NOT IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

”The fact is rugby league lives and breathes in western Sydney – we’re part of the community, we have been there for a century … ” (my emphasis)

(David Gallop, NRL CEO, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September, 2010)

The NRL is paranoid about the AFL’s expansion into western Sydney. And they’ve got good reason to be. Rugby League’s hegemony in the region is about to be challenged by the most popularly supported football code in the country. The AFL is cashed-up, highly organised, and rarin’ to go!

Now rugby league is playing the history card. The fact is that there was no club from outer western Sydney in the original NSW Rugby League competition when it began in 1908. There were teams from Western Suburbs (based at Ashfield) and Cumberland (Homebush), both located in what is now known as the inner west. Cumberland only lasted in the competition for a few years.

Parramatta was not admitted until 1947, while Penrith did not come into the competition until 1967.

Even Canterbury-Bankstown which straddles the “border” between the inner west and the outer west did not enter the NSWRL competition until 1935. In must be noted that in the period in which the club was formed it was rooted firmly in the middle of the western suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Western Suburbs club, a foundation member of the NSW RL in 1908 kept moving west as Sydney expanded. It relocated to Lidcombe in 1967, and then to Campbelltown in 1986. Following the merger of Wests and Balmain in 1999, a new club known as Wests Tigers was formed that play at both Campbelltown and Leichardt Oval (Balmain’s old ground).

As it turns out one of the founding clubs of the NSW Australian National Football League in 1903 was West Sydney. So there is some pre-history for AFL. However, it too was not located in what is now commonly regarded as “Greater Western Sydney”. Alas, the West Sydney club only lasted for two seasons.

There is no doubt that the NRL dominates the sporting landscape in Greater Western Sydney. Parramatta, Penrith and Wests Tigers are amongst the most highly supported clubs in the NRL. According to Gallop the crowds in the west were up 7.4% this season.

While rugby league has virtually had this territory to itself for many years it has not been for a century. There is no Super 14 Rugby franchise in the region – the Parramatta club in the Sydney first grade competition almost folded this season, nor is there a national soccer team – although that will change in 2011-2012 when the ‘Sydney Rovers’ to be based in western Sydney, but significantly not badged with a western moniker, enter the A League*.

The GWS AFL club will become the AFL’s 18th member in 2012. A senior team will play in either the VFL or the ACT AFL next season in preparation for its debut the following season.

“Team GWS” (the “custodian brand” designed to give the campaign an identity in the initial stages), is expected to announce its team colours and logo at the end of this month.

“Community engagement” has been the AFL’s mantra and the campaign to shape the look and feel of the new team from the ground up (jumper design, colours, and name) has been based on developing local “ownership” of the team, according to the brief to the marketing agency.

For its AFL debut, GWS will be based at a remodelled Showgrounds in the Olympic Park precinct at Homebush.

One of the most cynical critics of the AFL move and defender of the rugby league realm, Roy Masters notes that the AFL’s targeted fan base are the “upper middle class” that live in the Hills district – Castle Hill, Baulkham Hills and Pennant Hills (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May, 2010). The Hills district is one of the fastest growing areas in Sydney and now extends to Rouse Hill, 33 kilometres from the city.

This demographic has the means to regularly attend AFL matches and lives within close proximity of the Olympic precinct. The Hills district already has a strong AFL presence that can provide a solid base for the GWS team.

Typical of this demographic is my mate, Ab, the ex-concreter from Wagga Wagga, now operations manager for a major car parking firm in the city. He is married with two children, a dog and a budgie, and lives in the nucleus of the Hills district at Cherrybrook. He follows Collingwood in the AFL and South Sydney in the NRL (he actually goes to games!), as well as the rugby for Test matches only. He’s a theatre-goer as well.

Ab “hates the Swans – too Eastern Suburbsey and North Shore”. He plans to sign up as a member of GWS, even he though he dislikes Kevin Sheedy – “intensely”.

His sixteen year old son, Tom plays footy and soccer, and last season he played rugby union as well. He only started playing AFL last season for Pennant Hills. Not many junior rugby league teams in the area. According to the North Sydney Junior Rugby League website there are only twenty-two  teams in the Hills district.

There is no national league football club of any code located in the Hills area. Neither are there first grade rugby union or second-tier rugby league clubs. Soccer is widely played at the junior level and in parks for seniors.

However, there are two premier league Sydney AFL clubs, Pennant Hills (formed in 1971) and the East Coast Eagles (founded as Baulkham Hills in 1993), and as Masters notes “a strong AFL junior competition”.

