Go back to native center of attention with boutique stadium plan is a significant win for the NRL

Rugby league in Sydney is built on tribalism and the NRL will attempt to leverage that argument – as well as major money-spinners for the state such as the grand final – to have homes built for its tribes. 

The NSW government is abandoning plans for an $830m upgrade to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, a key election promise, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a change in plans that will meet no resistance from the NRL, who have made a sharp shift in policy direction under Peter V’landys in favour of suburban grounds over the use of major stadiums. 

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Few have topped V’landys in negotiations in recent years so it can rightly be expected the NRL will not miss out due to the NSW government’s change of tack. Gladys Berejiklian would find it a major embarrassment to lose the grand final with the political and economic fallout too large for her government to endure. 

A return to a local focus is a major win for the league, which has struggled to attract sizeable crowds to behemoth stadiums that are filled a handful of times a year. 

“Sydney is the heartbeat of rugby league,” former international Ben Ikin said. “The game needs all nine of Sydney’s warring clubs thriving. Suburban grounds breathe life into the tribal network structure of the game in Sydney.”

But simply continuing to play out of poorly-serviced suburban grounds is not a viable option if the game wishes to grow. The NRL needs to straddle the line between decent stadiums that are accessible, safe, clean and protected from the elements with the innate localism that drives the game.

Fans may love the idea of Leichhardt or Kogarah but they are unsustainable as regular grounds. The history of an area cannot be forgotten but nor should it inhibit progress. Fans need clean toilets, players need modern training facilities and clubs need seats to sell. 

Under the stewardship of Todd Greenberg and John Grant, the NRL favoured funding being poured into Sydney’s major stadiums with the expectation that all teams would primarily play out of either the Olympic Stadium or the Sydney Football Stadium. 

It was a policy that ignored the history, geography and nature of the game in the harbour city. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and was deeply unpopular with fans, who found partially-filled cavernous venues in hard-to-reach places wholly unappealing. 

Outside of Origin matches, the grand final and local derby finals, Sydney’s two major football venues do not cater for what actually drives fans from their couches to a ground: the promise of a unique communal experience drenched in passion and emotion. While Stadium Australia would have been humming this month with 70,000-plus fans likely to have been in attendance for the second clash of the 2020 Origin series, the ground is typically an eyesore devoid of atmosphere that does little to promote excitement in the NRL. 

V’landys is now set to lobby the NSW state government to put funding into four boutique suburban stadiums across the four corners of Sydney that will likely feature a redevelopment of Brookvale Oval in the north, an upgrade to both Penrith Stadium and Campbelltown Stadium in Sydney’s west and southwest and a new stadium in Sydney’s south.

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The quartet, along with Bankwest Stadium and the rebuilt Sydney Football Stadium, would service Sydney’s nine NRL teams. They would have limited capacities but would benefit from a major upgrade to the typical dilapidated facilities typical of suburban grounds that have not seen any notable enhancements in generations. 

Ikin, who spent four seasons with the North Sydney Bears, says the value of localism in Sydney rugby league cannot be undervalued. 

“I loved it,” Ikin said, recalling his time playing in the famed red-and-black at one of the most famous suburban grounds in the game’s history. “There was something special about training on North Sydney Oval No 2, playing on No 1, having a beer at Percys, wearing the colours of a foundation club. 

“It was local. It was our backyard. I felt the history so I know what has been lost with the passing of the Bears and that ground. It is pleasing that the game is moving to ensure that localism is once again a priority.”

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