Over the last two years, I’ve found Super Hero Round an interesting experience. In part, it’s because I’m actually not a huge fan of the Marvel franchise – or at least the recent expansion into the MCU, or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas older Marvel and superhero films were visceral and propulsive, I find the newer ones lack a lot of conviction, which they cover up with a knowing, self-aware tone that I sometimes find a bit smug. Watching NRL players in Marvel gear, then, is a bit of a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it reminds me of how impotent the recent Marvel films sometimes feel. On the other hand, watching a clash like the Roosters-Bulldogs showdown is a bit like witnessing the Marvel film I’ve always wanted to see, in all its action-packed glory.
In fact, even without Superhero Round, Roosters and Bulldogs clashes are always a bit intense for me, since the Bulldogs are my team, and the Roosters are probably my least favourite team. I’ll probably talk about that a bit later, in a post on the Roosters – and no offence intended to fans, it’s just a personal opinion – but Super Hero Round brings it all to the surface, for the simple fact that the Roosters are one of the privileged seven teams chosen to wear the Marvel jersey, while the Bulldogs are about the last team anyone would pick to play the kinds of whiter-than-white superheroes that play best to the Marvel crowd. And in itself says something about the difference between the two teams. Where the Bulldogs are, for the most part, a grassroots, local, homegrown kind of outfit – even if their players are often sourced from elsewhere – the Roosters seem to me to be the aspirational team par excellence, the team most obsessed with status, which I guess is kind of understandable given that they have the burden of representing Sydney City. At times, they seem to aspire to Union – anxious to edge out the Tahs as the premier Sydney City team – but whenever Super Hero round comes around, it feels as if they’re aspiring to NFL as well, right down to their Captain America insignia, which, to me at least, signals that they’re the creme de la crème of the Super Hero round, as well as the crème de la crème of the League itself.
Watching the Roosters play the Bulldogs during Super Hero Round, then, makes you super aware that there’s a first and second tier of NRL. The first tier are teams like the Roosters, that aspire to Union as well as more “prestigious” football codes such as AFL, A-League and even NFL. I’d also include the Melbourne Storm in this category, although the best way to sort it out is just to look at the teams chosen for the Super Hero costumes in the first place. In the second tier, there are teams like the Bulldogs, which are are League team born-and-bred, and not especially interested in offering up the kind of boutique, glamour experience encapsulated in the Storm’s recent promotional campaign. For me, that’s one of the reasons why it felt so shocking – and emotional – when SBW left Canterbury-Bankstown for Union. At the same time, it makes sense that he could only slot back into NRL by way of the Roosters, who in turn suffered their own shock when he left them for Union again. Sure, they knew it was coming, but buried somewhere inside Sonny Bill’s departure was the reminder that they’re not a Union team, no matter how many inroads they’ve made into Tahs territory.
And yet, the weird thing is, I never find the Roosters more winning than during Super Hero Round either. For me, the problem is not really that they’re an exclusive team, or an elite team, or an aspirational team, but that they don’t own it enough. Super Hero Round is possibly the one time of the year when the Roosters really feel front and centre about who they are and what they stand for, and that not only makes them a formidable opponent, it makes for really propulsive entertainment. Not surprisingly, Super Hero Round has become a critical moment in the team’s push for the finals, with last year’s victory over the Dragons propelling them into the top four. Even (or especially) Roosters players that I find a bit much during the rest of the year become compelling – even endearing – during Super Hero Round, as I find myself becoming a Roosters fan despite myself, in the same way that you can sometimes root for a cinematic superhero even though you don’t really agree with his methods.
Take Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, for example. Most of the time, I can’t really deal with his “hardest man in League” antics – this is the kind of guy that will abuse someone like James Segeyaro, the smallest player in League, when he’s down. But that prick-man attitude feels right when it comes to Super Hero Round, with the result that JWH was one of the highlights this year, pushing past an incredible late Bulldogs surge – a surge that, by all accounts, should have won them the game – with a last-minute effort that culminated thirty tackles and seven straight wins in a row for the Roosters. It was an amazing performance – a winning performance, in every sense – and reminded me a bit of the way Greg Bird transforms from a fairly confronting player to just the kind of person you want to have in your corner when Origin comes around, providing you’re a Blues supporter. Still, as a Bulldogs supporter, I can’t help wondering when Canterbury-Bankstown will get a Marvel jersey, and what kind of Super Hero it will be. Ideally, someone who’s diminutive but unbreakable – Ant Man?