It is in the junior ranks that the AFL is concentrating its efforts and bearing fruit. The Western Sydney Junior AFL competition – that stretches from Campbelltown to Penrith and up to the Blue Mountains -now has fifteen clubs and two divisions for the age groups from 10 to 16. The four Hills junior clubs – Pennant Hills (10 teams), Baulkham Hills (11), Westbrook (11), and Kellyville (14) compete in the North Shore junior competition. This does not include Auskick numbers.

The East Coast Eagles last year’s premiers are now based at Bruce Purser Oval – a new purpose built oval for AFL in Rouse Hill. Next year perennial finalist Pennant Hills will locate to a redeveloped sporting complex in Cherrybrook that will provide for the club’s senior and junior growth. Just around the corner from Ab’s house, and close to the state primary and secondary schools that have amongst the highest enrolments in NSW.

East Coast has again won its way into the Sydney AFL grand final after beating Western Suburbs in the preliminary last Sunday. The Eagles will be attempting to end Sydney University’s 15 match winning streak that saw the Students finish top of the ladder with a 16-2 record.

East Coast and Uni. will also clash in the Under 18s, while the reserves will be between Uni. and UTS (University of Technology, Sydney).

The Sydney AFL grand final will be played in greater western Sydney at the Blacktown Olympic Park this Saturday (18 September).

Also emerging in western Sydney are newly formed or reinvigorated senior clubs in lower divisions of the Sydney AFL. This season Moorebank Sports won the Division III title by beating Penrith, while in Division IV new club Auburn defeated Moorebank Sports.

Meanwhile, Penrith won the Under 18 Divison II premiership by beating Holroyd-Parramatta.

The story of football in western Sydney is not all about rugby league. Clearly it is the heartland of rugby league but it is not omnipresent; the AFL presence while not as significant is growing steadily in all the right areas. The challenge is for the GWS AFL team to capture that support and translate it into success for the game over the next century.

*A report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 September suggests that that this proposed new A League club may not be ready for the 2011-12 season because of lack of finance.

Comments

  1. Rod – very good piece. You make some interesting points.

    Just by way of background, I live in West Pennant Hills. Cherrybrook Shops are my local. I grew up in Melbourne, so may be atypical of the new recruit that GWS is looking for. Having been a member of the Swans for 16 years, I am certainly not about to jump ship.

    A couple of observations – just my opinions:
    * The brand so far has been so heavily linked to the “western suburbs” that it will lack association for those living in the Hills District. Without putting to fine a point on it, Hills people may see themselves as more aligned with what you mention as the typical Sydney Swans supporter (location-wise)than those appearing to be targeted by GWS.
    * The rise of Kieran Jack has been very timely in terms of the Sydney Swans hold in the area – having grown up in the Hills District and his father continuing to be a local identity.
    * Sydney Swans supporters have tended to drop off in terms of crowd attendances when the Swans have not been travelling too well (even whilst in the 8). This has changed a little of recent times as “second generation” Syd Swans supporters make up more of the crowd, but would still be a concern for the AFL in terms of having “core support”.

    Personally, whilst ever the optimist, I feel that GWS will be a tough gig.

    That is all
    Arma

  2. Good Article Rod
    You could aslo add that Auskick had been compulsory in most Western Suburb schools for up to 5 years. Having a local team to cheer for might give a boost to the sport’s popularity beyond school time and cross into greater junior development and invlovement in the area
    Cheers
    TR
    PS Ive nearly completed the bio of Tim.

  3. Also. There is quite a push for GWS in the ACT with the possibility of up to 4 games a year none of whcih I will be attending while one K Sheedy has any role at the the club.
    TR

  4. I reckon the reason that junior rugby league numbers are dropping off is because of the domination at this level by kids from the Pacific Islands. The game of junior RL has changed dramatically. The PI kids are great at both rugby codes, but there are more opportunities in the NRL. The recruiting of Iraeli Folau is a masterstroke by the AFL. Let’s hope he can attract more kids from a pacific heritage to play AFL.

  5. Ted Pleming says:

    Great article Rocket. I did a bit of research on crowd attendances after Mr Gallop’s article to see if RL was as popular in Western Sydney as was suggested. The 4 RL teams in Western Syd (Penrith, Parra, West Tigers & Canterbury) averaged 16,813 fans per game in the 2010 season. These averages include games at large Stadiums such as ANZ & SFS. Given the population of Western Syd,in excess of 2.0 Mill, you would hardly call this a dominant position. In fact the “heartland” of RL is more evident in Qld where the Brisbane Broncos ave 33,272 for home games & Gold Coast 17,877. If you were to rank all 32 AFL & NRL teams in terms of ave home attendances, the AFL teams rank above every NRL team except Brisbane which ranks 12th overall. The #1 ranking of course is Collingwood with over 63,000 ave attendance. Based on these NRL crowd attendances alone I don’t think GWS has much to worry about as yet, & Sheedy is also a master at marketing the game.

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