Pirates treasure the memories after Concord’s last flight (…for now)
It was the end of an era on Saturday for West Harbour, and indeed Australian rugby, as one of the most iconic grounds in the country, Concord Oval, hosted its last ever match before being redeveloped, when the Pirates took on Sydney University.
Since it’s construction in 1985, the stadium in Sydney’s inner west has borne witness to hundreds, if not thousands, of games of union in its 34 year history. Home ground of West Harbour in the Intrust Super Shute Shield competition, it has also hosted numerous club rugby grand finals, World Sevens tournaments, New South Wales Waratahs matches and Wallaby tests, and is perhaps most well-known for hosting several games during the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, including a memorable semi-final between Australia and France.
It also hosted NRL games back in the early 1990’s, and was the training and administration base for the Wests Tigers, as well as the home of the Inter Lions SC football team.
But as every legend must eventually fade, time has indeed caught up with this fondly-remembered icon, and a multi-million dollar facelift awaits over the next two years to take it forward as a world-class venue for the future sporting generations of the area and beyond to enjoy. So before the bulldozers move in to scoop away so many magical memories, here’s a little look back at the life of a footy ground, and the club with which it’s history is intertwined, with a bit of help from those who called it home…
It should be noted first off that Concord Oval didn’t become West Harbour’s home following it’s construction in 1985, it was built on the site of their existing Concord Oval ground, which was formerly known as St Luke’s Oval, that was preceded by St Luke’s Park! Which means this is probably a good time for a quick history lesson…
On Tuesday 27th March 1900, the Western Suburbs Rugby Football Club was formed when two clubs, Burwood Rugby Club and Concord Rugby Club, agreed to amalgamate. At the time, Burwood were the stronger of the two, and initial plans were for Concord to be immersed under the Burwood umbrella. However, Concord had the better field, St Luke’s Park, and Concord Council would not permit the newly created side to play on their turf under the Burwood name. Hence the compromise, and the birth of what we now know as West Harbour.
They took their place in the newly formed Sydney District Competition alongside Balmain, Eastern Suburbs, Glebe, Newtown, North Sydney, South Sydney, and Sydney University, and finished in a creditable 4th place, while interestingly donning an inaugural kit that included a light blue and white hooped jersey.
Two years later in 1902, they won what would be the first of only two Sydney ‘Premierships’ in their history, with the club’s foundation captain and first Wallaby, Stan Wickham, leading the side. Their second was achieved in 1929, when over 11,000 packed into what was then known as St Luke’s Oval, to see a team playing in the more familiar black jerseys with thin white stripes beat Minor Premiers Northern Suburbs 16-6 to lift the title. ‘Wests’ were here to stay.
A new grandstand was built to celebrate the victory, and opened in 1933 by the then NSW Premier, and the ground was renamed Concord Oval. Bar two World Wars and a few years in exile at Ashfield and Marrickville in the 1950’s and 60’s, they have been there ever since.
When discussions first took place between Western Suburbs, NSWRU and Concord Council around the upgrade of the ground in 1983, ahead of the 1987 Rugby World Cup, it coincided with a resurgence of the club on the field. Having spent a couple of ‘wilderness years’ in the old second division, they were promoted back to top grade in 1981, and had in their midst a player that many regard as one of the finest to have worn the club’s jersey, flyhalf Stephen James.
A skilful playmaker at no.10, James racked up over 200 1st Grade games across a 15 year career with the club, and pulled on the national jersey on six occasions, including having the unique honour of playing a test match for Australia on his club ground. He first ran out for Wests as a colt in 1979, was part of that 2nd Division promotion team, and witnessed the redevelopment of the ground from a crumbling old oval to a brand new rectangle with huge grandstands on either side, from a player’s perspective.
But as he explained to Behind the Ruck, his association with the club goes back even further.
“I actually started as a ballboy in 1968 when it was still an oval. They had a cricket pitch in the middle and they used to park all the cars around the field. There was a coach in the early 70’s called Rufus Mihaere, a tough Maori, and he used to attach the scrum machine to the front of a ute and make the pack push the ute around the old oval with the brakes on. They used to train really hard and they were tough guys.
“I remember in the old grandstand you could hear the opposition coaches through the wall giving their pre-match team talk they were so close. So to then walk out of the new grandstand and down the tunnel to play a Bledisloe Cup match in front of 20,000 was certainly a different experience. It felt like the whole world was watching. The concourse underneath the grandstand was so full with both sets of fans that they had to rope them off so you could get from the changing rooms out onto the pitch.
“I loved playing at Concord, it was a really good place to play. The problem was, so did all the other teams! It wasn’t used for any other sport at the time, it was purely a rugby ground, so the surface was magnificent. It had big changing rooms, and four of them, which was a novelty back then, and I think that was to Wests’ detriment really. Other teams used to love playing there because it was such a good ground and good facility.”
