This story was first written for and published by NRL.com.
When I close my eyes and think about rugby league, I see a swirl of images in my head.
Among more recent memories of women’s rugby league and some older memories of my team playing finals footy, I flash back to a small eight year-old with blue and gold ribbons in her hair, holding her dad’s hand as they walked through the streets to watch the Eels at Parramatta Stadium.
I remember sitting with dad on the hill, cheering my favourite players like Clinton Schifcofske and Shane Whereat and then joining the other kids in running to the top of the hill, rolling down and then repeating over and over.
I would often go home with grass in my hair, grass stains on my clothes, tired, but satisfied because of a fun afternoon with my dad and brothers at the footy. Back then, results certainly weren’t as important, but I did always love to sing the team song at the end of the game.
For me, footy is about so many things. It is about family. It is about friends. It is about loving something I have no control over. It is about a sense of community that I feel and share with a whole group of people that otherwise would not have been introduced into my life, but for footy.
On my footy travels, I meet so many fans crying out for the game of the past. Perhaps some are wearing rose-coloured glasses, but they have fond footy memories of the good old days.
They want to be taken back to a time where rugby league was played at suburban grounds, without a Referees’ Bunker and fancy match-day gimmicks, where footy is the focus and families can take their kids and enjoy an afternoon together in the sunshine.
To those fans, I have a message – get back to Henson Park.
Along with Leichhardt Oval, Henson Park is my favourite of all rugby league experiences. It is genuine, authentic, and reminds me why I fell in love with rugby league in the first place.
So of course, before I head out to watch the Eels play South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, I’ll be spending my afternoon at Henson Park to watch the Newtown Jets play the Penrith Panthers in the Intrust Super Premiership.
It’s also the biggest home game of the year with the Jets putting on the annual ‘Beer, Food and Footy Festival’. It’s the cheapest day out in rugby league, with adult tickets just $15 and kids getting in free.
For some younger footy fans, who might not know about the Jets, here’s a bit about their history.
The Jets were established on January 8, 1908, at a public meeting at Newtown Town Hall. Despite being a foundation club, the Jets were suspended from the NSW Rugby League Premiership late in 1983.
Although suspended, Newtown continued to support rugby league in its junior ranks and the club was admitted back into the NSWRL First Division in 2004.
The Jets have been playing at their spiritual home of Henson Park since 2001 and plenty of people have flocked to the beautiful suburban ground over the years to be transported back in time to the footy experience of yesteryear.
So what can you expect from an afternoon at Henson Park?
You can expect wacky theme rounds. My favourite round this year was ‘Hipster Round’ where men with a beard were given free entry to the game. Apparently a woman also wanted free entry for that game too and was allowed in after lifting her arm and showing her armpit hair. I hear security is a bit lax at Henson Park.
You can expect a man named John Trad to ride a penny farthing around the ground every single time the Jets score a try.
Impressively, John can also ride one-handed because he high fives fans as he rides past, often with hordes of children following behind him. Apparently in one game the Jets scored so many points that John was just doing laps of the oval from the minute the game started, until the end.
You can expect plenty of families with picnic blankets, lots of footy doggos and kids able to run onto the field before the game, at half-time, and after the game too.
There’s also a very scratchy PA and the Jets song is always played at full time – win, lose or draw.
And then there’s the food. Good old school footy food – pies on the hill, cans of beer, and a tuck shop that still sells bags of mixed lollies.
This weekend, there will be plenty more on offer too. The ‘Beer, Food and Footy Festival’ is an annual event which started in 2016. There will be Burgers by Josh, Soul Burgers and Bovine and Swine as well as drinks by Grifter Brewery, Young Henrys and Urban Winery. Last year over 6,500 people came.
How many are they hoping for this year?
I forgot to mention one final tradition very close to the hearts of people, who go to watch the Jets.
At every Jets game, just like every other rugby league game, the score is announced. The difference at Jets games is that the same crowd is announced every single week – 8,972 – the same crowd that went to watch Newtown play their last official game in the NSW Rugby League Premiership.
I’m hoping that for perhaps the first time, since that last official game, 8972 will be there on Saturday afternoon to cheer on the Jets against the Panthers.
I’ll be there in my Jets hat, with a can of beer. You may even spot me rolling down that famous hill and having a kick on the field at the end of the game.