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It’s annoying that 25,000 fans will be locked out of Shark Park this weekend - but home advantage matters more

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Editor
5th September, 2023
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As sure as night follows day, Sydney rugby league fans will complain about stadiums. There’s too many, or not enough, and the ones that exist are either too small or too big, depending on what day of the week it is.

It was inevitable that, following the weekend’s fixtures, there would be uproar that Cronulla will play their home final at their home stadium. Wouldn’t it be better if they played it at Roosters’ stadium? It is bigger, after all.

Well…not really. Cronulla finished sixth, earning themselves the right to play at their own stadium. That’s the rules of the competition. If the Roosters had finished sixth, they would have earned that right too.

The whole fans-locked-out narrative implies that the competition should be seen by as many people in person as possible, which, while it is a nice idea, is totally out of keeping with about the last century of Sydney sports fan behaviour not to mention the ethics of the competition as it was when they kicked off in March.

This is the city where fans stay home if it might rain, is a bit cold or warm enough to go to the beach, and Roosters fans have historically been among the guiltiest for this.

They didn’t get their reputation for dressing like seats for nothing, and while that has improved since the new ground opened, their average attendance over the decade prior is not markedly different to the Sharks’ despite having thousands more seats.

Shark Park is the smallest standalone venue in the competition – Redcliffe’s Kayo Stadium is smaller, but one of two used by the Dolphins – and it is undoubtedly annoying for fans that won’t make it that they will have to watch on TV.

But imagine that Cronulla isn’t at the end of the T4 line, but is instead in, say, Cairns. What then? They’d obviously get to play at home.

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When the Cowboys made the Prelim last year, nobody said that they should shift the game to a bigger stadium. They played the game in the same stadium they always do, because that’s why we have home advantage built into the system. 

One of the joys of the first round of the finals is that teams, especially those in the lower half of the eight, do get to play in their own ground. When you get to the tough stuff, most don’t object to taking that to the bigger venues, and indeed, welcome it as their own supporter base outstrips the size of their regular stadium.

In practice, this debate only applies to Cronulla, Manly and, at a push, the Dragons, who could theoretically choose between two stadiums of roughly similar size. 

It’s an interesting thought experiment: the last time the Dragons had a home final, in 2010, they played it in Wollongong, which would be the obvious choice in terms of generating home field advantage. Why should the people of Wollongong miss out because the only team they have is half in Sydney?

Notably, Penrith have a 22,500 limit, less than WIN Stadium, but there has been little clamour for them to move to CommBank Stadium or Accor Stadium, despite the Warriors having a huge Sydney-based fanbase.

What other sports do in this situation is to treat the smaller ground as a novel quirk of the system, something that adds flavour rather than takes it away.

In this year’s Champions League, two sides have qualified for the Group Stages with sub-20,000 seater stadiums, but have taken markedly different approaches. 

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Union Berlin will shift their ties from their 22,000 capacity Stadion An der Alten Försterei, as quaint a home ground as it comes with three sides of terracing, to the massive, if slightly soulless 75,000 all seater Olympiastadion, home of their rivals Hertha Berlin. 

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Royal Antwerp, however, will host Barcelona in a stadium smaller than Shark Park because they think it gives them the best chance of winning and because they earned the right to.

Nobody in Belgium is asking for the game to be moved 45 minutes down the road to the 50,000 seater King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels.

The secondary line of argument has been that the Roosters do not own the ground, therefore it isn’t home advantage because it’s the NSW government’s to rent out to whoever, including Cronulla. 

It’s quite a funny idea – one that would surprise Souths, who have long wanted to use the stadium their taxes paid for – but misses the point. There’s a Roosters logo on the outside and they play all their games there, not to mention training at the stadium.

The third, interlinked idea, is that the NSW Government has over a billion dollars’ worth of stadium unused, given that neither Allianz nor CommBank Stadium will get a finals game if the current setup holds.

The obvious answer, of course, is that the reason they don’t get a game is because the teams that call them home aren’t good enough. Parramatta, Canterbury and the Wests Tigers didn’t make the finals, while the Roosters didn’t get a home final – and that’s that. 

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We run a competition based on incurring greater advantage by achieving top two, then top four, then top six, then top eight. You earn the home Prelim, the second crack and then the home eliminator on the field. 

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

If the call was made, as it has been in the past, to centralise stadia early, then the Sharks might have been in the invidious situation where they could pick between the Roosters in their home ground – dressed up as a Sharks game – or a trip to Canberra, which would have been the case had they lost last Sunday. 

Given the terrible form of the Raiders, the sensible choice might have been to tank the last round of the regular season and take their chances in the capital rather than running into a red hot Roosters at home. 

The NRL is a competition of peaks and troughs, and in other years, five of the eight Sydney clubs have made the finals. 

Teams like Cronulla, but also Manly, Penrith and the Dragons, earn the right to play where they want, for the first weekend at least. 

Once it gets to Prelims, then it’s reasonable to concentrate grounds, if only because even the home team’s fanbase gets too big. 

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But before that point, the most obvious choice remains to play at home. If fans don’t like it, they can take it up with their own side for not finishing high enough.

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