Getting off the train at North Sydney station, you walk up Miller Street and there it is: the ageless bastion of white privilege and private school rugby that is North Sydney Oval on Shute Shield Grand Final day.
I'd never been here before and found it to be like something out of an old movie, with old-school Edwardian pavilions and buildings that created an atmosphere as though I were at an English cricket match circa the 1870s.
Rugby has been played in this part of the country since the late 1890s back when the oval belonged to the North Shore club. They merged with the Wallaroos in 1900 to form Northern Suburbs Rugby Club, which has played at North Sydney Oval ever since. Walking into the rustic old ground it's impossible to ignore the passion for both the venue and the game. It's a version of Australian culture, not yours or mine necessarily, but strong nonetheless and you have to respect the fact they know what they like and have been successful in preserving it. Even if it means bringing replacement grandstands and a scoreboard from the Sydney Cricket Ground.
As you enter you're slapped in the face by a stench I can only describe as quintessentially 'suburban rugby;' that is to to say a mix of sausages and onion, damp grass and Deep Heat, and a collective of mostly-male panting beer-breath. For lovers of rugby, there is no place you'd rather be.
The crowd - a mix of current and former students, rugby lovers, private school old boys, bankers, property developers, and NSW Premier (and Kings College old boy) Mike Baird - was so typically rugby it kinda hurt. The vast majority of this state and this country's money, power and influence can be traced back to this 10,000-strong crowd. But if this is what Australia's elite looks like it might not be so bad. Everyone I saw could at the very least eat a sausage sandwich and drink a beer without spilling onion on their striped polo. And that has to count for something.
Contender one was Sydney University, the most successful team in Shute Shield history, having won the competition a record 24 times. Founded in 1863, the Sydney University Football Club is the oldest club in Australia and is the oldest rugby club in the world outside Britain. Skippered by the experienced Tom Carter, the club oozes prestige and bulges with pissed students, most of them dressed in collared shirts, vests and RM Williams (RRP $AUD495-$1000).
The other team, Northern Suburbs, were desperate to break a 41-year title hoodoo. Anchored by Kiwi coach Simon Cron and skipper Will Miller, the 'Shoremen' had shown glimmers of their halcyon days in 1960's and 70's as they racked up 12 wins on the trot heading into the final.
Coach Cron is a master tactician not to mention part of the extended Kiwi rugby royal family, as the nephew of All Blacks' forwards coach, Mike Cron. His captain Will Miller, meanwhile, is a bona fide cult hero in club rugby having won the Shute Shield's best player award in 2016 while also holding down a gig as a dairy farmer, meaning he has to travel nearly three hours to play and train.
The Norths fans are perched in the Macartney Stand at the southern end of the ground with several comical banners hanging off the sides. But Sydney Uni's students are well on their way to maggot before a ball's been kicked and easily drown out their opposition chant's.
The 10,000-strong crowd, many of whom perched themselves on the famous grassy hill, felt every swing in momentum as dark clouds circled around the ground. The game started out as a tense arm wrestle with both teams trading penalty conversions. As the game wore on, the students' fans grew in voice but with every penalty, the Norths' fans hit back taking advantage of stoppages to single out specific players with obscure personal facts and abuse.
The Norths' scrum had a little more meat than Uni and their persistence paid off. They were awarded a penalty try off the back of one and cruised to an early lead of 10-3. Uni looked like they'd been draining flutes of Moet at halftime as they came out guns blazing in the second half to take the lead. But, as had happened in their previous 12 games, Northern Suburbs had the legs and the smarts to come up with pivotal plays at crucial times. When Norths winger Richard Woolf ran 30 metres to finish off a dazzling team try with 15 minutes to go, 41 years of waiting poured into a final tense few minutes. Then Norths sealed the win with a try on the siren and all hell broke loose.
With 20 seconds left in the game, and Northern Suburbs up 23-15, Norths hooker Will Weeks took the ball from a lineout, hid behind his team's dominant scrum and, in a crazy maul, drove Uni back towards their own line. Try as they might, the students couldn't hold on and Weeks busted through to seal the title for Norths.
The Norths fans invaded the pitch, leaving Norths flyhalf Angus Sinclair unable to attempt the conversion. Miller and Cron were chaired around the ground, wide-eyed children with miniature footballs high-fived maggot men in budgie smugglers. I looked to my right and saw an old man in a Norths beanie crying. Seriously, it was pretty cool. Forty one years without a championship will do that to you.
For Sydney Uni and their loyal support crew, it must have been excruciating. Errors at crucial times gave Norths repeated lifelines out of trouble, and they made them pay. Retiring Uni skipper Carter summed it up best after the game. "It's a shit way to go out in your career," he said. "But that's just the way it is."