by GRACE JOHNSON
Leichhardt Oval, known in rugby league circles as the “eighth wonder of the world”, has recently been the site of much community parley.
Established in 1934 as a rugby league ground and the home of the then Balmain Tigers, Leichhardt Oval has a long history supporting community and professional sports. Today, it operates as one of the Wests Tigers’ home grounds, hosting 6 high attendance NRL games each year with additional regular NSW Cup and Jersey Flegg home games.
Inner West is now seeking help from the state and federal governments to fund a renovation of the stadium’s outdated facilities.
Council recently wrote to State and Federal Governments to save the community sporting venue based on the Leichhardt Oval masterplan, which was adopted in the October 10 council meeting.
Their submission aimed to make clear that a “modest” contribution would “make a massive difference to the multitude of senior and junior, men’s and women’s rugby league, soccer and rugby union teams and spectators who regularly use Leichhardt Oval.”
Inner West Mayor, Darcy Byrne said, “Leichhardt Oval is Sydney’s most iconic and well-loved suburban sports ground. Yet it remains the only suburban ground in Sydney that has not received any State Government funding in the past 15 years. That’s why we have submitted the Leichhardt Oval Masterplan to state and federal governments seeking a funding partnership.”
Inner West’s Master Plan
The plan includes several tiers of proposed upgrades, from improving men’s and women’s change rooms and toilets to a major new northern grandstand.
If it secured enough funding, the plan would also look at overhauling the existing grandstand on the western side.
Other key aspects of the plan’s scope include: hosting a minimum of six Wests Tigers home games a year, a new grandstand, a Museum of Inner West Rugby League, and modern amenities, including new change rooms, toilets, food outlets and screens.
The cost of renovations start at about $5 million for upgraded seating, then jump to $21 million for a new northern stand, and sit between $33 million and $98 million for upgrades to the major western stand.
The mayor said, “We are not seeking to build another major stadium, but rather to keep Leichhardt Oval, the most used suburban sporting facility in Sydney, safe and open for community use.”
The mayor is concerned that without significant funding, the ground may soon be unsuitable for professional sports.
Last year, a stand collapsed mid-match, resulting in thirty spectators tumbling just under two metres onto the concrete in front of a crowd of over 15,000 people.
As City Hub reported at the time, after the incident Wests Tigers chairman Lee Hagipantelis said, “We’ve been saying for some time that the state of the facility at Leichhardt is substandard, it’s third-world, and potentially dangerous, what we saw was the fulfilment of that potential.”
Proposal to reallocate funds from Penrith
To fund the Leichhardt Oval Master Plan, the inner west mayor is suggesting that funds for the Panthers stadium in Penrith be reallocated to the oval.
The mayor said, “We proposed to the State Government that with a fraction of the $300 Million that has been allocated to Penrith Stadium, fans and athletes could enjoy decent seating, toilets, catering facilities and upgraded, female-friendly change rooms.
“It is high time this unjust and unfair situation was ended and that this iconic community asset was allocated the modest funding required to secure the ground’s future.
“The closure of Leichhardt Oval would be a dark day for sport in NSW.”
Redevelopments of Leichhardt, Brookvale and Cronulla stadiums were cancelled by the former Coalition government in order to support victims of northern rivers floods. Inner West was then left out of a grants program funded by the sale of WestConnex, which the mayor said was a deliberate exclusion.
While former Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet’s decision to reallocate reconstruction funds for NRL ovals to flood-affected areas angered some, it would have been a bad look to leave thousands homeless after the natural disaster. Some said he broke key promises that had gotten him elected. But mostly, he came under fire for redirecting funds but maintaining the $300 million funds for the Panthers’ stadium in Penrith.
At the time, Mayor Byrne was furious.
“This petty exclusion is a continuation of the government’s blatant bias against our community,” he said in a mayoral minute that was tabled at the council’s meeting on March 8.
The mayor then released a strongly worded release, saying: “Dominic Perrottet is happy to spend $300 million in Stuart Ayres seat, to build a shiny, new Panthers Stadium for the exclusive use of one club. But the Wests Tigers, and all of the other men’s and women’s Rugby League, Soccer and Rugby Union teams who regularly use Leichhardt Oval get nothing.”
“The Premier likes to make a big deal of being a Tigers fan but given his abysmal record of failing to support our spiritual home at Leichhardt, it seems his alleged support for the Club is just a charade.”
In his most recent media release, the mayor said, “The previous Liberal / National Party Government had a very deliberate and overtly partisan policy of refusing to contribute to any funding to the upgrade Leichhardt Oval.”
It’s not certain what will happen, but the council’s proposal is now under review.
Park now open to the public
As part of the ‘Master Plan’ scope that Inner West planned for the beloved oval, Leichhardt Oval will now be open to public access as a park for the summer.
In the draft, this is listed as “Opening the ground up to the public as a community centre during the week”.
Inner West Mayor, Darcy Byrne said, “Residents can now walk into the 8th Wonder of the World from dawn to dusk, Monday to Friday all summer long.”
The summer opening hours will act as a trial for potentially making the park permanently open to the public from 2024.
“Leichhardt Oval is more than just Sydney’s most loved sporting ground; it’s a valuable community asset and we want the public to be able to enjoy it throughout the year,” the mayor said.