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Red and green staring at amber

Souths fans say they're the bunnies in the council's oval plan, writes Bonnie Malkin. SMH November 24, 2005

In 2001, the Souths patriarch and former hooker, George Piggins, won an epic fight to have his beloved team allowed back into the NRL. Now Piggins, supported by a legion of passionate Souths fans, is back in the ring trying to return the Rabbitohs to their former home ground at Redfern Oval. But earlier this week the battle to raise the cardinal and myrtle in Redfern Park again hit an obstacle.

On Monday night, the fight to return Souths to their former home was dealt a body blow when the City of Sydney Council approved a plan that blocks the team from playing NRL games there.

The council gave the nod to a modest redesign of the oval. It involves transforming the rundown grandstand and field into a training ground that would remain the "spiritual home" for Souths and a community sports oval with full public access with room for 8000 spectators. The council intends Souths to train at Redfern and play at Aussie Stadium, about a kilometre away at Moore Park.

The plan is far from Piggins's original vision of a 20,000-seat stadium with underground car parking, supermarket and day-care centre. His $42million plan included relocating the Souths Leagues Club into the stadium.

In the months before Monday's vote, Piggins scaled back his proposal, backed by the Redfern Police Citizen Youth Club, to a 12,000-capacity stadium with an indoor sporting complex and 8200 seats that would allow Souths to play a handful of games at the oval each season.

The plan involved relocating the youth club to the stadium, building a cafe in the grandstand and erecting large perimeter fences that could be locked at night.

But the revised plan was rejected by the council in favour of a scheme backed by the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, and her team of independents.

Under the council's $19 million plan, the existing stadium will be demolished and replaced by a stadium that seats about 700 people to allow Souths to train at Redfern and let school and junior teams, including teams in the annual Koori Cup, use the field as well.

Moore said the council's plan will deliver the greatest good for the greatest number, allowing everybody in Redfern, not just its sports fans, to use the oval. The plan is championed by heritage experts and many locals, who are just as passionate about the ground as Piggins. They say the surrounding streets could not cope with an influx of football fans on game days and that Redfern needs a green space everyone can enjoy. Supporters of the council plan also say there is a world-class football oval at Aussie Stadium and that the Government is against building any more of them.

An amendment by a Liberal councillor, Shayne Mallard, means Souths would be allowed to play pre-season games on the site, but the council's edict - that no main competition NRL games will be allowed - stands. Mallard also pushed through an amendment to investigate building perimeter fencing with retractable gates at the oval, a slight compromise on the council's preferred option of low fencing that would emain open to the public at all times.

The council's plan was endorsed by six votes to four, with Mallard voting with the independents. The three Labor councillors and lone Green, Chris Harris, wanted the police youth club proposal given more consideration and an undertaking that even if Souths were locked out of playing NRL games at the oval, it would be possible to lock the pitch to maintain it.

Piggins said the council's decision was a nail in the coffin for Souths. "If we can't reverse it, it's probably going to be the end of Souths, if we can't get the crowd to go to Telstra [Stadium] and we can't afford to play at Aussie Stadium."

Souths would not be able to train on the field if it was not locked at night because the field could be damaged, he said. "It will be too dangerous for them to use it. You can't pay a lot of money for these great young players and put them on a cow paddock. It's too big a risk."

Moore said the council's option, which will take two to three years to construct, was "responsible and balanced" and would deliver badly needed green open space for Redfern. Redfern has the lowest open-space ratio in Sydney and the area's population is expected to jump from 15,000 to 40,000 by 2015.

Redfern Oval was zoned for public use. Allowing commercial development on the site, like that in the police youth club proposal, went against planning regulations, she said. "Redfern Oval is public land; it's currently locked away from the public. It's unsafe and underused.

"[Under the council's plan] the area will be available for active recreation for the rest of the community, and I believe that's responsible."

She said a council survey of 500 people had found overwhelming support for the council's plan.

But a Labor councillor, Tony Pooley, said the survey was flawed. There were several open ovals close to Redfern Park and what people needed was a dedicated place to play sport, he said.

But not all locals agree. Ian Thomson, spokesman for the community group Open Up Redfern Park, said Redfern residents were happy with the council's decision.

"We did substantial doorknocking and talked to a lot of people at different forums and people want to have open space," he said. The police youth club plan had been flawed because the size of Redfern Oval meant it could never have hosted an NRL game.

"Up to a certain point it's reasonable to put in a built structure and have an active sports ground, but there's a line that needs to be drawn and that's on scale," Thomson said. "The NRL is above that scale.

"The Koori Cup has a maximum crowd of 2000, rugby league has a minimum of 6000 to 7000, so the facilities would need to be a lot larger and have a much larger impact."

Children in Redfern had to cross busy roads to get to other open ovals, Thomson said.

"There is an absolute need for a space where people can actively get out and do fitness, running, training and walking, and for kids to get off the street and kick a ball over goal posts."

Despite the council's decision, the struggle isn't over for Piggins and the Police Citizen Youth Club, who say they have the backing of three local schools, 31 businesses, and more than 15 Aboriginal organisations.

A green ban by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union is still in place on the oval, and Piggins plans to ask the State Government to step in to reverse council's decision.

"We hope to get an intervention by the Government if they think it's a big enough project for them to step in and take the power away from council."

He also plans to field a second team of independent councillors against Moore's team in the 2007 council election.

But it could be too late. The council is moving ahead with the masterplan for the smaller stadium. The likelihood of hearing "Glory Glory to South Sydney" rising again from the stands at Redfern Oval seems to be rapidly diminishing.