Gold Coast 28 St George 24 (NRL)

Gold Coast Titans 28 St. George Illawarra 24 (08/06/2009)

It’s fair to say I never took to rugby when I was growing up. Much of it is down to association. The only time I ever saw a rugby ball was at school, so to me rugby is intrinsically linked with being at school.

Worse than that, I think rugby, and I immediately think of that Monday morning back to school depression. I think back to having to go out and play in the cold and rain on a muddy pitch, with people – and I was one of the biggest offenders – too incompetent at the basic skills to make anything resembling a worthwhile game take place.

I never got the game, even in later years. The basic act of moving the ball forwards always seemed so frustratingly awkward. I couldn’t understand why, at some time in the last 150 years, nobody has thought that being able to pass forwards might make it a better flowing game.

I even hated the pitch of the whistle when blown for infringements. Even when England won the world cup, it did nothing for me. Rugby, like algebra, TB jabs, and trying to avoid getting a wedgie from any “big lads”, was something I was glad to have left behind.

A trip to Queensland presented me with an opportunity to give the game a second chance though. Not only is it a heartland of the game, it’s not an area that has winters like England. An interview with an English player at a Queensland club, started “so, what’s it like to wake up each morning with the sun shining?” Rugby here wouldn’t be the cold and damp experience of my youth.

It it also wouldn’t be the same kind of rugby. I “played” – I use the term loosely – union, while League was king here. Maybe in a proper professional setting, I’d see it in a different light. The best setting, without doubt, would be Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, a 52000 seat temple of the game. Sadly Brisbane’s team was not at home when I was there, but there was a game taking place nearby on the Gold Coast.

I’d always planned to take a day trip to the Gold Coast anyway. The most famous part of the Gold Coast region is Surfers Paradise, but it’s actually around 25 miles of beach, about half of which is developed. The southern tip is Coolangatta, where a large rocky hump marks the border with New South Wales, where it becomes Tweed Heads on the other side, as well as being the most easterly point on the Australian mainland. From here you can clearly see the skyscrapers, up to 1000ft high, which line the beach at Surfers Paradise.

The Gold Coast is Australia’s fastest growing city, and it certainly feels the newest. Travelling round it you kind of imagine any building predating the 21st century would bear a blue plaque declaring it a historical monument. It’s not some dreary antipodean Milton Keynes though. The space, the abundance of waterways, the flora of the tropical setting, and the location make it a very favourable area. The beaches themselves also have a good lively vibe, from those wanting really let their hair down, to those who just want to sit in a bar and watch the moon rise from the water’s horizon as the sun goes down.

More recent attractions, as befitting a growing city, are sports teams. I was two years too early to take in a game of the AFL’s newest club, the Gold Coast Suns, and too late in the year to see Gold Coast United in the country’s football league, but I could see the Gold Coast Titans at the year old Skilled Park Stadium.

Skilled Park is a couple of miles inland from the coast, and not exactly ideal to get to from Surfers Paradise. There were buses to the stadium, but it dawned on me rather too late that I had no idea where they left from. My assumption of the bus station was unfounded, and I began to regret having that extra beer rather than going to the stadium early. With buses no longer an option, the best bet was to get a taxi. Unfortunately Surfers Paradise only seems to have about four taxis, and three of those are already in use. In the end I expensively turned up at the stadium with about 15 minutes to spare.

It’s already dark by 6.30 in the Queensland winter. With the stadium located at the edge of the Robina district, itself right on the edge of the city, the stadium glowed in isolated darkness. Translucent roofing, with the diffused lighting of the floodlights within, hung over the stadium like a lampshade. Arcing up high over the seats, the roof looked like it was designed by someone who expects it only to rain rarely, and when it does, to come down completely vertical. It might be unsuitable for England’s rugby league heartland, where dark brooding roofs are more necessary, but here it was a roof designed to let the sun in.

One effect of this style of roof was to make the roof structure seem separate from the seats, giving the ground a very open look. The four stands themselves could be dismissed as ordinary, being roughly equal size, one tier, holding 27,500 all round. Large access tunnels at each corner made each stand look distinct, and for some reason both end stands were not quite the same height for their whole length. Like I say, it could be ordinary, but there’s just enough to catch the eye to give it some character. It wasn’t monotonous. There was a bit of thought in it. Even the undulating sky are dark blue pattern of the seats echoed the waves and the sky.

I, of course, was here for a night game, so I couldn’t fully appreciate how it would look on a sunny day. The other thing I hadn’t fully appreciated was how inland, after sundown, the temperature drops like a stone. It had been a lovely day up and down the Gold Coast. Many had been on the beach in bikinis, so a t-shirt was more than adequate. Here though, the fans were wrapped in scarves and thick coats, and for good reason. It was more than a tad chilly. I took my seat in the stand, and hoped the game would be good enough to warm me.

I’ll say I enjoyed the experience, and I liked the stadium, and the atmosphere was decent. I always like sports events as they aren’t geared for tourists, so you are seeing a real slice of the country’s life. I’m really glad I went. But I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the game. My adopted team for the night certainly did themselves proud. They ran in four tries in a first half that they dominated. Almost all of the play took place more or less directly in front of me, which was convenient, but perhaps that’s part of the problem. I’m used to sports where the ball goes end to end. With rugby, it’s sort of wedged into a corridor across the pitch, which gets slowly edged backwards and forwards. A guy would pick the ball up, run forwards until he hit somebody, then roll it back to a guy who pass it to someone else. And then he’d run forwards until he hit somebody, then roll it back etc etc. Now and then, obviously, there’d be a smart interchange of passes that allow someone to break through that line and score, but I was just too inexperienced to see when that would be likely.

The success in that first half of my adopted team also probably didn’t help in some ways. They were 22-2 up at half time, and made it 28-8 early in the second half, so the game was all but over. To appreciate a sport you really need to experience the tension to see what makes it exciting. I didn’t have that. I just had half an hour of two teams killing time until the final whistle.

Or so I thought. Within 10 minutes two quick tries for the away side reduced the lead to 28-20. Just under 20 minutes left. I felt myself rooting for the away side slightly, just for the good finish. Alas they held firm until right at the death. With around a minute left St George broke through to bring it back to 28-24, one try away from levelling the scores. They rejected the offer of the conversion in return for retaining possession, in the hope that they’d get another try in the remaining minute or so. The Titans saw out time comfortably though, but it was just enough to give me a frisson of tension.

Perhaps I’d have to concede that if I’ve seen a rugby match with nine tries, and not been thrilled, then rugby is not for me, but I’d give it another go in a similar setting. Until then I’d just be pleased with a diverting night out, and very pleased that Skilled Stadium has the station for Brisbane right outside, where I could go and get warm.

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