A few weeks back I wrote about the prize of finishing as league leaders.
While my suggestion that we treat the winners with slightly more interest met with, er, ‘mixed’ responses, one of the true, unequivocal rewards that should greet those at the top of the ladder, that we could all agree on, was home advantage in the finals.
So, imagine my shock in discovering the Penrith versus Souths decider will take place at ANZ Stadium. They can deck the stands out with liquorice allsorts colours, parade as many Panther mascots as they like.
They may not play Glory Glory to South Sydney over the loudspeaker, and they may ask the Burrow to move to the cheap seats, but this hardly qualifies as home advantage (Penrith to Olympic Village: 26 miles. Olympic Village to Redfern: 11 miles).
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great boost for the Bunnies. Since clubs have been able to host games in front of fans, we’ve been back at what we’ve called home since 2006.
But I’m still left with the nagging question as to: why? (Why the game is at Homebush, not why Souths continue to play home matches there: that’s another painfully irreverent article for another day).
It can’t simply be a blanket policy of avoiding suburban grounds during the play-offs. The Panthers hosted Easts on the foothills on the Blue Mountains in Week 1 – admittedly when there was less on the line, but its finals footy nonetheless.
It also can’t be about having a neutral venue for the preliminaries. We all understand the need for an unbiased, big-stage coliseum for the main event, so, logic goes, why shouldn’t they extend that to the round before?
In the UK, the Challenge Cup does so, as did football’s FA Cup before big money demanded a change (arguably a factor in the competition losing some of its magic, but I digress).
But that is for a straight knockout, standalone cup competition, where regular season standings play no part. As one of my previous articles relating to the Amco Cup pertains to, more ‘mixed’ responses shows minimal appetite for such a competition in Australia.
The very fact that the Melbourne-Canberra game is taking place at Melbourne’s ‘home’ in Brisbane, rather than a neutral ground in between the two cities (even in these tumultuous times) suggests the powers that be still wish to reward home advantage up until the grand final.
As politicians the world over are fond of reminding us, these are unprecedented times. It’s great that fans can return in Australia and Aotearoa (even if it does seen streaks of jealousy from HMP UK).
But with reduced capacities, it is surely the moral thing to do to ensure as many fans as possible can attend. 40,000 is better than 10,000, better transport links, easier to social distance, don’t kill granny, etcetera.
But has anyone asked either the Penrith players, or their fans? Be under no illusions the importance of home advantage. Sports behind closed doors in England and those early NRL rounds show just how important having that extra motivation can be.
An Old World example that I’m sure someone will find umbrage with: when Tottenham began redeveloping our stadium, we played Champions League football games at Wembley (capacity: 90,000).
We didn’t do this previously (admittedly our performances not allowing for regular top tier appearances), but we could’ve packed in almost three times as many and made a killing.
But we stuck with our, let’s say ‘unique’, 35,000 ground (now 60,000). The fans would not have stood for corporate grandstanding and the loss of home advantage. There would’ve been protests at the thought of moving high-profile games 11 miles down the road.
Back in the before times, when Penrith hosted New Zealand Warriors in the 2018 Finals, they played that game at the Olympic Stadium, and got just 17,168 through the gates (IE: less than the capacity of their own stadium). The grass, and indeed the profit sheet, isn’t always greener.
Of those Penrith fans lucky enough to have tickets, I’m sure they’d much rather have the privilege of watching in home, familiar, local surroundings, generating a much more concentrated atmosphere than trekking half a city away to the soulless goldfish bowl.
If not, please let me know (not clickbaity or trying to get more ‘hits’ or comments, genuinely interested to hear why).
Why is it OK to forego advantage, the sieged fortress mentality and the backing of the 18th man, just to put a few more bums on seats miles away from home?
Or is this just something that, like Cherry Ripe and the Bathurst 1000, an outsider like me will just never understand?