For all the talk about western Sydney, has anyone decided where it begins and ends? Most would agree that it’s some way west of the harbour bridge, somewhat east of the blue mountains, and that wherever its boundary, there would be no ocean view. Before a time when ‘area of concern’ or ‘LGA of interest’ entered the parlance, you might have thought of the boundaries of western Sydney as somewhere between undrawn and imagined depending on your frame of reference. Before July 2021, maybe the closest anyone came to convincingly forming a consensus was the half-joke of the ‘Red Rooster Line,’ but it has become clearer now, hasn’t it?
When the Delta variant hit NSW by way of Bondi, federal and state governments sent in the enforcements: not to the beaches, but to the heart of south-west Sydney. After the horsebound cops and police choppers went in, Fairfield councillor Dai Le noted that ‘there’s an invisible wall that’s been created around the Fairfield LGA, and a second ring around the southwest of Sydney.’ When the military goes in a month later, she adds in anger, ‘we’ve been treated like second-class citizens.’ By the end of August, anyone relentlessly refreshing the news knew that western Sydney is where they send the troops to enforce a curfew.
The press has long stirred up an image of western Sydney for their own means, broadcasting from Martin Place and Artarmon to define the west as its troublesome other. Vilified and reduced to some kind of lawless subaltern non-state, from the focus on heroin and Cabramatta in the nineties, and the Islamophobic fixation on Punchbowl and Lakemba in the 2000s. When ‘Western Sydney’ seemed to grow in cultural esteem in recent years, a strange discomfort with its linguistics began to rise: ‘west’ of Sydney rather than a place of its own.
The boundary that makes up this seeming monolith is not only unclear, but it’s actively contested. In recent years, sending the public service to Paramatta seems to be a foolproof move to either placate the western vote or curb the impacts of centralised population growth, but even that has its discontents. In July, jaded Liverpool councillor Nathan Hagarty hears of the ABC’s planned move of a chunk of its Ultimo staff to Parramatta and declares: ‘for too long, politicians, bureaucrats and board members have been captured by the Parramatta lobby; throwing something Parramatta’s way is not shorthand for western Sydney!’
When it comes to the interests of the people west of Macquarie Street, there are of course many western Sydneys. From my own perspective growing up in the outskirts of Liverpool, it’s all interesting for me to digest and bristle and react to and think about. I didn’t even realise I was a stitch on a political football until I saw it for myself after the cliched move to Newtown in my early-twenties. But back in the nineties in this now contested battleground of (south)west Sydney, none of the ideas kicked around by faceless politicians and hack journalists really mattered. Because down the road at the Campbelltown Sports Ground, we had a team playing in the top rugby league competition in the world.
I don’t remember thinking of the ‘city’ of Sydney any more than I thought of Brisbane, or Canberra or Newcastle. In fact, I thought about it as much as I did Penrith, Parramatta, Balmain or the regions of Canterbury-Bankstown, Cronulla-Sutherland and Manly-Warringah. My notion of Australian geography was formed and limited to whatever rugby league teams turned out in the NSWRL and ARL competitions of the 1990s. Any suburb, town or city that didn’t have a rugby league home ground could have been on the moon. And this notion of ‘western’ Sydney? I think I would have asked, ‘do you mean the Wests Magpies?’
When the sport of rugby league came to Australia in 1908, Western Suburbs were one of the last of the foundation clubs to be admitted. Due to the relatively small population (and thus player pool) of the then-rural outpost of Ashfield, their viability was questionable. So they were allotted the competition’s western-most boundary and beyond as a compromise: out to Penrith, down as far as Botany Bay, and across to the edge of Campbelltown. Wests took the competitive risk of this westernmost district with the expectation of a pay-off when population growth necessarily stretched the city limits. But when it did, the league looked at the rising interest in the sport and introduced new clubs instead: slicing off Western Suburbs catchment areas with St George to the south in 1921, Canterbury-Bankstown to the east in 1935, Parramatta to the west in 1947, and further still to Penrith in 1967. Forever hugging their inner-city limits, Wests based themselves at St Luke’s Park in Concord before moving to Ashfield’s Pratten Park in 1912, but by 1967, Wests couldn’t sustain themselves in this crowded inner-suburban marketplace. Moving operations slightly further afield, Wests found a nook among the butting boundaries of the rugby league districts at Lidcombe Oval, where they would draw their own battle lines.
