If barracking for the Newcastle Knights is almost a religion in the Hunter, then Wendy Hepplewhite is a high priestess.
The great-grandmother is a member of the renowned supporters’ group, the Knights Nannas.
All through the interminably long summer, Hepplewhite has been dutifully waiting for March 9 to arrive, so that she could assemble with the red-and-blue congregation at McDonald Jones Stadium, take her seat in the Andrew Johns Grandstand, and holler like a televangelist at her beloved Knights.
“I’m just anxious for 6 o’clock tonight to come,” the 76-year-old says, referring to kick-off time, as she packs a container of lemon meringue slices.
Wendy was up before dawn, cooking cakes for the Nannas’ customary pre-match get-together at the stadium, and to prepare her uniform for the match: Knights Nannas shirt, Knights cap, Knights scarf, Knights backpack. On her shirt is embroidered the name “Alex McKinnon”, in honour of the injured Knight, but she doesn’t have a favourite player.
“I just like them all,” she shrugs.
In the Hepplewhite household, being a rugby league supporter means you belong to a broad church. As the high priestess, Wendy accepts supporters of all footy faiths. She has no choice really.
Her daughter, Leanne Fenwick is a Broncos supporter – although she is also a Knights Nanna. Wendy’s son-in-law, Darrell Fenwick, goes for Manly Warringah.
They all live under the same roof at Woodberry.
Leanne Fenwick has trouble accepting that her husband supports Manly. She occasionally has to wrestle the temptation to destroy his Sea Eagles beanie. Wendy is mostly forgiving of her son-in-law, for the maroon and white stain on his soul.
“That’s his problem, it doesn’t bother me,” she says.
Except perhaps on the day of Newcastle’s first match for season 2018. For the Knights are playing Manly at home.
“Won’t it be good tonight when I come home and we’ve won,” Wendy says to Darrell. “And if we don’t win, you won’t hear me.”
“You never know, they might be off the bottom of the ladder,” Darrell Fenwick says, not exactly in an encouraging tone.
Not that he will let his mother-in-law forget the Knights’ performance of the past three years. He gave her a wooden spoon, painted red and blue, in 2015. He has since written “2016” and “2017” on it.
“Well, the Knights Nannas stir everyone else up, so why not stir them up,” says Darrell, before he confesses he will just stay at home to watch this match on TV. “I can’t get into trouble then.”
Wendy Hepplewhite is going to the game with her great-grandson, Cohen. The 10-year-old is a Warriors supporter, despite his “Grammy” trying to convert him by taking him to supporters’ days and home games.
On Friday afternoon, Wendy and Cohen join the thickening stream of fans pouring into the stadium and meet up with eight other Nannas at a pop-up cafe.
Over summer, the Nannas’ ranks have thinned. They lament the loss of Phyllis, who died a few months ago, aged 93. Yet Phyllis’ commitment to the Knights lives on; she had already bought her seat for the season.
For another Nanna, Elaine Roberts, this is one of the first home games she’s missed since 1988, because she’s just had her knee done. But she’ll be watching at home.
Wendy also had a knee operation in November, mainly so she would be ready in time for the footy season. She thinks she’s been to every Knights home game but one in the past 30 years.
The cafe table groans under the weight of freshly baked food, and the air is fizzing with predictions of how the Knights will go this year.
Margaret Finlay, who at 53 is the youngest of the assembled Nannas, forecasts the team could make the top eight.
“After three wooden spoons, you can’t expect miracles,” she adds.
Beryl Lawson, who is 88, explains while eating a cream cake that her late husband was a referee. That doesn’t stop the Nannas from giving their opinion of referees. Let’s just say the refs wouldn’t be invited to coffee and cakes.
However, Mitchell Pearce is welcome anytime. The star signing is excitedly talked about. One Nanna makes a joke about a certain past off-field incident involving the halfback, but they order me not to repeat it. The Nannas can not only cook, they’re scarily persuasive.
“Don’t you dare!,” warns 79-year-old Dorothy Smith. “We want to welcome him.”
“He’s good now, he’s a Knight,” adds Dorothy’s younger sister, Yvonne O’Donnell, who travels from Tea Gardens for each home game.
The Nannas have also gone on road trips to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to support their team, and for the company of each other, for many of them are widows.
“It’s nice being in a group,” says Yvonne, who is 77. “You don’t get lost.”
Yvonne mentions she used to have a poster of Andrew Johns hanging on the back of the toilet door, but it mysteriously fell down. She blames the spirit of her husband, who died in 2002.
Margaret Finlay takes some cakes over to a young woman selling merchandise – “she’s working hard for the Knights” – while Wendy is dishing out slices with a refined silver server. I comment the implement looks like something you’d expect at a gathering of Manly silvertails. From the glare she gives, I now know how her son-in-law feels.
“I must remember not to bring that again,” she later mutters.
As the sun lowers and six o’clock nears, the Nannas take their seats in the stand.
“Well, who would miss out on this?,” says Wendy, as she surveys the crowd of more than 23,000.
The Manly players run onto the field, and Wendy Hepplewhite joins in the chorus of boos: “That’s a Newcastle welcome”.
Then, accompanied by a lung-burning roar from the crowd and a blast of pyrotechnics, the new-look Knights run on to the field and into the embrace of a region. And cheering as loudly as anyone is Wendy. The past three seasons would have sorely tested a fan’s faith, but the high priestess of Woodberry remains devout.
“It’s not tough, we just come and support them,” she explains. “Win, lose or draw.
“Have confidence, they’ll be right.”
Indeed, Wendy is right. The Knights win in a thriller. With that field goal, Mitchell Pearce kicks himself into the realms of the gods, in the Nannas’ eyes.
And we can only imagine what Wendy Hepplewhite will say to that Manly supporting son-in-law when she walks through the door.
Have confidence, they'll be right.Wendy Hepplewhite, Knights Nanna