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Stuck on the platform
In the AFL, the Richmond Tigers and Collingwood Magpies are among Melbourne's most passionately supported and popular teams. For a period of time, the Tiger and the Magpie were also passionately supported monikers in the NSWRL.
Like their Tiger counterparts in the VFL, the Balmain Tigers built a supporter base known for its passion. One of the most notable of these supporters was Laurie Nicolls. For more than three decades, Mr Nicolls (sporting a Tigers singlet regardless of how cold it was) would stand on the sidelines of Leichhardt Oval and shadow-box whenever his team scored.
The Western Suburbs Magpies also shared commonalities with their Melbourne namesake. Just like Collingwood, Wests were the code's battlers. In the 70s, the contests between the 'fibro' Magpies and the 'silvertail' Sea Eagles were the undisputed highlight of the season.
Although the namesakes had commonalities in each city, a significant difference was that, whereas as the Magpie and Tiger brand remained amongst Melbourne's most popular footy clubs, both fell on tough times in Sydney.
Perhaps this difference can be attributed to differences in the quality of public transportation in Sydney and Melbourne. In the 70s, the inner suburbs of both Melbourne and Sydney were gentified by people with little interest in sport. This was not a signficant problem in Melbourne because an effective public transport system made it easy for fans to continue to support their footy clubs, or the clubs of their parents, when they moved away from the inner city. (In fact, it may have helped the clubs as it spread its fans far and wide and so allowed them to spread the club gospel.)
While Melbourne has a good transport system, Sydney has a disaster. Specifically, it has a noodle network of roads that don't seem to follow any logical pattern. It's almost as if early planners sent drunk Convicts wandering after lost cows and wherever the Convicts stumbled, a road would follow. With the road system in chaos, it could be expected that governments would have stepped in to provide a good public transport system. Unfortunately, it seems the government decided that the best way to make the road system look good was to build a rail system that was even worse. For example, when standing on a Sydney train platform, it is perfectly normal to see an announcement that the train is due in five minutes. Five minutes later, the announcement still says five minutes. A further 15 minutes pass, and the sign gets updated with an announcement that the train has been cancelled and the next train is due in five minutes. By comparison, even the Italian rail system seems to have a Germanic sense of timing.
As a result of the shocking private and public transport system, most Sydneysiders tend to stay local. This has resulted in Sydney developing three separate CBDs with smaller satellite town centres. Getting to the city centre is just beyond the patience of most Sydney siders. For rugby league, the transportation problems made it difficult for the fans of foundation NRL clubs to continue to support their beloved teams once they left the area and so their children were forced to choose a more localised team. Because of such difficulties, it was the recently established clubs in the outer suburbs such as Canterbury (1935) Parramatta(1947) Penrith (1967) that were able to overtake the Magpies and Tigers in the popularity stakes.
After the NSWRL expanded from a Sydney suburban competition to a national league, all Sydney clubs struggled to compete with the one-team towns, and so the need for rationalisation placed the heads of the Magpies and Tigers on the chopping blocks.
In 1997, News Ltd launched its 'Super League' that aimed to rationalise Rugby League into a streamlined competition. Although the competition proved to be a flop, a subsequent peace deal stipulated that rationalisation of Sydney clubs must proceed. The Magpies and Tigers were told to merge or be omitted.
Due to the popularity of the Tiger brand, Balmain had many willing suitors. The Parramatta Eels wanted to call the merged team the Parramatta Tigers and base it at Parramatta stadium. For Parramatta, it would have given them an moniker attractive to those sponsors trying to build an aggressive image. For Balmain, it would have allowed them to play in the centre of Sydney.
Wests were courted by the Canterbury Bulldogs, which wanted to call the new team a name like Western Bulldogs. Canterbury also needed a new home ground and Wests' newly renovated stadium at Cambelltown fitted the bill perfectly.
But in an unexpected move, in 1999 the two struggling clubs resisted the overtures of the more powerful suitors and merged with each other - citing a synergy of cultures. Unfortunately, the external issues that shackled them as individual entities, continued to shackle them as a merged entity. For five seasons, financial difficulties forced the club to spend $500,000 less than the maximum available. Unable to entice players from other clubs, the Tigers focussed on developing their own talent. Unfortunately, their own talent invariably failed to deliver.
Just when extinction seemed inevitable, in 2005 the club made some promising moves that may indicate a very optimistic future. The kids finally delivered and made a late season charge that took them to their maiden grand final victory. After the victory, the Tigers' five-eighth, Scott Prince, declared that his team's victory was a case of a "champion team beating a team of champions" - the same catchcry used by the Collingwood Magpies in the depression age VFL.
Off the field, there were also signs of a v future. The local media latched onto the Tigers as the feel good story of the season. Thankfully, as Balmain is a yupie suburb, journalists weren't able to play up the cliched "working-class dispair" angle that they use for "laid-off" steel workers who follow the Knights or the busted-arse "struggling" sugar cane farmers that follow the Cowboys. Instead of playing the angle of a team "doing it" for a down and out community, journalists just gave the club the credit it deserved.
In other positive news, the club signed a deal to play some of its home games at Stadium Australia; thus remedying some of the transportation difficulties that had led to the demise of Wests and Balmain as individual entities. At present, a crowd of 20,000 looks pretty shabby in a stadium that can hold 70,000. But if it could bridge the gap, it could yet end up drawing AFL size crowds week in week out. If this did occur, it would be like a return to the golden age when Sydney crowds were equal to footy crowds in Melbourne.
Roy Morgan research
2004 - when compared to other NRL supporters
2006 - when compared to other NRL supporters
*Based on combination of past Magpie and Tiger icons. It is still unknown whether future generations of the combined club will think same way.
Why kind of country has four codes of "football"?