Having got themselves back into the top division, the 1980’s saw a Wests side that invariably punched above it’s weight, but struggled to compete with the dominant sides of the day that were stacked with rep players. What they did have, and it is a trait that has continued to this day, is a unique culture borne of the environment with which they were intrinsically linked.
“We never won a competition but we made semi-finals and won a few lower grade finals, and as a club as a whole in the Club Championship we were quite strong,” says James. “But we never matched Randwick, Manly and Gordon, who were very strong at the time – Randwick had about 12 internationals in their team.
“But what we did have was a very good camaraderie, and a good culture around the club, and we used to lift for the big games. So victories over Randwick in the 80’s were always memorable because they had so many good players.
“The area we are based in is a very multi-cultural area, and the rugby club has been made up of many different nationalities. Back in the 70’s and 80’s we had Greeks, Italians, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans, and it’s more of a Polynesian-based club now. It’s always been a club of acceptance, and I think its greatest attribute is that it’s got a very community orientated culture.
“Because we don’t have the junior base that the northern beaches, north shore and eastern suburbs have – we only have one junior club side to rely on – we have to rely on players that come to Australia and park themselves in the inner west. The club accepts and welcomes people of all different backgrounds and nationalities, and that’s been our strength.”
Playing alongside James for much of his time at the club was another proud name on the honours board – 200 grade games (100-plus in 1sts) flanker Serge Gonzalez. Now to be found following the progress of son Matt in the colours of Eastwood every weekend, with camera in hand as one of the Intrust Super Shute Shield’s most-respected ‘snappers’, Serge has nothing but fond memories of the place he called home every other week.
“As with all players that play at any club ground, it was our home, so I loved playing there when it was an oval, and then when it was re-developed into a rectangle ground,” he recalls. “The old stand had its own character, and although it was grand it did need a bit of love. As was the case in most grounds in those days, by the time 1st grade had finished the hot water was in short supply, so unless you finished the game a bit early, cold showers were the norm!
“I was so proud to run out in my first 1st Grade game there, and the first time I ran out as captain, and then the last time I played there and hung up the boots – I left them hanging on a clothes hanger by the laces. I loved being part of the rugby fraternity, and in particular this club.
“It was our home, so the club and all its players were very tight. Virtually all of the other grades were there on game day and hung around for 1st grade, and then of course the speeches and beers, and quite often dinners. We basically stayed at either our club or the opposition club. As a result of this we formed some terrific friendships with the other clubs.
“One memory that springs to mind is a game versus Sydney Uni I think, and we were under pressure in our own 22. There was a scrum to be fed by them, and just before we were ready to go up for it, I had a chat with prop Vili Ala’alatoa and said ‘Mate, we need a penalty here to get us out’.
“Vili just nodded and walked up to form the scrum, the scrum packed and all of a sudden it went down, and yep, you guessed it, the ref penalised the opposition for collapsing. I looked at Vili and he just smiled and winked at me. It got us out of trouble, and from memory we ended up winning that game.”
He too, remembers fondly the bond that was created amongst a group made up of vastly different ethnic backgrounds, and varying degrees of rugby ability.
“We had a diverse group of players and backgrounds and no one was ever treated any differently – be they a Wallaby, international, state representative or 5th grade player. We were a family,” he says proudly. “Thursday night training always ended with a BBQ and a few beers, and sometimes a few late nights at the rugby club because it had a 3am licence. I’m not sure how I got home some Thursday nights, but I did!”
He also remembers that incredible World Cup semi-final against France, when a sensational late try from the great Serge Blanco sent Les Bleus into the final against the All Blacks at the Wallabies expense. But he saw it from a different perspective to most.
“We had a volunteer mentality, so when working bees and other things needed to be done people put their hands up and helped out,” he explains. “I remember being in the pop-up canteens when the semi final was played there between Australia and France selling beer, and having to do regular runs to get more cartons as they were selling so quickly it was ridiculous. We sold out in the second half and couldn’t believe we did, as the quantities we’d purchased were massive!”
The advent of the new ground also brought with it a new home for the state team, with New South Wales playing games in what was the precursor to Super Rugby, the South Pacific Championships, against Queensland, Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington. It also hosted interstate derbies between Sydney and Queensland, and was renamed Waratah Rugby Park.
However, for various reasons, some allegedly nefarious, a cash-strapped NSWRU went into liquidation, and were forced to relocate to the recently opened Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park. Wests re-negotiated the lease given up by NSWRU, and the ground was returned to its Concord Oval moniker. But the boost of playing at the best club ground in the country didn’t translate into on-field success, and the 1990’s saw a downturn in the club’s fortunes, with only a semi-final appearance in 1993 to shout about.
