Comment by Chico Harlan March 17, 2008 http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/stor...5001023,00.html AT a real community oval such as Brookvale, no overcaffeinated DJ stands on the field, mic in hand, to fete the players' entrance. The Manly Sea Eagles take the field without dancing children, without urban-influenced drummers, without bagpipes, without big screen video histrionics, and without any other contrivance to tell you it's important. You know, because you're close enough to smell the grass. Saturday night at the old brick oval, about 15 minutes before kickoff in a round one game against Cronulla, players marched from the changeroom toward the field by passing through a tunnel of Plexiglas, girded by wire fencing. They marched in single file. Maroon-clad fans swarmed both sides of the tunnel, not so much yelling, but observing. From this vantage point, you got a mesmerising sight, the cold gladiatorial stares of 110kg men who know they're about to get bloody. "From down here," one Manly team official, Peter Peters, told me, "you can almost hear the bones breaking." The first week of the NRL centenary season doubled as my first exposure to Sydney's showcase sport. The on-field product itself requires little elaboration; the game balances brutality and grace, speed and stamina. It moves with few stoppages. Its pattern of long frustrations (a team trying to score, for instance) and quick-burst fulfilment (a try, let's say) makes it an ideal spectator sport, with drama that builds and releases. But the league itself, I've realised, faces a temptation that threatens the spectator experience. This year, the NRL will host at least 33 games - normally those identified as showcase match-ups - at the cavernous tomb known as ANZ Stadium. And as a result, the potential emotion of the best games will be neutralised by a place with 60,000 empty seats. I spent my weekend at two games. The first one - the Rabbitohs-Roosters rivalry game at ANZ - had the hype and the storylines. But somehow, a game hyped to celebrate the sport's tradition underscored the drawback of a league that overestimates its own size. About 90 minutes before game time, a friend and I arrived at ANZ, whose lonely perimeter we walked in search of any reminder about the event scheduled to happen inside. Only a McDonald's, a Gloria Jeans and a corporately sterile sports bar were open for business. When a few beers at the Homebush Bay Brewery didn't pique the anticipation, I settled on the salvation of a desperate man: a $50 bet on a Souths win, lodged at a TAB Sportsbet trailer just outside the ANZ gates. Souths, hosts for this particular game, had evidently decided to introduce the round one festivities with whatever entertainment a random page of the phonebook provided, and so the Christmas-striped Rabbitohs fans received the full-scale grotesquery. For team introductions, you got dancers and smoke and drummers and yes, bagpipes. Then 1000 kids formed some giant circle around the field, creating a human fence around the drummers and kilted bagpipers still clustered in the middle, and the whole thing was great, so long as the goal was to form some supersized model of a molecule. But to get ready for footy? Maybe it's dangerous to link the stadium's karma with the action that followed, but I'll do it anyway. Even the dramatic moments - Craig Wing's injury, and a belated but spirited Souths comeback attempt - failed to stir the crowd into excitement. ANZ, because of its dead space, all but guaranteed that diluted effect. Perhaps there's a strange psychology reinforcing this observation, but only twice all night did I hear any real disgust (in a dialogue comprised exclusively of four-letter words) about Souths' performance and those came during trips to the toilet, at halftime and after the game. No coincidence, I'm guessing, that the men's toilet was the only place around where people were packed in close. One night later, a downsized venue reformed the whole experience. The 14,000 at Brookvale represented a crowd half as small - but four times as passionate - as the ANZ crowd. Here, you could acquire a real sense of rugby league's most impressive aspect, its force. Every time players collided, you felt the low thunder of a skin-on-skin collision. Only five minutes into the game, Manly's Josh Perry levelled Cronulla's Ben Ross to the grass with a blow so forceful that you could almost hear Ross's body deflate. He was out cold. The rest of the game, though it disappointed the home crowd, rewarded with its details. You could see the Manly players come off the field, jerseys soaked into transparency. The question wasn't whether they bled, but where. You could see them sit on the bench, dripping and spent, spitting and seething. The emotion transferred from a team to an entire stadium. In Manly's final, brutal attempts to score late and prevent an upset loss, the Eagles kept approaching the tryline and falling short. And by the end, 14,000 left the oval wearing the same frustrated look as the players. They understood. The game is, after all, a passion play of emotion, and that's why the NRL belongs at the community oval. Hype and video presentations can tell you a game is important, but only the environment itself can confirm it. In the end, I'd pay money to go back to Brookvale. I wouldn't for a return trip to ANZ. And maybe it's just the randomness of sport that two nights provided two drastically different experiences, but I don't think so. The significance of sport increases when players are defending something. Like a real home.