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RUGBY LEAGUE
Matt Cleary
Jul 20 2020

Remember that show Ripping Yarns that was on telly around 1980 and had such episodes as "Murder at Moorstones Manor”, “Roger of the Raj” and "The Testing of Eric Olthwaite”?

Never heard of it? Never mind. Because if you can download or stream or however people watch olden days television in these modern times (suck it onto an Android?), I would advise that you do. Created by Michael Palin and Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, there’s a dozen or so episodes, and it’s pretty funny stuff.

My favourite is “Golden Gordon”, about football fan, “Gordon Ottershaw” (Palin), who supports a small club called Barnstoneworth United. So mad a fan is Gordon that his sons' names are “Barnstoneworth” and “United”, and breakfast conversation involves recitations of the team lists of every Barnstoneworth United team, including reserves, from the club’s inception.

Once successful in the Yorkshire Premier League, Barnstoneworth United today lose every game, after which Gordon returns home to smash up his furniture. At the end they recruit a bunch of old champions, and actually win a game. And Gordon returns home to smash up his furniture.

And so! Regardless of segue we’ll take you straight into present tense and June of 2014 and a schooner at the venerable North Sydney Hotel for the pre-game build-up to the Frank Hyde Shield match between North Sydney Bears and Newtown Jets.

sl-20140518-0199-rugby-league-nsw-cup-north-sydney-bears-newcastle ...North Sydney Oval's hill tribe speaks.

These two “Establishment” rugby league clubs have been about since 1908 and both own storied histories. Yet like Barnstoneworth, their top-flight glory days are behind them.

Yet both clubs cling on. They live, they are entities, their top-grade teams playing in NSW Cup as reserve grade feeders to NRL clubs. Why they're here is a long and in part sad story, and part of the rich tapestry of this sporting life.

As is the carpet at North Sydney Hotel. Established in 1927 and “boasting Sydney’s first drive-thru bottle shop”, the pub - called "Percy’s" after the publican’s dad - is all maroon carpet and rustic fittings. There’s a bunch of different beers, TVs with sport on them, and droid-machines into which gamblers pour money for little or no return, my but I hate the blind bastard things..

I’m here with some golfing mates, notably the great "Terror Bear" himself, Don McKinnon, who played 183 games for North Sydney from 1977-87 and wasn’t far off being prop in the Bears Team of the Century. 

A former policeman with the look of an old-fashioned “Walloper” (though he's quite a nice fellow, mostly) Big Donnie was a powerful proposition in full flight, and had a mantra for the opposition defensive line that went: “Don’t tackle high and you won’t get the elbow.”

In round 26 of 1999 the Bears played their last top-flight (in this case NRL) game, a 28-18 win over North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville. They'd won their first three games of the season and their last two but had 16 losses in between. They had relatively little money. They'd turned down Rupert Murdoch's early in the internecine Super League War. And now "the game" - effectively television - was telling them to merge with the bastards the other side of Spit Bridge, or die.

So they merged, entering into an ever-doomed co-joining with hated local rivals Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. And a terrible entity was born: Northern Eagles. Riven by factionalism, in 2002 Manly's suits manoeuvred a take-over and the club became Manly again. And the North Sydney Bears could please themselves, and go back to being the Bears again. Which for a while was effectively nothing.

And fans have been steaming since.

Today's Tale - Bring back the who? Bring back the Bears!Done and done.

The Newtown Jets, meanwhile, didn’t have any money, and folded in 1983, just two years after they’d made the grand final. John Singleton had pumped a lot into them, recruited enough top players to make the decider in '81. But it couldn't last forever.

Yet the club, bless it, survives. And still has fans. Indeed they've got a growing base of bearded hipsters. And at Henson Park on any given Sunday they sit on their hill and drink tinnies from eskies, and buy blue-and-white merchandise in numbers that NRL clubs covet. 

