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Opinion

'This isn’t a COVID thing': Atmosphere is the missing component of the NRL

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Roar Guru
24th August, 2021
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Last week saw Super League’s ‘Rivals Round’, a half-arsed marketing gimmick designed to feign interest in lieu of genuine commercial strategy. Nonetheless, it threw up a number of scintillating ties, with action-packed drama on the pitch and vociferous fans in the rafters.

Friday’s Wigan-St Helens derby produced a domineering 26-2 victory for the away side, and a standout evening from the fans to boot.

At various points this time round, the ground was regaled with the fact that “Wigan get battered everywhere they go”, as well as some unprintable lyrics relating to the Wiganese knack for, well, interrelating.

Such emotional investment by fans was on show from Hull to Castleford to Leigh, and is so often what elevates these grudge matches to the next level. That passion made vocal can elevate such games to a more intense level.

Unfortunately, the game in the NRL is poorer for a lack of atmospheric rhythm.

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These games are, in fact the entire sport is, unthinkable without fans. Behind closed doors games never reached the same ferocity as when they are willed on by thousands of cheering fans. Australia lacks comparatively for such atmospheric generation.

That’s not to dismiss Sydney’s many rivalries, or the intense feelings garnered by their followers. Easts vs Souths is a fixture littered with history, with their respective recent histories at the top of the ladder allowing them to claim stake to the ‘best’ rivalry in the game.

The divergence of vocality at the Ashes is enough to illustrate the differences in supporter culture between the UK and Australia. Atmospheres are probably the only part of Super League that exceeds the NRL. That such vociferousness is generated by fewer paying punters is neither here nor there.

After the derby in 2019, St Helens fullback Lachlan Coote was amazed by the fans singing his praises, saying, “It’s really something we don’t get over in Australia with the way the fans battle each other in the stands.”

This isn’t a COVID thing, and this entire discussion precedes and proceeds a post-restriction world.

The recent behind-closed-doors fixtures and relocation to Queensland obviously don’t help, but it’s been something noted for far longer than the pandemic. This comparative silence can be explained to some extent by the peculiarities of Australian culture and sport.

The sheer vastness of Australian geography makes rivalries difficult to foster. The isolation of Melbourne means hyping ‘grudge’ games against Manly seems superficial. The same can be said of New Zealand and the difficulty of cultivating unique trans-Tasman spite.

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Brisbane came into the NSWRL as a product of the city’s best, as did Newcastle with the Hunter region, and Canberra with the surrounding ACT. Billing fixtures against the Cowboys as a Queensland ‘derby’ is tricky when the sides are separated by 1340 kilometres.

The mergers at the ceasefire of the Super League War didn’t help. It’s tough to rationalise fans becoming so emotionally attached when the side you grew up with has been through a forced unification with a previous foe. Your previous identity is subsumed, divided with others.

These mergers brought with them ground sharing, but this is a phenomenon afflicting Australian sport. Many of Sydney’s clubs do not have a fixed abode, or share a ground with their rivals. More than half of the city’s teams regularly used the Olympic Stadium as a home venue, making it that more difficult to foster intra-city despisal.

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In such a hard-hitting, territorial game as rugby league, timesharing ‘home’ with those you purport to hate doesn’t logically compute.

It’s not as if this is completely alien to Australia. South Sydney fans at least try with The Burrow and belting of ‘Take Me Home, Botany Road’. Every A-League club is replete with fanatical supporters making their presence heard. Why can’t the same be done for rugby league?

Australia leads the sport in so many ways. It is the pinnacle of domestic talent, has the highest viewership and sales figures, and in the eyes of many, the NRL simply is rugby league.

One day, it would be great if it had the soundtrack of the terraces to match.

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