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Phillip Costello is behind the scoreboard holding a 'welcome' sign
Phillip Costello changes the scoreboard at Sydney’s Leichhardt Oval. The Wests Tigers’ home is one of the last old school rugby league grounds. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Leichhardt Oval: Tigers add latest chapter to rugby league colosseum’s rich history

Phillip Costello changes the scoreboard at Sydney’s Leichhardt Oval. The Wests Tigers’ home is one of the last old school rugby league grounds. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

The Wests Tigers’ home ground is still old-school cool but that may not be enough to keep the gates open

High on the hill at Leichhardt Oval, the sun sets in black and gold. It’s a twilight game at rugby league’s greatest colosseum, the most played-on field in the Australian game, and spiritual home to the NRL’s Wests Tigers. And as the golden late-autumn day slowly bleeds into the black of night, something magic stirs.

More than 12,000 fans stream in, having arrived first in a trickle then a torrent to fill the old hill, faded bleachers and concrete grandstands. Tribes of fans and families thread through narrow streets, pour in from local pubs and move across harbour water sparkling with light. The Tigers run out in their stripes and spouts of fire light up the night. All of it black and gold.

A view down the tunnel towards the field under a Tigers banner
The first rugby league match shown on TV was held at Leichhardt Oval. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
A general view of the crowd in the sun in front of the wayne pearce hill sign
Thousands come to see Wests Tigers play the North Queensland Cowboys on 20 May. Photograph: Steven Markham/AAP

On nights like this it doesn’t matter that the Tigers are dead-last in the competition, reigning wooden spooners and winners of one premiership in the last 54 years. Even when the beer queue runs long, the portable dunnies are flooded and the PA doesn’t get above a tinny whisper, the black and gold colours never run and the Moreton Bay figs at the west end stand tall and strong.

In a world of flash but empty stadiums, Leichhardt Oval, 89 years young, is still old-school cool. But the ground’s future remains in doubt without new funding for upgrades and the Inner West Mayor, Darcy Byrne, is among those calling for state and federal government contributions to “bring it up to standard” and help save a site steeped in history.

It was at Leichhardt Oval on 27 April 1957 that TCN Channel Nine screened the first rugby league match shown on TV, a 12-10 win to the Tigers over Canterbury. In the 1970s, floodlights were installed here before the SCG, meaning Leichhardt hosted the interstate battles between New South Wales and Queensland in the old “state of residence” era before State of Origin.

A general view during the round 12 NRL match between Wests Tigers and North Queensland Cowboys at Leichhardt Oval
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne describes the oval as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images

Then came the years the Tigers’ No 1 fan Laurie Nichols prowled the sidelines and concourses of Leichhardt Oval, shadowboxing phantoms in his Jackie Howe shearer’s singlet and reciting poetry (“Wayne Pearce, he’s so fierce”, “Beetso beats ‘em, then he eats ‘em”) and imploring fans to “give every inch of your heart” to the Tigers’ cause.

A foundation club of the NSW rugby league, the Balmain Tigers claimed 11 premierships, five since the club made Leichhardt Oval their home in 1934. But in the seasons since the last title in 1969 – the “great grand final heist” hatched by local coach Leo Nosworthy (and shady gamblers from the Balmain underworld, allegedly) – there’s been far more black than gold for fans.

Luke Brooks
West Tigers player Luke Brooks. The team returned for the last time this year to play the Cowboys. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

But good times returned in 1999 when the Tigers hitched their wagon to the Western Suburbs Magpies – the club they defeated in their first premiership game in 1908 – to become Wests Tigers. And although Leichhardt Oval shared home ground status with Magpies HQ in Campbelltown and Tigerland had by then been gentrified, it remained the heartland.

The oval has inspired many thrilling victories. Tigers games-record holder Chris Lawrence recalls “a packed hill in 2009 and a Benji Marshall pass to send me down the sideline for the winning try against Melbourne”, but 185-game teammate John Skandalis says “the atmosphere of playing in front of sold-out crowds at a ground so rich in history that has hosted so many legends is more memorable than any win”.

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Tim Sheens sitting in the stands
‘We’ve beaten everyone here,’ coach Tim Sheens says. ‘But we’ve been booed off too.’ Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Tigers favourite Pat Richards glows at a memory from 2005. “The sun was shining, the hill was packed with a crowd of 22,000-plus and the roar of the fans was incredible,” he says. “Robbie Farah scored a hat-trick. There really was – and is – no better place to play.” That 2005 season was the year Wests Tigers won a fairytale premiership with an unlikely band of heroes playing razzle-dazzle football with youthful exuberance.

The sign on the Keith Barnes stand
‘The hill, the light, the crowd. It’s what makes it awesome and unique,’ says CEO Justin Pascoe. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
Chairs at Leichhardt oval
Leichhardt Oval is 89 years old. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

The DNA of 2005 was at Leichhardt Oval last Saturday night. Coach Tim Sheens returned for the 2023 season with premiership stars Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah as his proteges. After a 0-7 start – the worst in the club’s history – the experiment looked a dud until the Tigers shocked premiers Penrith in round nine. Now, three weeks on, they have returned to Leichhardt for the last time this year, to face North Queensland Cowboys. “We’ve beaten everyone here,” Sheens says the night before the match. “But we’ve been booed off too.”

Every home game, as the Wangal sun sinks behind the Wayne Pearce scoreboard, Wests Tigers chief executive, Justin Pascoe, takes out his phone camera to capture the moment. “It’s one of the most spectacular sights in sport,” he says. “The hill, the light, the crowd. It’s what makes Leichhardt Oval awesome and unique and gives it mystique.” But Pascoe still wants $150m to upgrade it into “a fit-for-purpose modern facility”.

A general view of fans sitting on the hill watching the game at Leichhardt oval
In a world of flash but empty stadiums, Leichhardt Oval is still old-school cool. Photograph: Steven Markham/AAP

Whether Tigers fans want change is another matter. In days of yore the “Balmain fair go” rule of street fighting meant a rival knocked down suffered no more punishment – but it isn’t enforced tonight. The Tigers cross the stripe with 11 tries, converting each one for a record 66-18 win – their highest-ever score – to keep scoreboard attendant Philip Costello busy. A rapturous crowd floats home from the oval Sheens calls “our grand old girl” and Byrne describes as “the eighth wonder of the world”, leaving a little black and gold dust in the air.

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