In 1978, the Magpies played host to one of the most infamous rivalries in rugby league history. Wests had long been underfunded and were struggling with a squad made up of untested youth and the discards of other clubs. In ‘78, they were fronted by the restless energy of test halfback Tom Raudonikis, playing against heavily financed clubs from the east. Wests had promoted a new head coach that year in Roy Masters: a schoolteacher with enough of a Marxist framework to latch on to the financial disparity his club was up against. Highlighting the predominance of fibro houses in the southwest of Sydney, he kicked up the cloud of class war, and declared that Wests would represent The Fibros of the western suburbs, while clubs like the Manly Sea Eagles represented the silvertails of the east. Then he instructed his squad to follow the lead of Raudonikis to take equality by force, moving to pre-emptive on-field violence to distract the opposition into a get square, playing football while the unsettled wealthier opposition tried to land their retaliatory elbows. The Lidcombe locals would pack out their suburban playing field each weekend, viewing the moniker of The Fibros as a succinct distillation of their living conditions in the factories and farms of southwest Sydney. Tommy identified the feeling among Wests fans:
they said, ‘hang on a minute, we’re not living down the beach in Manly, or in the eastern suburbs, sitting there drinking our espresso coffees or whatever: we’re here doing the hard yards.’
The Fibros story was so sensational that in 1979, 60 Minutes followed Wests to Lidcombe, ostensibly to track the team’s progress, but with the subtext of looking for evidence of drug use that might explain their ‘irrationally’ violent tendencies. Meanwhile, the eastern administrators couldn’t help but reveal their own biased distaste at the new footballing strategy of Western Suburbs. In his autobiography, Ken Arthurson, then club secretary of Manly, reflected on Roy Masters’ Fibros narrative as ‘tremendous bullshit,’ claiming of their style of play that, ‘the game of rugby league had gone feral.’ He was quoted as referring to Parramatta supporters who picked up on the western Sydney fibro moniker as, ‘nothing but a bunch of louts and hooligans,’ and reportedly convinced Manly stalwart Paul Vautin not to sign with the Eels because if he went swimming out west, he would, ‘catch Typhoid.’ The retellings of this period tend to treat the tensions of the competition as errant historical moments in the game’s progression. They tend to be reflexive about the on-field disparities, imagined or otherwise, and even Masters admits that his dabbling in revolution was more of a motivational technique than an accurate representation of events. But good luck explaining that to the people of Lidcombe, one of whom felt the allegory so strongly that they tore off a chunk of fibro from their own home to hand to their favourite player! It was no accident that they felt the Fibro/Silvertail war so deeply, because outside of the western suburbs, the wheels were in motion not just to rid Wests of the playing style that had them competing despite their financial disadvantage, but to be rid of the club altogether.
In 1984, the NSWRL decided its competition needed a restructure. Under the guise of reducing the footprint of the overfished suburban Sydney market, they expelled the Newtown Jets (who had gone bankrupt) and followed that up with the planned expulsion of Wests (who weren’t far off). It’s unlikely that they paused for thought about losing a club in the region of Lidcombe, after all, they had covered the western suburbs with Penrith, Canterbury-Bankstown, and Parramatta. When Wests fought a successful legal appeal to re-enter the 1984 season (on the grounds of their expulsion being contrary to the NSWRL constitution), the NSWRL simply escalated the discussion to the High Court, who decided that ultimately, they could do whatever they wanted. Bristling at Wests’ ability to slip back in via the back door, the NSWRL acted again to expel Wests under its new resolve, but a sympathetic magistrate in the appeals court set a hearing for after the commencement of the 1986 season. This forced the hand of the NSWRL to readmit them lest they delay that year’s Winfield Cup. The threat to both club and competition had been made, so Wests and the NSWRL reached a compromise. With the league’s vision of expanding the competition beyond the cluster of clubs in the inner suburbs of Sydney, Wests agreed to move on from Lidcombe, pushed out to the growing semi-rural outpost of Campbelltown.
