Canberra Day – a celebration of the capital’s home ground and “local” team

March signals the change in seasons. Like all leafy environments, the national capital becomes a vibrant hue of red, orange and gold as the protective canopy of elms, oaks and birch trees slowly falls allowing the sun to filter through to provide much needed warmth during the impending winter chill. Canberra has four distinct seasons. Trying to get elected. Trying to stay elected, with approximately nine days of actual governing in between. Thankfully the football and cricket seasons offer some relief for the constant political cycle although I think people from outside of Canberra care more about the machinations on the hill than those who live here. Unless you’re a public servant under a coalition government.

All four occur at or in close proximity to Manuka Oval. The ground has been part of the Canberra landscape since 1929 and has gradually matured and grown along with the suburbs that surround it. Manuka sits in the inner south of Canberra amongst the city’s more prestigious suburbs and diplomatic residences. They were, for the most part, Canberra’s original residential areas and Manuka is their hub. How fitting that the oval hosts our two most popular national sports.

Manuka Oval has slowly transformed over the past 20 years with the addition of covered grandstands and a complete restructure of the playing surface prior to hosting games in last year’s Cricket World Cup. The installation of the giant fly swatters now illuminate the ground for night games. Mind you the local burghers objected loudly to the new intrusions in their important lives basically put up the fading curtains argument that Queensland espoused in dismissing daylight saving.

The parking has always been dreadful, as has the catering, but Manuka Oval is Canberra’s spiritual sporting home having seen the likes of Bradman gracing its pristine playing surface in his final ever game – a surface that is marginally larger than the MCG – while Prime Ministers from Menzies to Hawke have watched from the stands. All three now have stands named after them and the old MCG scoreboard watches over the eastern flank. It has the cathedral end to the south and the old Manuka pool end to the north.

Football has been played at the ground since its’ opening. The huge influx of government employees from Melbourne in the ’50s and ’60s ensured the native game quickly became established as the capital’s premier code with crowd averages of 5,000 more the norm than the exception. The AFL administration both locally and nationally failed to capitalise on that popularly and the eventual introduction of the Canberra Raiders and then the Brumbies left local footy in the doldrums as clubs folded or amalgamated. The ACTAFL’s recent foray into the NEAFL has been equally incompetent fracturing the local competition even further. Amateurs playing against full time footballers was never going to work.

The AFL tried to spark interest back into Canberra when North Melbourne reached agreement with the local government to play competition games in 1998. The Arden St mercenaries began a modern trend of selling home games, and their souls, to assist the cash-strapped club. The Roos built up a steady local membership and played one pre-season and two competition games a year, normally against WA and SA clubs or similar struggling Melbourne teams. However they did play the Swans each year and the full house sign was normally required. North departed in 2006 seeking richer offerings. While understanding North’s need for financial viability is did the code no favours particularly after ACT Government had forked out $400K per game only to have North turn their back on the town.

The Bulldogs and Demons played for the next four years to underwhelmed crowds and it seemed the AFL Canberra experience was a shot duck. Eddie, all for the development of the game, said that Collingwood would never come back. Much to the joy of 95% of the population. Not deterred the local government saw an opportunity with the emergence of the GWS. It probably helped that the Chief Minister is an AFL supporter. The deal was done and the Giants signed a 10 season deal to play four games in Canberra each year. For $24M. Understandably, non AFL folk were none too happy about this splurge of tax payer’s money, particularly on a team that had no history or fan base. Most of the whining came from the inner south, a group that had thrown their often fickle loyalty behind the rah rahs up the road.

The local government held its nerve and a young Giants ran onto Manuka Oval in 2012 notching up the club’s first victory against the Suns. To say interest was moderate would be an exaggeration. Crowd numbers were low with supporters of the visiting teams outnumbering the GWS fans by 10 to one. Slowly the support has grown and last year the AFL finally agreed on a fixture that saw Geelong come north to play before a full house. This year sees the Cats return along with Richmond and Port. The amount of orange, black and white has increased and a sense of ownership has slowly grown. Certainly more than is being invested by the home fans in the western suburbs of Sydney.

