Last week I went to my first rugby league game. My mate is a big Manly Sea Eagles fan and he got me and my wife into Brookvale Oval with is family to see the Eagles take on the Parramatta Eels. It was a sparklingly perfect winter Sunday afternoon here in Sydney – which, for a New Yorker, felt more like spring.

The Sea Eagles are one of the better and more popular teams in the NRL; between that and the great weekend weather, the place was crowded. I can follow rugby league all right, and enjoyed the game – the Eagles absolutely crushed the Eels, who are apparently having a terrible season. We got to see the Eagles’ star David Williams, known as the Wolfman due to his bushranger-chic look, score three tries (touchdowns) right in front of where we were standing.

But mostly I was just taking in the atmosphere. Brookvale is a venerated place to watch footy – the Sea Eagles have been playing there since 1947, but it dates back almost a hundred years as a sporting facility and showground. It holds 23,000 people (there were 17,000 there that day), so it looks and feels more like a minor league park in American terms. This is partly due to the fact that at least half the teams in the NRL are based in greater Sydney, with teams representing specific areas of the city much the way London football teams do. The Sea Eagles draw fans from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and probably just about anywhere north of the bridge.

But the small size of the place is why Brookvale has such a great atmosphere. All the seats are general admission, and there’s a big open seating area on a grassy knoll that I’m told is one of the last of its kind in the league. (This was done in American ballparks back in the day too – the old Yankee Stadium had a grassy knoll beyond right field that could seat thousands of extra spectators.) The combination of history, tradition and intimacy results in a vibe that’s much like what Wrigley Field or Fenway Park are for baseball fans – except Brookvale is even more intimate. Wrigley is called “the Friendly Confines” that that tag suits Brookvale too.

It was a great day. The sharp colors (blue sky, green grass, maroon and yellow uniforms), the geometry of the pitch – the white boxes and lines forming a perfect, contained world for this brutal contest – and the ebbing and surging crowd noise lifted my spirits in a way that felt very familiar and comfortable, never mind how foreign the sport is to me. The sun setting over Beacon Hill in the distance and engulfing the pitch, the fans and the gum trees that encircle the grandstand and the grassy knoll in amber light was one of those prolonged moments that makes me fiercely happy to be living in Australia.

Reasons for me to get into the Sea Eagles, should I decide to do so:

  • My mate Dave’s opinion counts for a lot in all things
  • I feel a strong connection to the Northern beaches
  • Lots of history on the team’s side
  • You could do worse than maroon and white for colors
  • I grew up supporting the Seattle Seahawks, and there’s a nice correlation in the name
  • I like birds of prey
  • The Wolfman seems like a cool guy
  • Spending more winter Sunday afternoons at Brookvale Oval sounds good to me

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