When Souths play Easts even the very air is contested. And so it was on Friday night as rugby league’s oldest rivalry was played out in its newest sporting battlefield, the $828m Allianz Stadium sitting smack bang between the two enemy territories.
The Roosters’ NRLW team opened the evening’s entertainment with a 34-6 thumping of St George Illawarra in the first of a double-header, before a vocal crowd of 41,906 watched the club’s men defeat their old rivals the Rabbitohs 26-16 in a typically fierce and thrilling NRL contest which, fittingly, will only reach its denouement in a return bout next week when the two sides play again in a sudden-death final at the same venue.
For all its bells, whistles and mod-cons, the new Sydney Football Stadium still played second fiddle to the game. Only a 114-year-old feud between rugby league’s founding clubs at fever pitch can do that. But the lavishly revamped ground lit up the night and proved a grand stage.
Despite being a Roosters “home game”, both fanbases arrived in force to christen an arena one club already calls home and the other one hankers for. That turf war will yet play out, but footy fans of every ilk snapped up all tickets and arrived early, first in a trickle then a torrent.
Before the action they were greeted by lights and cameras, as Roosters greats strode the field and paraded the Ron Coote Cup. In the belly of the grandstands, thousands met in vast open-air lounges, massing at tables and kicking back on couches. Frenemies laughed and rumbled in the crowded throng, but newly open terraces brought air and caught the spill.
Catering at the new stadium is overseen by Merivale and owner Justin Hemmes was spotted with a Roosters scarf under his arm. Queen Chow had cheeseburger spring rolls and a steamed barramundi for $29. Totti’s Pasta Bar offered a $30 prawn and chilli ditali that could inspire an Italian rugby league revolution.
Traditionalists found footy pies that were a) hot, b) meat-based and c) cooked (slow cooked too!). They washed them down at a buffet of bars where beers were cold, fancy and – until 7pm at least – had 49% off. It meant scenes similar to the six o’clock swill as fans filled their boots in double-time at half-price. Queues an hour before the game were 10 minutes back to front.
Caroma toilets flushed with a centrifugal force that echoed the oscillations of a Nathan Cleary bomb and even the Gents was woke, with a sanitary pad disposal unit in the stall.
No one rushed for pre-match entertainers The Presets, two Sydney Conservatorium old boys whose electronica thumped to the light show across the four strips girdling the stadium.
Then came cheer girls and drummers, fire spouts, glowing goal posts and tinsel pom-poms. And finally the players. The Rabbitohs’ reception reverberated like the thunder of Redfern dump trucks. The cheer for the Roosters swelled and broke like a big Bondi dumper. It could have been Vaucluse plumbers v Botany bus drivers. The colours were all that mattered.
Then, after all the hullabaloo of kick-off, silence. Souths captain Cameron Murray mistimed tackle one and staggered away seeing stars then slumped, kissing the dirt with concussion. In an echo of his terminal first tackle in Origin 3, Murray’s night was over before it began. Suddenly rudderless, Souths lost all shape and poise and Roosters crossed twice for 14-0. Of course, with so much on the line, they fought back but never quite recovered.
All game the tribal drums never stopped beating and human voices, not DJs, crowded the air. The volume hit its highest pitch for the clash’s pantomime villains. Ex-Rabbitohs Angus Crichton and Luke Keary got the pearls and swine treatment from current and former clubs. Latrell Mitchell was met by a bomb squad of Chooks every time he sniffed the pigskin.
The cauldron carried the sound best when the fullbacks touched the ball or tried their hand.
When Mitchell was driven back behind his line, the Fowlhouse went crazy. When his short kick-off sputtered over the sideline five metres upfield, they howled. The Bunnies No 1 was having an off night with his kicks and negative yardage in his runs and the full house let him know about it. When he was sin-binned late the Taree Ferrari left the new SFS for good.
And soon enough, after 80 minutes that pulsated in time with the stadium lights, so did we. But we’ll be back. If not for the Wallabies-Springboks on Saturday, the Matildas against Canada on Tuesday, or the NRL final next week, then definitely for the pies.