There has been a recent announcement that the Giants, in association with Grocon, want to undertake a major redevelopment at Manuka Oval. The plan is the build an $800M precinct that includes further development of the ground, grandstands and change room facilities, car parking along with hotel and retail facilities. Hopefully they will also teach the caterers how the pie warmers work. Predictably the NIMBYs of the inner south were quickly on the front foot with their concerns about the attack on the heritage values of the area. The same people who have knocked down and rebuilt the majority of the original homes in the area. Telopea Park, and the high school of the same name, do hold special memories for many I’m sure. The toilets at the former was a renowned meeting for local men who chose to find a partners through less traditional means. The latter was where Jezza went to school along with the 783 other kids that were apparently in his class and has the most dysfunctional curriculum in Canberra with French and English teaching streams who have never found a middle ground or language.

Hopefully common sense will prevail, which will be a rarity in this town, and the expansion occurs. The Giants will be competitive again this year and should play finals. They need to in order to gain some traction in their home turf. Until then Canberra will fly the flag for the new franchise. Sadly, I fear most flags flying at the ground in coming months will read “Save our Dunnies”.

So on the day we celebrate the anniversary on the first sod being turned, or turning up, in the national capital, may Manuka Oval affirm its rightful place as Canberra’s sporting Mecca. A place where the pollies and masses can mix in celebration of our truly national game. Canberra means meeting place. Long shall we all meet at the footy at Manuka.

About Tony Robb

A life long Blues supporter of 49 years who has seen some light at the end of the tunnel that isn't Mick Malthouse driving a train.


  1. Peter Schumacher says

    I love Manuka Oval the way it is but then I loved the Adelaide Oval the way it was, and now look, Adelaide has a beating heart. Let’s do the same for Canberra.

    I wince when I read how the code itself was allowed to flag, because the emergence of the Raiders in particular, and the Brumbies, created a local excitement that Rules could only dream about. Aussie Rules was a sleeping has been

    Just think for example if an AFL team based say at Ainslie had been able to get going at national level. Don’t go saying that Canberra could not have supported a top tier team, other codes have proved that it could have been done. Just damned licky that other codes have not taken over

    Incidentally, look at Tasmania. that’s another basket case that the League couldn’t give a stuff about. Just damned lucky that other codes have not taken over.

  2. Manuka Oval is a shit hole & that’s putting mildly, If the AFL think that is a fit ground to play our fantastic game on, they need to have a good hard look at themselves. They certainly aren’t worried about the spectators.

  3. Dave Brown says

    I disagree Judy – Manuka is a perfectly serviceable oval with a air of something special about it as well described by Tony (with all of the flaws as noted too). As for the GWS proposal I suppose the question may be what the expectation of public $ may be than what is the higher priority for Canberra’s amenity in terms of a city rugby stadium or a revamped Manuka. As Peter highlights, Adelaide demonstrates it is possible to get it right stadium wise. Hopefully they do with Manuka.

  4. Tony robb says

    Thanks Peter
    sadly Canberra does have a history of cutting and running when it comes to National teams ie Soccer and Basketball. The argument with Canberra and Tassie always been the lack of big corporate sponsors in a small market place. Manuka development is a good back up in sustainability of incom

    Judy I agree that the management of major sports events has been appalling. but the ground itself is a great playing surface and heaps of space for open play.The redevelopment would hopefully resolvr the issues of spectator amenities.

    Dave I think it works of the government doesn’t have to kick with anyting other than land and a city oval is a long off given the need for a new convention center and more light rail


  5. TR – I lived in Canberra from 81 to 97. More memories of the racetrack and Narrabundah dogs than Manuka. Went there for the PM’s XI cricket a couple of times. My memories are of it being primitive but picturesque. Remember going to the ACTAFL at Woden a few times.
    Ironically for a dedicated Eagles man these days (then a Saint) my only memories of AFL in Canberra was the dying days of Fitzroy out at Bruce Stadium before the Raiders when it still had a running track. Saw them play the Eagles in their pomp (96 I reckon) with a lot of young Lions who went on to star at Brisbane and elsewhere. Boyd, Primus, Chris Johnson all come to mind.
    Best of luck with the Manuka redevelopment (sounds like a good plan to me) and the Giants. You need Cameron on the field, not serving time for flattening blokes. Ah, youthful overenthusiasm. Remember watching Bob Hawke’s 81 Election speech from the front bar of the long demolished Wellington Hotel, while living in the hostel down the street toward the old Parliament House.
    Too soon old, too late wise.

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