However, the start of the 1995 season did bring with it the biggest changes in recent history as the club morphed into the version we see today. They added a red stripe to their black and white jerseys, and in lieu of a shifting landscape as Sydney expanded towards the Blue Mountains, they adopted a name change, from Western Suburbs to West Harbour, to more accurately represent the area they called home. They also adopted a nickname, the ‘Pirates’, and created a new crest to reflect these changes.
The introduction of professionalism to the world game and the start of Super Rugby in 1996, also brought with it a financial burden for the clubs. And with West Harbour struggling to keep existing players, or entice new ones because of a lack of resources, they forged a fruitful partnership with Burwood RSL in 2001 that continues to this day.
With a more stable financial footing, Wests attracted highly-rated head coach Joe Barakat from Southern Districts, and the impact was immediate. He led the team to the semi-finals in 2002, while five of the six lower grade and colts sides also played finals footy that year, with 2nd Grade lifting a Premiership and the Women’s team going undefeated.
Alas, it proved to be unsustainable success, with 1st Grade’s next appearance in the finals having to wait until 2008 when Stu Woodhouse – who had played under Barakat – guided the Pirates to a commendable 3rd place finish on the ladder. Woodhouse moved on in 2010, before a revolving door of coaches over the last decade were handed the reins in the hope of restoring those all-too rare glory days.
Captain of 1st Grade from 2012-2016, Tom Games, is another club centurion who actually achieved the landmark in his last ever match at Concord Oval. Whilst he has natural regrets that he wasn’t part of a more successful era for the club, he has plenty of happy memories of the ground he ran out on every other week.
“I remember watching the Waratahs there on a number of occasions when I was young, and was aware of some famous matches during the first World Cup played there,” he recalled this week. “It was a great experience, and it was what first attracted to me to the club to have a home ground of that quality.
“Every time I ran out there on a Saturday was special. My 100th 1st grade game and final game there was a special moment for me. The result wasn’t great, but running out with my daughter and two nephews was a special occasion.
“We were an inconsistent team at times, but on our day we could beat any side in the competition. We always played an attractive style of footy, and we were never afraid to chance our arm from time-to-time – sometimes to our detriment. And when we got it right it was great fun. Playing on Concord was always a privilege. The club is like a family to me, and I have made some long life mates there.”
Having been a frequent visitor to Concord Oval since 2009 in my capacity as a weekend journo, one thing that was unavoidably noticeable was the unflattering size of the ground when compared to the crowds that West Harbour traditionally pull. But also the noise generated by a small but hardy bunch of passionate souls on game day.
There are few clubs where the lower grades stick around and – suitably oiled up of course – cheer on 1st Grade with such gusto, or barrack the opposition with equal verve. Asked to reflect on some of the funnier moments of his time at the club, Games concedes that the antics from his fellow clubmen will live long in the memory.
“I remember big Taumei Hikila used to apply Dencorub like it was sunscreen, and there was also some heavy beats pumping pre-game from the boys in the sheds,” he laughs. ” But the funniest moments mostly involved the 4th grade legends watching on from the President’s box. They were very creative and came up with some great songs about different 1st grade players. They also built a large wizard stick made completely from beer cans one week that was impressive!”
The 2010’s have seen the Pirates generally positioned in the lower half of the table, with their last trip to the finals coming under the auspices of Matt Briggs in 2013, off the back of a 5th placed finish. The previous two seasons to the current campaign saw renowned coach Todd Louden take control, and while the improvements in performance were there for all to see, particularly in a vastly-improved level of competition across the Shute Shield, they ultimately fell just short of a place in the top six.
All of which brings us up to date to the 2019 season. And if you want to talk about people that have been a lifeblood of the club in recent times, you can’t go much further than current head coach Mark Gudmunson.
Having come through the colts system with best friend and future Scotland test flyhalf Dan Parks, Gudmunson’s career on the pitch as a 10 or 15 for West Harbour was cruelly cut short as he was making his way through the grades in 2001. A badly dislocated shoulder that didn’t get the treatment it needed, or would have received today, put an end to any hopes he had of going any higher at the age of just 22.
But fate had something else in store for him rugby-wise, and his premature exit from the field led to an opportunity to use his game nous in another way, from the coaches box.
“During my rehab from the shoulder injury I started helping out coaching 5th Grade, with a view to putting back into the club,” he explains. “I found that I had a bit of a knack for it and I enjoyed it, so after I’d tried to make a couple of comebacks but kept damaging the same shoulder, I gave up on the playing career and started coaching instead.”
