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Newcastle Oztag in the dark at Smith Park

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Twenty-one years. 

That is how long Newcastle Oztag has been waiting to have lights installed at its home ground at Hamilton North. 

Lights, says the group’s coordinator Rhiannon Howard, would allow an increase in enrolment numbers in a sport that is skyrocketing in popularity. 

This year Oztag, essentially rugby league without tackling, reached a record 150 senior and 98 junior enrolled teams before Howard was forced to shut down registrations three weeks early. 

Given that players range in age from four to 70 and sides can be male, female or mixed, with 16 outfits on the grounds at one time, numbers meant almost 100 potential players were left disappointed this season. 

“I could have taken 105 junior teams, but I had to cut back, I had to close registrations,” Rhiannon says.  

“We already had 1,000 boys and girls playing this term.”

Newcastle Oztag was forced to close junior enrolments early this term after record interest

The numbers come after Howard had set herself a goal of 50 teams enrolled by October.

She thought it might be an ambitious figure considering the record 38 enrolled last term. 

“I would have been really happy to get to 50,” she told the Newcastle Weekly. 

“Ninety-eight just blows my mind.” 

In the senior competition, which has been running for 21 years, the 150 summer sides are forced to drop back to 55 in the winter due to the lack of space and lighting.

“We have to move to Kentish Oval in Lambton and Ford Oval in New Lambton, so we can utilise six fields under lights,” Howard says.

“We have 2,100 female and male players in seniors over three nights in summer.”

In fact, the popular sport that has eight on a field at a time attempting to steal coloured tags from the opposition, could have welcomed more enrolments if their home ground had lighting which would allow for later game times. 

Currently the final match played at Smith Oval on Mondays to Thursdays is 7.05pm, capturing the last of daylight hours. 

Even the games’ length has been shortened to 30 minutes, allowing eight time slots per evening. 

“It’s been like this for about 21 years,” Howard says. 

Newcastle Oztag junior enrolment numbers have tripled in recent years.

Newcastle Oztag was first welcomed at the University of Newcastle in 2001 when Howard and her parents Joanne and Brett moved to the former steel city from Tamworth, where the sport was already well established. 

In its first year, it boasted 17 teams. 

“It’s just grown and grown,” admits Howard, who was just eight years old when she first donned a Newcastle uniform. 

“It’s all been word of mouth. A lot of our players have been talking about it at school, and encouraging their friends to join, and because the whole family can play, we’ve got plenty of new junior and senior players.” 

Howard says this year’s intake is made up of 70% first time players. 

And, for the first time in the club’s history, it has had 11 teams selected to represent Newcastle Oztag in the Australian Oztag State Cup 2023.

Smith Park is utilised by Newcastle Oztag, Hamilton Azzurri Football Club in winter and an array of local cricket clubs throughout summer.

Newcastle City Council has offered Newcastle Oztag the use of Waratah Oval but thus far no options have been suitable. 

“Not all of them have lights and we couldn’t utilise them all on the afternoons we needed,” Howard says. 

“We would be in same predicament either way. We would be there until 8.30pm or 9pm playing Oztag.” 

Newcastle Oztag co-ordinator Rhiannon Howard (right).

On 2 November, council released its Smith Park Sports Masterplan, open for community feedback until the end of the month. 

The plan is designed:

“To optimise field layout and improve provision for cricket, football and touch/Oztag.

The draft masterplan incorporates the realignment and upgrading of fields, upgraded amenities and future provision for lighting.

“This is in line with City of Newcastle’s (CN) 10-year Strategic Sports Plan to address future demand and inform the ongoing supply, maintenance, and upgrade of sporting infrastructure across the city. 

‘”Council] has met with Newcastle Oztag on several occasions to offer advice on the process for the installation of floodlights at Smith Park. Adoption of a masterplan including community engagement will ensure an integrated approach to improvements at Smith Park. 

Funding will then need to be secured for the upgrades. 

[Council] has offered alternative venues to Newcastle Oztag that have floodlights, but to date they have elected to remain at Smith Park.” 

– Newcastle City Council

“They have tried helping but we have just kept growing over the past 20 years and it’s come to a point where Smith Park master plan is well overdue,” Howard says.

“This is awesome news for everyone.”

Newcastle Oztag has received quotes for lighting that exceed $500,000. 

“We have been working with Hamilton Azzurri, they are a small club, and unfortunately so far, we have not had any luck with any funding,” she said. 

“We also have the backing of Australian Oztag.” 

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