seen 20,000 at North Sydney Oval for grand final. They’ve seen the throngs of rugby people knocking back tinnies on hills, standing sideline among their pals, kids bolting about, sliding around. And everyone urging on their tribe. 

And the blazers have decided: we will have us some of that.

And thus they’ve brought the Waratahs to the people, not the other way around. Admittedly the destruction of the stadium formerly known as Allianz has forced their hand. But it makes sense to fish where the fish are. This is not the rocket science that launched Sputnik. 

Brookie full has that ephemeral, indescribable, know-it-when-you’re-amongst-it thing called atmosphere.

Put 17,000 out at Homebush and the atmosphere is that of deep space. That many at Homebush look like specks of fried rice around the world’s biggest wok. That many in Brookie, though, filling the hill, the Jane Try grandstand, the surrounding concourses, and it feels thick, busy and good. 

Kids will never forget this stuff, the mass roar of a crowd, of adults investing in a game, in their tribe. Anthropologists could maybe tell you why. Footy fans just know it when they feel it.

Alas, we’re not feeling it tonight, though, not yet. First half, the game’s a bludger. Penalty goals are traded with knock-ons. Scrums leave the surface like the aftermath of red kangaroo fight club. People watch from a long and serpentine queue for beer. There’s a couple of hard charges by Israel Folau that briefly excite. But little other lightning. And at half-time it’s 12-10 to the men in blue, the Hurricanes decked out in mostly black kit with hot green flashes, like pixel people from Tron.

Half-time entertainment is local rugby tykes bolting up and back, a relay won by the Narrabeen Tigers. Three men nude all bar sluggoes fling things from a giant rubber-band flinging thing, sending missiles into the crowd, presumably packets of free sluggoes. It is not entertaining. Security trails them closely, instincts perhaps conflicted by these legal streakers. 

The biggest cheer of the evening thus far comes from the Bronx when the referees finally join the 30 players and 17,000 fans waiting for kick-off. I head downstairs for a comfort break, return to hear my pals gleefully describing a brilliant tap-on by Jed Holloway, a bust by Israel, and Curtis Rona burning them all into the corner. 

The Canes reply. They shift it across, through the hands, ruck. They shift it the other way, through the hands, ruck. They shift it again, hands, hands, hands ... knock-on. And the Tahs come from everywhere, back-slapping, the hill and Jane Try faithful at one with them. Good times, Tah people.  

Karmichael! The hot-stepping former Reds and league man, Karmichael Hunt, runs several hard and tidy lines, jagging away, rocking across the advantage line, a tasty No.12. The Hurricanes have a man with NRL on his CV, too – Ngani Laumape - a chunky hard-acre, he crashes through a succession of would-be tacklers. And you wonder: where are they making these people?

And then the game gets good. It becomes more than mere contest. It’s sweat and spit, blood and bone. Big bodies are thrown into melees. There are physical shots. And the old boys behind us rub their collective goat beards and muse – this is hard footy, and no argument. Can’t fault ‘em for endeavour. More endeavour than HMS Endeavour.

Karmichael! Again! The woolly-maned romper-stomper breaks through with a series of little steps in traffic. He could step his way from out back of a crowded lift. They used to call him “Special K”. He’s 33 end of the year. There still looks plenty sap in him. 

With 17 minutes to go it’s NSW by six.

Prop Rory O’Connor comes on –  the Rat, once of adjacent St Augustine’s. The local boy. Means plenty in these parts. But he’s in a man’s world now, and the Hurricanes come hard, again and again.

There’s a succession of fearless, diamond-hard charges, repelled by battered blue jumpers. Michael Hooper makes three tackles in five rucks. The last one can’t halt a try under the posts - but video of an elbow in his throat can. 

“Been doing it all day!” declares an old boy behind us, and there is laughter in Ken Arthurson. 

And so the trees waft in the breeze and the Hurricanes of Wellington and several eastern regions of north island New Zealand bomb away. With six minutes to go, debutant Du’Plessis Kirifi (again, where are they making these people?) scythes through and celebrates with his people. 

Jordie Barrett takes the kicking tee nearly to half way and smashes the conversion straight over the black dot, frozen rope. It’s Canes by one. And the smattering of yellow-and-black-clad fans are up as one. It means plenty, to come to this stadium, to beat this quality opponent. Aussies? All the better.

And then the local kid knows a moment in time.

Two minutes to play and a Waratahs knock-on sees a scrum 15 metres into Wellington territory. The Canes’ pack must know a shove is coming. And yet the Tahs’ 8 are irrepressible – there’s a huge, perfect, eight-man drive, led by the burly O’Connor, and the black-and-iridescent-green-bits front-row of Wellington buckles upwards and back. Penalty to NSW. And the people roar. O’Connor is mobbed. 

And Bernard Foley has a shot to finish it, near enough in front, 35m out.

Alas, as you may have read or otherwise consumed in this and other media, Foley, the Hero of NSW in 2014, hooks a kick he’d make 29 times out of 30. And Tahs are sad.

But they’re not dead. They nearly are. And they probably will be. But as music booms from the loudspeakers for the first time tonight, they attack through a thousand phases. The hooter blares. More phases. A couple of penalty kicks see NSW claw their way into the business end of the park. “Here we go, down town,” says a man. 

Alas, where they go is brown town: a dud line-out throw, the ball into touch. Game over. And the teams rest. Shake hands. Bloody tough old hit-out. 

And so we file out for a pizza at a local institution on Pittwater Road. And over an excellent jumbo Siciliana and a carafe of rough house rouge, we decide that the game, like dear old Brookie, was rough around the edges. But ultimately very good.

They built it, and we came. And we would again. Long live Brookie.