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Official Review by Lloyd Rothwell, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
After playing their inaugural season at Brookvale Oval, in 2015 the Rays have decided to split their home games between local grade venues Manly Oval and Pittwater Rugby Park. Records show that rugby was played in Manly at Ivanhoe Park, the site of Manly Oval, as early as 1883. Manly Council bought the park several years later, and it was re-named Manly Oval at some point in the 1890s. The Village Green has been home to Manly Rugby Club and Manly Warringah District Cricket Club ever since. Manly Oval has an estimated capacity of 5,000.
Manly Rugby Club make up one quarter of the clubs that make up the North Harbour Rays; the others being Warringah, Gordon, and Northern Suburbs. The Rays are one of three Sydney franchises competing in the National Rugby Championship (NRC) along with the Greater Sydney Rams and Sydney Stars, providing a third tier of professional rugby in Australia. The Rays have sourced significant backing and input by securing Macquarie University as a major sponsor, and also boast former ARU CEO Gary Flowers as Chairman.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Manly Oval is a suburban ground, hence expect the food and beverage offerings to be of that standard. Hot food is limited to meat pies or sausage/steak sandwiches from the BBQ. There's also a small amount of snack food available, along with beers and soft drinks. Visit the pavilion next to the grandstand to make your choice. The BBQ is then down at ground level as you approach the hill. While it may be basic, there's nothing wrong with a beer and a sausage sandwich to enjoy an afternoon at the rugby. Doing so will cost you around $10.
Manly Oval is one of the most picturesque suburban sporting grounds in Sydney, arguably rivalled only by North Sydney Oval and Drummoyne Oval. The field itself is delineated by a white picket fence and there are a number of large trees providing shade in the northwestern corner, behind which lies Manly Bowls Club, previously known as Diggers on the Park. Manly Tennis Centre borders the Oval on the eastern side. The sole grandstand was rebuilt in 2001 and its "flying saucer" style roof is said to have been inspired by stingrays and other creatures found in nearby Manly Cove. The stand is dedicated to Tony "Slaggy" Miller, who spent many years playing and coaching with both Manly and Warringah rugby clubs, in addition to winning 41 caps for the Wallabies.
The hill in the northwestern corner is often popular but is quite steep - important to note if you have young children with you. There is a row of benches that surround the western side of the oval. Note that the playing field is located closer to the eastern side of the ground so you can be some way from the action on the western side. Despite, the stand or the hill are still good vantage points to enjoy the game.
The Rays have junior cheerleaders and the sponsor provides a mascot, but other than that there's little additional entertainment. However, quite frankly, it's not really required at this level. The manual scoreboard sits in the north eastern corner. The P.A. system is basic, but adequate.
Manly is well known as a Sydney hotspot. A playground of tourists and locals alike, there is an abundance of beaches, hotels, pubs, cafes and restaurants nearby.
The majority of places to eat or drink are located along the Corso and North Steyne. More popular pubs include the Steyne, Ivanhoe, and Wharf Bar. The Manly Skiff Club (Stuart St) is a great place to enjoy a cold beer with a sensational view overlooking Manly Cove. If you're a fan of craft beers then the 4 Pines Brewing Co is on East Esplanade.
Other local tourist attractions to consider are Manly Sea Life Sanctuary (including shark diving), Manly Wharf, Manly Cove, and Manly Beach. The walk south around to Shelley Beach along the foreshore is also a pleasant one. If you're after a longer walk, the 10km trek from Manly to the Spit offers great bushland and harbour views.
Of course from Manly you also have the entire northern beaches at your disposal. Worth checking out are the statue of Duke Kahanamoku (who is said to have introduced surfing to Australia) on the Freshwater headland, Palm Beach (where the Australian soap opera Home and Away is filmed) and the café strip at Dee Why.
For the 2014 season, the Rays were consistently the highest drawing team of the three clubs based in Sydney. In particular there has been strong support from the Manly and Warringah clubs, both of whom also draw comparatively large crowds to their home games. The crowd for the game we attended was said to be close to 2,000. The fans could hardly be described as boisterous but they definitely enjoy their day at the rugby and pay close attention to the action on the field. There's plenty of families in attendance and the general relaxed atmosphere befits that.
Access to the northern beaches is generally always a struggle, but at least in Manly you have the option of public transport on a ferry from the city or a bus. If you are making a day of it and come via the city then the ferry is certainly a good option, allowing great views of the harbour and showcasing Sydney as a whole. Car parking is not necessarily easy but it is possible to find free parking up Sydney Rd; albeit you will have a nice easy stroll to the oval, but face a steep uphill climb back to your car after the game. The bathrooms are small and old, but adequate.
It's very affordable to see the Rays play with adult tickets priced at $15 and children under 16 years getting free entry. Additionally, students and pensioners can purchase a $10 ticket. The standard of rugby and the overall experience rates well at this price point, particularly given the cheap cost of taking the family.
Pleasingly the Rays have made an effort to promote their merchandise this year to build their brand for Season #2. The first game saw a giveaway of t-shirts to kids which was a great idea as they are less likely hamstrung by old club allegiances and are happy to embrace a new identity. The Rays uniforms also rate an extra point, and in my humble opinion are clearly the pick of all NRC unis. I've also scored an extra point here for location; a stunning area of Sydney packed with things to do and see.
The move from Brookvale to Manly (and Pittwater) may have given the atmosphere more of a club rugby feel, but pleasingly this has not really detracted from the overall experience. Manly is a great location for a sporting arena, and the village green offers a relaxing afternoon of rugby. The Rays are slowly building their identity in the still fledging NRC. Check them out if you have the opportunity.
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E Esplanade & Stuart Street
Manly, NSW 2095
+61 2 9977 3322
29/43-45 E Esplanade
Manly, NSW 2095
+61 2 9976 2300