More than virtually any other team, the Roosters seem to divide people. I think that’s partly because they’re responsible for one of the most passionate fan bases out there. I worked for a while at a school in the Eastern suburbs that straddled the Roosters-Rabbitohs catchment areas, and it was crazy how much more fanatical the Roosters presence was, even if most of my own interactions with parents and colleagues were Souths-oriented (teaching relatives of Dylan Walker was a personal highlight, especially given that he was starting to come into his own as a player at exactly that time). Then again, there are other passionate teams out there, so it can’t just be passion that makes people sceptical of the Roosters. For me, the explanation is that Sydney City are the most aspirational team, the team most anxious to rule the roost, in every sense of the word. On the one hand, they’re the team most anxious to pass themselves off as a Union team, and to edge out the Tahs as their main competitor for the premier CBD football experience. At the same time, they’re the team that people raised on Union tend to support to make it clear that they’re open minded and demotic in their tastes.
Predictably, then, the Roosters were the only team SBW could conceivably join when he returned to NRL from Rugby in 2013 without losing any prestige. And perhaps that’s why it never really felt like he fully returned to League. Housed at Allianz Stadium, he was still closer in spirit to the Tahs, or even the All Blacks, than to Canterbury-Bankstown, which perhaps explained the curiously anticlimactic atmosphere every time he played the Dogs. At the end of the day, this wasn’t a renegade footy player returning to confront the team he’d abandoned, but a Union superstar temporarily housed in the Chookpen until he could negotiate a better contract elsewhere. Although he was brutal as ever when playing the Bulldogs, resulting in some of the best and biggest hits of the season, the Sydney-Canterbury clashes just tended to emphasise that he was still playing for a different code, treating the Roosters as the lowest rung in the Union world – albeit a comfortable rung for a couple of years – rather than the highest rung in the NRL world, which is what they often seem to be going for.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Like any other sport, NRL needs a flagship team, a role that the Roosters often step in to fill. As the anxiety surrounding the arrival and departure of Sonny Bill might suggest, though, it does tend to give them a bit of status anxiety that is a bit alienating to the more laidback footy fan. Among other things, that has tended to produce some of the most ludicrous, self-styled “hard men” in the game, most notably Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. Although I think JWH shines in certain contexts, Super Hero Week being one of them – of which more in a bit – there’s something about his hard man vibe that grates with me. Perhaps it was seeing him yelling abuse at James Segeyaro – the littlest guy in League – when he was down in a Roosters-Penrith clash earlier in the year, but it’s always seemed to me that he treads a very fine line between propulsive passion and bad sportsmanship. And if there is a bit of a dark side to the Roosters’ flagship mentality, it’s that they’ve got an ability to absorb and neutralise crisis in ways that can be a bit disarming, from the wholesale rehabilitation of Blake Ferguson – has everyone forgotten that this guy has a string of assault charges behind him for which he was never really held accountable? – to the restoration of Mitchell Pearce’s reputation after the Kings Cross incident, not merely a low point for Roosters supporters, but for Blues supporters like myself who feel that Pearce is a key ingredient in the defensive lineup.
Still, there’s something romantic about the Roosters. It seems right that no other team in the game has hosted such a stable of triple-barrelled names, at least in recent years – Sonny Bill Williams, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Roger Tuivaisa-Sheck, Shaun Kenny-Dowall – since at their strongest the Roosters are the ultimate larger-than-life team. When it comes to NRL Super Hero round, there’s really no other team that could plausibly take on Captain America. And at their best, the Roosters have a kind of NFL no-holds-barred heroism that makes them absolutely addictive to watch, even if you’re not rooting for them all year round.