Eighteen years on, he’s certainly served his apprenticeship. Having done a year with 5th Grade, he moved up through 4’s to 3’s, where he oversaw back-to-back Premierships in 2005-06. After four years honing his craft with the Briars club in Subbies, he returned to Concord to coach 2nd Grade to a grand final in 2012, got a taste of 1st Grade when he took over as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2015 season when Joe Barakat’s second stint at the club was prematurely ended by a professional offer overseas, and spent the last two years assisting Todd Louden before finally getting the hot seat when Louden moved to the Melbourne Rebels.
But ask him about memorable games at Concord Oval, and that 2012 title decider, with Wests playing on their own ground for a trophy, is hard to top, despite the result.
“The whole build-up to that game was unbelievable because the year before, that 2nd Grade team had finished dead last,” he recalls. “We were then zero and three after three rounds, and I remember walking into the changing rooms and hearing a couple of boys saying ‘Not another season like last year’. From that comment we changed how we did things. We started to involve everyone, have dinners together, and build-up a team that wanted to play for each other.
“We went on a run for the rest of the season and got to the finals, where it all went a bit crazy. We scored on the bell against Randwick at Manly Oval to get through week one, and then won the game against Manly to get into the grand final because the Manly prop threw the ball intentionally over the sideline, and we kicked a penalty goal to win it.
“Then that day at Concord Oval for the final was a pretty special day. It was a game where we rolled the dice with a few colts, and gave a chance to the likes of Allan Ala’alatoa and Dave Lolohea, and we were up against a Sydney Uni side that had Sam Talakai, Nic Stirzaker and Stu Dunbar – all guys that went on to play Super Rugby. We were right in it, but unfortunately, Nathan Trist took an intercept and went 85 metres to win it for Uni.”
2019 hasn’t provided West Harbour with a fairytale finish to the latest chapter of their Concord story. But given where they were sitting last Christmas, when playing numbers were so low they would have been struggling to put out a side, a tally of three wins and two draws from 16 matches (byes aside) is not too shabby, and doesn’t accurately reflect their level of performance for most of the season.
They lost three games within seven points, enjoyed a win and a draw against sides currently preparing for finals football, and also provided the competition’s third highest points-scorer in Tiaan Henk Swanepoel, and one of its leading try-scorers in James Turner. Not bad for a side that finished second-bottom.
The hot tip is that Drummoyne Oval will become their temporary base for the next two seasons, and the key could be in keeping the majority of this squad together while Concord undergoes it’s transformation, and that they return home as a club in a position to do justice to their new-improved surroundings. The impending redevelopment offers West Harbour a fresh start, and a chance to kick-on as a club.
“That’s got to be part of it,” Gudmunson agrees. “But to me, moving forward is to get people to stop talking badly about us. We’ve got to be positive in nature, and in the things that we do well. Obviously, winning helps that, but our main aim this year is to retain the players and the coaches that are at the club, because consistency has not been West Harbour’s strongpoint in the last 10 years.
“I don’t know where I’d be without West Harbour. I’ve made lifelong friends here. It’s just an easy club to come to and get to know people, and that’s probably what doesn’t get spoken about enough. People always talk about the struggles, but you always find that people who come and play at the club or get involved in some way, even if they leave for better opportunities elsewhere, they won’t talk badly about the club. And that’s a big thing for me, we have good people involved.”
On that note, it’s only appropriate that we leave the last word to Stephen James. Whilst his footy brain is currently being utilised as a defence coach for the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL, the honorary Life Member of West Harbour for his services to the club is still finding time to give something back to the current crop of players, and is confident that a brighter future awaits the next generation of Pirates to call Concord home.
“I get to Wests when I can. I go there every Wednesday night and help coach the 1st and 2nd Grade backs, so I’m still involved directly in that sense. I love the place. One of the reasons why I go every Wednesday is because of the amount of effort that Mark Gudmunson has put in. He’s a very good bloke, and he’s a very good coach, and hopefully, one of the reasons we’re moving forward.
“The new Concord will be a boutique state-of-the-art ground when it’s finished, it will be spectacular. When you have a ground that caters for 20,000 it can look quite empty when you’ve only got a couple in there, but the boutique ground that this will become will be very good to watch footy at, and the boys will enjoy playing there I’m sure. This is a great club, it’s been a big part of my life, and I hope it’s still growing for another 50 years.”
# These two images, plus many of the dates, facts and figures in this article were taken directly from, or corroborated by, the excellent history of Western Suburbs / West Harbour – ‘Against All Odds – A Pictorial History of Wests Rugby 1900-2011′, written by club historian Harry Kimble. You can purchase a copy here.
An updated version, entitled ‘The Caravan Moves On – 120 Seasons of Wests Rugby, 1900-2019′, was also published earlier this year, and is available to order from the West Harbour website here.