And when they play the Bears they come to Percy’s in their jumpers, beanies and scarves. And you realise: if you follow either of these teams, you are a True Believer. You can empathise with Golden Gordon. You’re a fan, a supporter. And a bit of a kook. 

North Sydney Bears Game Day Experience, North Sydney Oval, Sydney ...North Sydney Bears mascot Fat Chewbacca

We tip back middies of Resch's (it seems the done thing) and wander across the road and and into North Sydney Oval, once known as “Bear Park”, now North Sydney Oval. There’s a bunch of old stands with old boys' names on them, with corrugated roofs, faded green paint and long bench seating. There are long swathes of grass on the hill. There’s a selection of VB, Tooheys and largely-ignored light beer in the bar.

And there at the northern end sits the majestic old Moreton Bay fig tree from whose boughs have swung generations of Bear cubs. The fig is North Sydney Oval, as are the old boys like Donnie who left all that cauterised skin tissue on the sun-baked cricket pitch which was once harder than the hardest iron.

The Jets run out, a bunch of well-muscled chunky men typical of modern times. If one of these guys had been about in Donnie’s time he’d have been seen as an engorged superman, a circus freak, marvelled at, even feared. Today, even the wingers are bulked up like a bag full of cricket balls.

There’s the Bears’ mascot, a mangy black Wookie thing. There’s the great Lote Tuqiri, running about in the centres for the Bears. He’s won premierships with Brisbane Broncos, Bledisloe Cup Tests for Australia. It’s both admirable (what a clubman) and sort of sad (given past glories) that the 35-year-old is still playing. But then, what else would he be doing? Playing parcheesi? He’s being paid to play footy. Good luck to him.

My mate Blacky, a one-time water walloper*, introduces me to an old colleague of his and Donnie’s, Mick Drury. Nice fella. Later Blacky explains that Mick was once shot with several .357 calibre hollow-point bullets while on duty as an undercover detective working for the drug squad because a drug king-pin called Alan Williams had enlisted NSW detective sergeant Roger Rogerson who’d paid a hitman to kill Drury in a drug sting gone wrong.

So how about them apples.

North Sydney Oval | AustadiumsBear Park remains a grand old place to watch footy.

And so to kick-off and it’s a willing affair of sub-prime standard, as you'd expect. And initially the Bears get belted. The club’s last first grade premiership was in 1922. Their last grand final was when famous Frank Hyde captain-coached the club in 1934. And it seems today's players could do worse than resurrect a few of those old boys because, early on, it’s all Jets. The “Bluebags” fling the ball around and bash the Bears like Rocky on a carcass in the meat fridge.

But the Bears come back. Bear attack! There’s a backline movement and a winger flies through the air and plants the ball in the corner. Our referee in pink, bereft of television replays, looks to both touch judges and, in the time-honoured way, points to the spot with a hand shaped like a karate-chop hand, puts the whistle to his mouth and blows the very pea out of it. 

Top flight NRL misses this spontaneity with its admittedly-more-likely-to-be-correct-than-naked-eyes video and bunker system. But you can't stop "progress".

There’s some push-and-shove and such-forth as a Bears’ player lies prostrate on the ground. A dozen medical types come out to assist, and our man is put into a neck-brace and onto a stretcher. I see his father and brother, all eyes, waiting to meet the stretcher as the player’s taken off. Dad leans down to talk to son. Alex McKinnon wouldn’t be far from his mind. (Our man will make a full recovery.)

And so the show goes on, as the show must, and the Bears score again. The AC/DC song “TNT” plays over the speaker system. And it’s a four-point game, the Jets up 20-16. Then the Jets score again and lead by 10. And then they win.

And back to the boozer we go. And no-one smashes the furniture.

* Water police.

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Matt Cleary
Editor Matt Cleary is an award-winning sports writer, contributor to The Guardian, Inside Sport, Big League and Inside Rugby, among several dozen other journals. Matt has interviewed just about everyone in Australian sport, and has a massive Rolodex of Australian sports folk. Matt is the Tribune’s head curator of content.
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