July 2016

The Nation Reviewed

8972 fans

By Alex McKinnon

The Newtown Jets rugby league team has a loyal – and increasingly urbane – suburban following

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Eighth Wonder of the World! Henson Park, the home of RRRRUGBY LEAGUE and the mighty NEWTOWWWN JETS!”

So proclaims long-time ground announcer John Lynch over the PA, as the crowd files in for game day at Henson Park. It’s Saturday afternoon, and the great grass amphitheatre in the bowels of Sydney’s inner west has come alive. The jumping castle, perched concerningly at the top of a hill, is heaving with children; the kiosk is doing a roaring trade in pies and steak sandwiches; and the Mr Whippy van at the front gate is being circled by hungry-eyed five-year-olds. Meanwhile, Jetman, the Newtown Jets’ vaguely frightening blue mascot, is posing for selfies with fans.

Today is a clash of heavyweights, at least by the standards of NSW Rugby League’s second-tier competition, the Intrust Super Premiership. Newtown is playing host to the ladder-topping Mounties from Mt Pritchard in Sydney’s outer west. (The Jets aren’t too far behind.) It’s also Ladies Day. In addition to the cocktail frankfurts and plastic flutes of champagne on offer, the club is donating half the funds from the day’s meat raffle to Elsie Women’s Refuge.

Rugby league doesn’t have a stellar reputation when it comes to attitudes towards women, but the Jets occupy an oddly charming space in both the code and the surrounding community. The Newtown Rugby League Football Club was established in 1908 and has won three premierships, the last in 1943. The team was known as the “Bluebags” before adopting the sexier “Jets” moniker in 1973. Relegated from the top-rung competition in the ’80s, the club has since survived financial near-oblivion and the Super League war of the mid ’90s.

Today’s hyper-corporatised, highly regulated world of top-tier rugby league has passed the Jets by, giving home games at Henson Park a suspended-in-amber quality. Beer at the kiosk is full strength, and comes in cans for the now unheard-of price of $5. Before kick-off and at half-time, kids tear across the field in swarms, heroically failing to catch balls sent soaring by the boots of their dads. Billboards and in-game announcements extolling the virtues of online sports betting are absent, with advertising restricted to a few banners bearing the names of local pubs. If Henson Park has an on-site police or private security presence, they are masters of discretion.

Nostalgia alone cannot explain the Jets’ curious cultural cred. As the suburbs around Henson Park become gentrified, the club has managed to attract an increasingly younger, wealthier and gender-balanced fan base. Alongside the bench rows of beer-gutted old duffers with folded arms, who are found at suburban league games everywhere, the club boasts high-profile supporters like Annabel Crabb and Anthony Albanese. In the merchandise tent, vintage-era jerseys hang neatly alongside stylish bomber jackets. Earlier this year, Henson Park threw a “Hipsters Day” special with free entry for anyone with a beard (clip-on beards were also accepted).

The club’s pivot to accommodate this influx of well-heeled newcomers has been cautiously well received by the faithful. Plenty of the diehards sipping beer on the sidelines now happily pay the extra dollar to upgrade from Tooheys New to Young Henrys Newtowner, the local craft brew. “Not a bad drop,” John Lynch asserts approvingly over the PA.

But for all the club’s concessions to progress, idiosyncrasies of tradition remain. When the Jets’ five-eighth, Josh Cleeland, busts through the Mounties’ defence and scores under the posts, volunteer John Trad takes off on a penny-farthing for his celebratory lap of the oval, with blue and white flags fluttering from his handlebars. For more than eight years, “Traddy” has been lapping Henson Park every time the Jets score. On good days he’ll do this six or seven times, a scrum of deliriously gleeful kids sprinting in his wake.

As he does towards the end of every game, Lynch solemnly informs listeners that today’s crowd attendance stands at 8972 – a decades-long in-joke referencing a wet and miserable home game in the ’90s, when he made up the attendance figures on the spot. The number 8972 has been part of Jets folklore ever since.

Cleeland’s efforts aren’t enough to stop the Mounties running away with the game in the second half, and the Jets concede a respectable 12–18 defeat. After the players do a lap of the oval, shaking hands with their smallest fans, the supporters retire en masse to the Henson Park Hotel down the road.

Like the Newtown Rugby League Football Club, “The Henson” has navigated the hazardous waters of gentrification better than most, with different tribes staking out sections of the sprawling pub. The back courtyard is the domain of young professionals and gaggles of snapback-wearing uni students, while the dingier front bar is firmly reserved for old buggers and their pursuits: football and the trots. On home-game Saturdays, though, the gaps in age and income fall away. And under the gaze of legendary player portraits, the Jets’ supporters congregate, confident that their beloved team will soon fly again.

Alex McKinnon

Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media’s former morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.

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