Growden: Newtown Jets embody rugby league's Retro Round

Greg Growden

It's 3pm on a Saturday afternoon at one of Australian rugby league's most cherished sites, and the ground announcer brings us all to attention.

"Righto ref, let 'er rip." And let 'er rip, the ref did, allowing the Newtown Jets to start charging away at their opponents, Penrith.

Welcome to Henson Park, and a different, but special sporting experience.

The weekend was Retro Round in the NRL and all the talk was about mullets, shoulder pads, ill-fitting footy jerseys, going the biff, swinging arms, king hits, Controversy Corner, weird colour schemes, ciggys and beer in the dressing rooms. The weekend was thick in league nostalgia.

But if you really wanted to go retro, and be among those who don't have to put on an act and appreciate the traditions of the game, there was only one place to go- Henson Park in Sydney's inner west.

Every Saturday when Newtown are playing at their home ground, it's naturally Retro- a reminder of those times when league wasn't so caught up in the corporate world and was the game of the workers, the battlers who happily went to grounds with the bare minimum facilities to show their allegiances to the local colours.

Even if it is well over 30 years since Newtown was ejected from the NSW Rugby League premiership due to financial dramas, they remain the sentimental favourites of so many league diehards.

Nowadays playing in the second tier NSW Cup, known as the Intrust Super Premiership, Newtown still have a solid following.

Around the ground on Saturday, punters old and young- proudly wore the distinctive blue Newtown jersey- some looking as if they were three or four decades old- and reminisced of the time when their club was a Sydney premiership threat, such as in 1981 when they lost the grand final to Parramatta.

A founding member of the NSW League in 1908, the Newtown Bluebags which became the Jets in the early 1970s, was for decades a haven for tough, evocative characters, such as Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, who became one of Sydney's most feared policeman.

In the 1970s and 80s they boasted such expressive souls as Brian 'Chicka' Moore, Phil 'what's a packet of' Sigsworth, John Ferguson, Lionel Williamson, Kenny Wilson, Tommy Raudonikis, even Phil 'Gus' Gould for several seasons.

This was a straight up and down league club, with their home ground adding to their hard and rugged character. Built on an old brick pit, Henson Park is open to the elements.

There is the King George V Memorial Grandstand on one side, which has seating for a few hundred, a scoreboard, with an overhang that can shelter a few, but its main attraction is a large grassy hill, that goes almost halfway around the ground.

Great on dry days. Tricky when its wet. When it is sunny, the Hill is a delight, as on Saturday where it was covered with blankets and large groups relishing good old fashioned league, with the added attraction of a Beer, Footy and Food Festival, where local brewers and food operators were offering their wares.

The ground hasn't changed much since their last major premiership game at the ground in 1983.

The grandstand has a new roof, and the scoreboard is now electronic, while there are AFL goalposts at either end, but the facilities are pretty much the same to what it was when Newtown were taking on the big names all those years ago.

And yes, you can still park your car behind the goalposts at the western end if you want. Henson Park, unlike so many other suburban grounds, can never be labelled sterile. It is alive, a real family affair, where the crowd is made to feel welcome.

Over the afternoon, the ground announcer made certain they knew they were 'the best spectators in the world', and 'the salt of the earth.'

Rex and Betty, long time Newtown supporters, were congratulated for their 60th wedding anniversary.

There were constant calls to buy raffle tickets for a 'meat try, fruit box and a case of beer'.

The punters were asked to check their pockets as lost car keys had been handed in.

And at the end of half-time, the announcer had to gently remind several hundred children and their parents who had invaded the ground to kick footies and tackle each other, that they had to actually get off the field so the game could continue.

Eventually everyone was herded off. Play was recommenced, but within seconds had to be stopped when a lost child wandered onto the field.

So the two teams ran back to their original positions. Newtown kicked off again.

No one seemed too bothered. And Newtown continues to thrive on its old school qualities, showing immense pride in its past.

The two merchandise shops at the ground- including one up on the hill- were selling some of the best Retro T-shirts going around, celebrating their most vivid moments, including the infamous 1981 minor semi-final all-in-brawl with Manly, and players, such as Raudonikis gesticulating to a referee, underneath the words: "Not me Sir."

There's even one T-shirt showing the moment when their American import Manfred Moore in 1977 threw a gridiron pass with a football which went over the top of the King George V Grandstand.

As for the announced crowd figure, it yet again got an ironic cheer from the Hill. The number is an in joke; it is always 8972.

Adding to the joy Newtown enjoyed a late surge, winning 12-10, and with it another crackly rendition over the loud speakers of the old club song.

Newtown is Coming

Hear the Bluebags Humming

Newtown Newtown

Newtown are flying

There'll be no denying

Newtown Newtown

No wonder those who love salt of the earth footy keep going back to Henson Park. Value for money and even a chance to win a meat tray.