From the perspective of Campbelltown rugby league administrators, the announcement of Wests arrival wasn’t as welcome as the NSWRL might have hoped. A handful of Campbelltown-based clubs had long taken part in the Country Rugby League’s Group 6 competition. With the rapid growth of Campbelltown as a city, local administrators put plans in place to enter their own top-flight team in the NSWRL. However, when the competition accepted bids for new expansion clubs for the 1982 season, Campbelltown’s application lost out as a close third to the Canberra Raiders and Illawarra Steelers. Another strategy was formulated, and in 1983, Campbelltown engineered an arrangement with the ailing Newtown club to form the unlikely sounding Newtown-Campbelltown Jets. In turn, the NSWRL ordered the Campbelltown clubs to break away from Group 6 and form a new district alongside the Liverpool-based clubs in the Parramatta system. But the plan was doomed, and the proposed Newtown-Campbelltown merger failed when the Jets’ inner west operations went bust. Some loose designs to enter the Campbelltown-Liverpool Hornets into the Winfield Cup were made, but that too didn’t come to fruition. Then in 1987, the Campbelltown Rugby League was blindsided by the announcement that the relocated and unwanted club with the shaky moniker of the ‘Western Suburbs’ was theirs to welcome.
Campbelltown watched the Western Suburbs Magpies take over the bankrupt Campbelltown Kangaroos Leagues Club, turn the squash courts by Leumeah Station into offices, and redesignate Campbelltown’s junior representatives ‘Wests White,’ while continuing to field junior teams in the Ashfield-Lidcombe region as ‘Wests Black.’ The symbolism of white as the Magpies secondary playing jersey wasn’t lost on them, nor was the fact that Wests administrators preferred to meet at the leagues club in Ashfield rather than spend an hour driving down Liverpool Road. All of this started a slow boil as the local community, football supporters and potential sponsors grew restless with Wests’ split territorial allegiances.
In July of 1993, the cover of the Rugby League Week read, WESTERN SUBURBS AT WAR. It alluded to problems sparked by tensions between head coach Warren Ryan and much loved local junior Jason Taylor, who had just signed with the North Sydney Bears stating issues with Ryan’s coaching style. This was enough to stir the sponsorship lobby from Campbelltown and Liverpool into action, who, even six years into Wests move, still felt that the Macarthur relocation was a reticent one on the Magpies part. Ryan’s willingness to let a Macarthur product leave for North Sydney was just one piece of evidence of a perceived imbalance between the south-west and inner-west factions. The sponsor lobby threatened to pull their investment in Wests unless something was done. They demanded seats on the board of directors in order to speak for their own interests, a more than symbolic change among what was described as a ‘feeling of gloom within the Macarthur community.’
In February of 1994, the front page of RLW read, WESTS FOR SALE, the cover featuring the sponsorless jersey the club was about to run out in. The board had observed the changing interests of nineties sport and acted to demote the prominence of the Liverpool-based Masterton Homes jersey sponsor to seek out a brand with national recognition. But if Wests really were for sale, no one was buying. With no major sponsor and playing stocks dwindling due to a lack of finances, the club lost eleven of their first fifteen games until Ryan was sacked after a loss played (auspiciously for the suburban Sydney club) in the City of Adelaide.
After failing with their bid to go national, and with their inner-city coach kicked to the curb, Wests looked to their history for an upshot. When Chief Executive Steve Noyce announced the new head coach in August of 1994, he was sure to keep the people of Macarthur in mind. Tommy Raudonikis, club legend and hero of Lidcombe Oval was to be flown down from his new home in Brisbane to coach Wests, with Noyce stressing that, ‘as Head Coach, Raudonikis [will] take up residency in the Campbelltown area as soon as possible.’ It might have been unprofessional to tip off the fanatics to the head coach’s residence, but Tommy wasn’t shy. He swiftly made the Court House Tavern in Campbelltown his local and commenced promotional stunts like driving down Queen Street on the back of a ute with megaphone in hand on game days. He made sure Wests were ever-present in the community, helping to immortalise the infamous Chilli’s Hill fitness run that sent his squad running from the football stadium in Leumeah to a steep incline around the back of the Chilli’s franchise in Woodbine. At the hill’s crest, Tommy would park his car and smoke a pack of cigarettes while watching his players run up and down a hill in full view of those passing by on Harbord Road.
Even though Tommy saw significantly improved results from his band of Macarthur juniors and end-of-the-line journeymen, the essence of suburban Sydney that Wests were fighting for was to become an afterthought of ARL administrators. They had not only been expanding the competition to new territories through teams in Auckland, Townsville and Perth (all entering in 1995), but were forced to compete with Rupert Murdoch’s secondary ‘Super League’ which split the game into two competitions in 1997. For the game’s top administrators and financiers at least, the interests of the people of Campbelltown wouldn’t have blipped their radar.
