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How do you reckon you would have gone at Allianz Stadium last Thursday night trying to convince a rugby league novice the Rabbitohs vs Roosters match they were about to witness is the NRL’s oldest and most bitter rivalry?
By the time a ball was hoofed in anger, the stadium had filled to only 40 per cent of capacity which, as it turned out, roughly matched the effort dished up by a lethargic Roosters pack.
And while Trent Robinson was rightly disappointed by his side’s showing, is it right to criticise the hordes of absent fairweather supporters for the depressing scene at Sydney’s most hyped derby?
As a neutral I’m always inspired when Rusty Crowe dusts off the Book of Feuds, and while I’ve attended plenty of the contests over the years, regardless of the on-field quality I have always been underwhelmed by Sydney’s inability to attract bumper derby crowds like those in other parts of the country.
Blaming most of Souths’ 30,000 members for the sea of empty blue seats is only the tip of the iceberg given it was a Roosters home game and it’s entirely reasonable to assume the majority of the Bondi fan base had actually passed through the turnstiles.
In the 38 Rabbitohs vs Roosters clashes at Allianz since 1988 crowds have exceeded 20,000 on only 11 occasions.
Stories of Ron Coote, treason and the lure of eastern suburbs extravagance always entertain, but the audience is small. Unlike other Australian cities, Sydneysiders are flush for excuses to skip sporting contests.
That over 50,000 marched behind George Piggins in 2000 to get South Sydney reinstated says a lot about the people of Sydney.
Over and above the century-old battles and tales of deception and dishonesty, now more than ever Sydneysiders are attracted by an occasion.
In two weeks the Roosters and Dragons face off in the now traditional Anzac Day clash. Once again there will be stories of rivalry, and even though the pages will be far less loaded than the Book of Feuds, you can bet Allianz will be bursting at the seams thanks to the big occasion.
Since 2002, ten of the 16 Anzac Day matches have attracted more than 30,000 fans. Of the last eight, the lowest crowd is 34,483.
I’m sure if Todd Greenberg had the power, he’d flood the calendar with more public holidays. Over the years Good Friday and Easter Monday have been shaped into proven NRL drawcards.
Plenty would have us believe the number of fans parked in front of television screens is more important than numbers through the gate. My reply to that is the bigger the occasion, the bigger the roar from the stands and the bigger the TV audience.
Sydney is a different market to the other NRL host cities, but the message is clear: to attract more than the rusted-on regulars a sense of occasion is vital.
To their credit, the NRL have been making moves for some time. The ANZ double-header has been a success overall, but like the Auckland Nines, over time it will get tired and require a coat of paint.
The traditional western derby between Penrith and Parramatta filled Penrith Park in the opening round of the season and yet sold only 10,000 tickets at ANZ Stadium four week later.
Granted, Parramatta are holding out for a new stadium, but what’s to stop a clash in circumstances like this being sold as a demolition derby night on the same card as the Book of Feuds clash at Allianz Stadium?
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While on the topic of the new Parramatta Stadium, let’s think how to optimise the best facility of the western suburbs. For low-drawing contests against out-of-town teams, let’s pair them with other western derbies, like Tigers vs Canterbury.
The crowd is sure to top what each club might expect at older suburban venues and the atmosphere and sense of occasion will outdo what the out of towner has come to expect.
Everyone likes a winner, but Sydneysiders love nothing more than to be seen at big occasions.
Amid the hive of current Sydney construction and works are opportunities for the NRL. Let’s hope they’re taken, otherwise we could lose the Book of Feuds under a hammer at an upcoming auction.