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Official Review by Lloyd Rothwell, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Newcastle is located in the Hunter region of New South Wales, around a two hour drive north of Sydney. The city has historically centred on heavy industry, in particular coal mining. However, in recent times the local economy has diversified and the city itself has begun a process of urban renewal. Newcastle is a coastal city blessed by geographical beauty in and around the region including the central Hunter River, Lake Macquarie to the south and Port Stephens to the north.
Hunter Stadium opened in 1970 and is currently the home of the Newcastle Knights (NRL) and Newcastle Jets (A-League). After several renovations over the years, the ground currently has a capacity of 33,000. Additionally, the venue has previously hosted rugby league internationals and a sole rugby union test match. Hunter Stadium will also be used as a venue for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup (soccer).
The Knights were admitted as an expansion team to the National Rugby League (NRL) in 1988, along with the Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast-Tweed Giants. In their short history they have achieved a high level of on-field success including premierships in 1997 and 2001, and attract great local support. Recent financial instability has plagued the club with private ownership relinquished and a long term structure still to be finalised. In 2014, their Head Coach, Wayne Bennett, has only added to the uncertainty by announcing he’s leaving the club with a year left on his contract to return to Brisbane.
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The food options here are very much average, in every sense of the word. Hungry fans are restricted to stadium staples such as hot dogs, meat pies, hot chips, chicken and chips, fish and chips, and calamari and chips. Prices for single items are around the $5 mark, with the combinations around $10. The quality is slightly random with some items (hot dog and calamari) surprisingly good, yet other items (hot chips and chicken) are served lukewarm and dry respectively. The one food item available at Hunter that is somewhat unusual for an Australian venue is churros, with either chocolate or caramel dipping sauce. Again, quality is mixed.
A range of alcoholic drinks are available including light and mid-strength beer, pre mixed spirits, wine and champagne. Prices are approximately $6 - $10 per drink. Soft drinks and bottled water can also be purchased.
If your tickets are for the grandstands I'd suggest buying your food on the way to your seats as there are limit outlets open in the upper sections.
Hunter Stadium features grandstands on either side of the playing surface and grass hills at either end. The original stand is located on the western side of the ground. The newer eastern stand is named after former player Andrew Johns, recognised as an "Immortal" by the sport of rugby league.
The stands and concourse levels are reserved seating, while the grassed areas are general admission. The grandstands have three levels and are quite steep, meaning that you still have a good view from the top deck, which is also the only place to shelter from the weather. The second level is comprised of corporate and private boxes. If you're on the third level there is an elevator available if you don't fancy climbing the stairs.
There's limited additional entertainment here although I'd recommend arriving early to see the NSW Cup curtain raiser, which is effectively a reserve grade competition. There will be around 40 minutes following the end of this game and the start of the main game. During this time you'll likely see the cheerleaders perform, some short junior games and the two teams complete their warm ups. The players enter the playing field from the western stand.
There is a small video board at the southern end of the ground which is difficult to see from the far end. The northern end has a digital display which notes the score and time remaining in the game.
Much of the immediate area surrounding the stadium is parkland and other sporting venues; the Hunter Venues sports precinct. Newcastle Harness Racing Club is directly behind the eastern grandstand. However, there are several options for pre or post match refreshments including Sunnyside Tavern and the Premier Hotel. As you get closer to the coast there are a myriad of options in the Central Business District and the beachside suburb of Merewether including The Northern Star Hotel.
Venture north of the CBD and you will find the suburb of Stockton; well worth a visit to the famous beaches and sand dunes. Indeed, Newcastle is well known for its surfing culture and if you have the time, it is highly recommended you take in the sights at local beaches such as Nobby's.
Newcastle is also of course the home of the infamous Star Hotel; site of the 1979 riots that inspired the Cold Chisel rock song of the same name. The city also reached a level of international fame when cargo freighter, the Pasha Bulker ran aground on Nobby's Beach during a heavy storm in 2007.
The people of Newcastle always get behind the Knights, particularly when they're winning. However with somewhat limited success recently, crowd numbers have been inconsistent. Despite that, the local fans still make plenty of noise when their team is in front. The crowd is also very knowledgeable and accommodating of visiting supporters. We were able to have good conversations with the nearby fans about the state of rugby league in general, as well as the action as it unfolded.
Hunter Stadium is probably best accessed by car. It is situated in a relatively central location and has on-site parking which must be prepaid for $10. This is relatively cheap for an Australian venue and the walk from the car park to your seat is very short indeed. The closest train station is Broadmeadow and buses do pass by, but public transport will necessitate a 10-20 minute walk before you get to the stadium.
Once inside the venue it's easy to move around and bathrooms are adequate. There are limited ushers so stadium chasers should have ample opportunity to explore, particularly if you arrive early.
Knights tickets don't come cheap, although this is not unusual for the NRL. General admission costs $25 for adults while the majority of reserved seating will set you back $50. There are also a limited number of reserved sections for $38 a ticket; although this will have you positioned side on to the in-goal area. The NRL is one of the premier professional sporting competitions in Australia yet it's hard to justify the high prices and it's no wonder many families now question the value of attending live games.
The experience at Hunter Stadium is fairly standard; hence there is not an abundance of extra points awarded here. You are unlikely to find anything especially out of the ordinary; average food, merchandise options and additional entertainment.
The biggest story for the Knights on the park during the 2014 season has been the unfortunate injury to forward Alex McKinnon. In Round 3 McKinnon suffered a serious neck injury in a game against Melbourne that has left him in a wheelchair. The club, community and NRL have rallied to support McKinnon, raising over $1 million to assist him in his recovery. The biggest cheer by far when the players were being introduced was for McKinnon, who was still named by the announcer. This is a good measure of the community aspect of the club.
High profile coach Wayne Bennett has recently announced he is heading back to Brisbane for the 2015 season, further magnifying a somewhat uncertain future for the Knights. However, the Newcastle faithful continue to proudly support their team who represent their region with passion, making a visit to Hunter Stadium a worthwhile experience.
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