There’s no rugby league experience quite like a Newtown Jets home game. The big stadiums will never be able to match the charm, passion and community spirit of a place like Henson, a beacon of suburban footy.
A mere seven and a half kilometres south-west by road from the centre of the Sydney CBD, in the giant and proud suburb of Marrickville, sits historic Henson Park. It’s a nine-hectare square of bitumen, brick walls, stone walls, wooden benches, beer taps and home to probably the biggest slope of grass in the city. In the context of the “super stadiums vs suburban grounds” footy debate currently being played out in NRL circles, Henson is routinely produced as ammunition for those who stress the importance of maintaining rugby league’s grassroots community culture.
And suburban Henson Park certainly is, surrounded on all sides by the same dark-red brick residential houses scattered right across Sydney’s inner-west. On the outer layers of the Marrickville onion sit pubs, and primary and high schools, as well as various forms of light industry; craft brewers likely among them.
On a beautiful late-July arvo, we’re here for the Newtown Jets’ second-annual Beer, Footy And Food Festival-themed home game, put on with the help of The Music and Booze Company. Henson is accessible from the busy Sydenham Road. Normally, Newtown fans can watch their beloved former Bluebags through the windscreens of their cars, but not today; there’s too many people around for that. As such, the Jack Chaseling Drive, named after the legendary rugby league pioneering official, is closed off to cars. You can still walk up it though. As you approach the ground, you can hear the ground announcer reading out adverts for local club sponsors over sketchy speakers. You can smell the liniment from the players’ sheds … and you can already taste those sausage sizzles.
After paying your way past the friendly blokes standing in front of the Charlie Meader Memorial Gates, a glorious rustic brick archway older than your granddad and named in honour of the legendary groundsman and caretaker, you’re in. At the top of Henson Park’s giant hill is an ant-line of white-topped beer and food marquees. To access the good stuff within these stalls you’ll need some tokens. The lines are long, but the people selling the tokens are working wonders under pressure.
Local food purveyors Bloodwood Restaurant, Mary’s Newtown, Clem’s Chicken Shop and Cow and the Moon all have stalls. Footy-goers can take their pick from Young Henrys, Shark Island, Wayward, The Grifter, Colonial Brewing Co. Margaret River, Batch or Akasha to wash it all down.
Today the Jets are hosting the New Zealand Warriors. Your author was invited to a club fundraiser night at Petersham RSL a few weeks after this particular match, and was told this day attracted over 4,100 paying adults. The club’s success isn’t based on just winning. People are here at Henson – the site of its fair share of bloody and brutal characters and matches – for a real rugby league atmosphere, the type of experience you imagine crowds on those retro YouTube videos were having in the ’60s and ’70s. Except this is beyond the internet. You know, real life.