Rugby league is a game that’s been loved throughout the ages, by all ages, and so it should be. It’s fast, exciting and can ignite a passion within us that may very well have otherwise been left undiscovered. Over time however Australia’s first grade competition, now the National Rugby League (NRL), has lost some of its character, character that can still be found within its little brother, New South Wales Cup (NSW Cup). NSW Cup is a competition comprising of 12 teams, 11 NSW based and 1 New Zealand, which feed into various NRL clubs. Its funding is limited, clubs often depend on volunteers and games are rarely played in stadiums. While this combination of factors might sound dismal, they actually create the basis for some good old school, much missed, footy.
You won’t find a NSW Cup game played under the bright lights of a half empty ANZ stadium, where it can take the better part of an hour to leave the car park after the full time whistle. Nor will you find games played at places that charge a premium for the mid-strength beer you’ll try not to spill as you climb stairs and shuffle between narrow rows to get back to your seat. Rather you’ll find them played at classic suburban grounds, where you can sit inches from the action on a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The grounds themselves are in competition, eating a sausage sizzle sprawled out on the hill at Henson Park rivals watching the sky turn pink over North Sydney oval in the final moments of a game.
North Sydney Oval
These beautiful grounds are home to clubs that are bursting with rich history and strong traditions. The Newtown Jets and the North Sydney Bears, both foundation rugby league clubs in Australia, compete in NSW Cup after famously been exiled from first grade. Their fans went with them, many swearing an oath not to return to an NRL game until their teams are reinstated. NSW Cup fans really are the most die-hard in rugby league. While every footy fan is a win for the game, the intensity of an atmosphere is certainly heightened when the crowd is comprised entirely of people whose mood will be determined by the final score. They trek from all over NSW, multiple times a season, decked out in club colours that are sometimes even inked into their skin, to cheer on their boys. Their stories are fascinating, live history lessons of their clubs greatest moments whether they were alive for them or not. And their loyalty does not go unrewarded.
NSW Cup is filled with quality players and games that make for an entertaining 80 minutes of footy. The close games are as intense as any first grade game; just ask anyone at North Sydney Oval earlier this season when the mighty Bears beat rivals Manly on the siren. Entertaining footy is supplemented by how free flowing the games are. There’s no video referee or bunker, there’s no getting suspended for a gentle pat on the ref’s back and there’s no glancing to a big screen after a try to see if it will even be rewarded. Instead celebrations are instantaneous and in the moment, something the NRL commentators pine over every first grade match as they watch a successful dummy, a great break, a 30 metre run down the field as the player slams the ball over the try line only to have the ref blow his whistle and call for review.
First grade has lost some of its character but the NRL is still a brilliant competition that does boast the best calibre of players, however if you’re one for the glory days of rugby league, rally the troops, get yourself down to a NSW Cup game and be entertained by great footy right up until the siren sounds. And when the siren does sound, be welcomed by the Bears into their change room for a post-match chant or be invited by the Jets to their sponsor pubs for a drink with the players and relive an era of rugby league many have forgotten.