After the Super League dispute, the divided competition was unified to form the National Rugby League in 1998. A twenty-team competition was formed, made up of the ARL and Super League clubs that hadn’t collapsed in the process. Wests placed last in what is widely considered one of the worst seasons in rugby league history. When they continued to struggle in 1999, the Daily Telegraph ran a backpage claiming that the Magpies were a ‘waste of time’ trying to compete in the NRL and were thus ‘facing the axe.’ Tom Raudonikis wouldn’t have that, and with a Channel 7 news crew behind him, he borrowed a tank from the Holsworthy barracks for a piece on the evening news.
‘It’s a slur on the people of Campbelltown and Macarthur!’ Raudonikis spat in his stage prop military regalia.
They’re always putting us down, but this is where we’ve gotta get up! We’ve gotta fight now and make sure that we stay in the competition, [to make sure] the Macarthur area’s got a football team…
Tommy’s calls for taking Macarthur’s representation into the next century couldn’t save Western Suburbs, at least not as he knew them. The NRL declared that only fourteen clubs would make up the competition in the year 2000, and with the Magpies assured of a second consecutive wooden spoon, they were doomed as a sole entity. In the process of ‘rationalisation,’ a series of partnerships were established to rapidly dwindle the number of Sydney clubs: St George united with Illawarra, North Sydney with Manly, and to avoid the fate of South Sydney who were removed from the competition: the Tigers from cosmopolitan Balmain shook hands with the Magpies from Campbelltown. Announcing a Joint Venture as the 1999 season ended, the two clubs agreed on a black-white-and-orange kit and the awkward name of the Wests Tigers.
In the twenty-one years since 2000, the Wests Tigers have struggled for organisational efficacy, settling on an arrangement of running distinct junior competitions in both Campbelltown and Balmain, with officials split across the Wests Ashfield Leagues Club and a set of demountables at Concord Oval (an interim measure while a ‘Centre of Excellence’ is constructed next door). The club rarely plays more than three games a year at Campbelltown Stadium, a handful at Balmain’s old home of Leichardt Oval, and play their remaining home games to the dictate of Venues NSW: this year, out of the new stadium in the heart of Parramatta. Supporters and administrators have been in permanent dispute between pro-Wests, pro-Balmain and pro-Unity factions, all generating relentless chatter that has haunted them since inception. The Wests Tigers have never publicly acknowledged that their new base in Concord isn’t in fact, a relic of Balmain territory (as it might seem from the accepted south-west/inner-west divide of the merger), but situated right atop St Luke’s Park, the first ever home ground of the Western Suburbs Magpies.
Is there any potential in seeing the new Concord base as a coming together of the many eras of Wests in their various forms? A channel between Balmain, Leichhardt, Concord, Ashfield, Lidcombe and Campbelltown? It would take a lot to sell the material similarities between those disparate regions. Indeed, the club’s identity issue is one of the most regularly visited wells for the rugby league media. In response to this season’s miserable on-field performance, the media class went into overdrive looking for solutions. Eventually, rugby league great and former Penrith Panther Brad Fittler vocalised the simple solution that most of us have been thinking: ‘Go back to Campbelltown,’ he begins, before alluding cryptically to a rarely spoken belief of the NRL commentariat: ‘No-one’s ever embraced it because they say no-one wants to live there.’ Talk about slurs on the people of Campbelltown! When I later heard the boneheads on Fox Sports spout the talking point of the living conditions of Campbelltown as a weakness in the attraction of new players, I imagined Tommy seething in camouflage dress. But rather than kicking the door down of the newsroom to speak for the Magpies of southwest Sydney, Raudonikis had died just a few months prior.
The widespread appeal of the Western Suburbs hero was never so apparent as the outpouring that followed Tommy’s death. It made national headlines and lit up talkback with the calls for a State Funeral to be offered to Raudonikis’ family – but those calls went unheard too. Even the NRL seemed shocked that the State Government ignored the passing of the first ever captain of the NSW State of Origin team, hastily organising a public event at the Sydney Cricket Ground the following Monday. The response to Tommy’s death being shunned by the NSW Government only bristled when, days later, Australian fashion mogul Carla Zampatti was offered a state funeral after dying at a Sydney Opera House performance of La Traviata. Maybe some can laugh at the disparate level of esteem for an inner city fashion icon against a forgotten rugby league relic of western Sydney (especially one of Raudonikis’ hard-edged old world sensibility who stewed in the juices of class war), but surely it illuminates something! And if this sounds again like westie paranoia? When Manly Sea Eagles legend Bob ‘Bozo’ Fulton died a few months after Tommy, his State Funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral surely sent sheets of fibro flapping.
Whenever I try to link these kinds of events together, I hear this great big voice telling me it’s a conspiracy, that I’m cherry-picking factoids to prove a point; that I’m spouting ‘tremendous bullshit’ in linking the history of my lost rugby league club to timely events that suit the publication deadline of this essay. But whenever I hear that voice bearing down on me, one of two things happen: either I hear Tommy egging me on like a guiding magpie on the shoulder, or western Sydney hits the newspapers again.
In early September, word got out that the ALP was plotting to install Kristina Keneally as the lower house candidate for the south-west seat of Fowler ahead of the locally endorsed candidate Tu Le. If you were to take a Fibros V Silvertails analysis to the issue, you could isolate one problem with that decision: Keneally lives on an island in the northern beaches (about 15 km from Manly’s home ground of Brookvale Oval), while Le lives in Canley Vale (just 10 km from Lidcombe Oval). When the public outcry about a career politician being dropped on top of a local resident and member of the Vietnamese diaspora which make up 23 per cent of that electorate, the party response was almost comically tone deaf. ALP leader Anthony Albanese not only referred to Keneally as a ‘great Australian success story of a migrant’ (she was born in the United States), but nods to his own Italian ancestry as evidence of the party’s diversity. The ensuing events were even more clownish. Keneally posed at the Vietnamese Community Cultural Centre in Bonnyrigg for her announcement of preselection, leaning on a talking point of the locals in ‘insecure, casual work’ suffering at the hands of a state government who ‘didn’t lock down Bondi fast enough.’ She then returned to her home 60km away while her proposed electorate remained restricted to a 5km radius and under a military-enforced curfew. That she later promised to reside somewhere in the Fowler electorate before the election takes place is something of an empty gesture, since she did so with the less-than-enthusiastic announcement of: ‘seeking to represent the community would mean living there.’ On Tu Le’s part are more convincing echoes of the history of Western Suburbs. She commented on the status of Fowler as a safe seat for the ready installation of pseudo-celebrity party figures, saying: ‘we always seem to be taken for granted.’ And of the ‘rational’ minds who claimed the preselection dispute was a political non-event: ‘people seem to just roll their eyes at that, and say, that’s just how it works here.’ It’s all a shame for Fairfield, Cabramatta and Liverpool, because it’s clear that Tu Le has the Fibro spirit, almost word-for-word echoing Tommy Raudonikis when she later said: ‘If someone’s not going to stand up and fight for our best interests, then it’s time that we stand up for ourselves and do it.’
Can the western suburbs speak? Over the past two seasons, one of the most dominant and talked-about clubs in the NRL has been the new-look Penrith Panthers: a squad made up of juniors developed through the westernmost rugby league district of the city, many of whom grew up and continue to live happily in the region. The media’s coverage of the side has been mixed and often coded, down to tarnishing the Panthers as ‘arrogant’ due to their excitable post-try celebrations. (Their response? To shake hands in mock politeness after every try scored the following weekend.) The Panthers’ connection to community has been central to their on-field success, with five-eighth Jarome Luai and winger Brian To’o (both of whom debuted for NSW in 2021) helping form the Mt Druitt-based organisation From The Area (FTA), a group that itself was mocked in a deleted social media video by Melbourne Storm players after last year’s grand final. When Penrith ran into Melbourne in this year’s grand final qualifier, the video resurfaced as motivation, and when Penrith went on to win the 2021 NRL premiership, they did so as part of an organisation enriched with its own sense of place. A lesson maybe: for the media class who declares anywhere west of them as elsewhere, and for the political class who thinks positive outcomes might come from sending in the troops, parachuting in a ladder-climbing political figure, or treating the west as its other rather than its own sociopolitical centre. Because whether it’s the hundred-year journey of the Wests Magpies, or this year’s Penrith Panthers, it’s certain that even if the western suburbs can’t speak when it comes to having a say in our political fate, at least on the rugby league field, we can make a commotion.
The primary source for timelines and events in this essay was ‘Clouds of Dust, Buckets of Blood: The Story of the Western Suburbs District Rugby League Football Club (1908-2015)’ by Gary Lester (Playright Publishing, 2015). Portions of this essay are modelled on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ from Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994). With thanks to Michael Adams and The Rugby League Digest.