If the North Queensland Cowboys are one of the key outlier teams in the NRL, then 1300SMILES Stadium is the ultimate outlier venue. Neither a prestige venue in the vein of Allianz Stadium, nor a historical venue in the vein of Redfern Oval, nor even a prefab venue in the vein of Robina Stadium, it started its life in the most modest of ways, as the main paceway for the local Townsville racing community. At that point, it was the Willows Sporting Complex but was rebranded as Stockland Stadium with the entry of the Cowboys into the NRL in the mid-90s, only to be associated with the local dairy industry as both Malanda Stadium and Dairy Farmers Stadium before being renamed 1300SMILES in February 2013.
As that oddball assortment of names might suggest, there’s something about 1300SMILES that captures the Cowboys in all their picaresque glory. For their first year of the competition, it was a hardly a full-blown NRL venue at all, instead following the classic template for a small-scale CRL field: grandstand on the west, terrace on the east, grassy hills on the north and south. As the Cowboys started to gain more traction, the field was extended in various ways, but in a piecemeal, inconsistent, spontaneous fashion that makes it now feel a bit like one of those buildings that have been steadily expanded over a number of years in a range of wildly different styles. Add to that the fact that it’s much smaller than just about any other venue in the game, and 1300SMILES still feels like Stockland Stadium at heart, even or especially in the wake of all the makeshift extensions that have taken place over the intervening two decades.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that 1300SMILES has one of the most exotic lineups of any NRL venue in the game as well. While teams are partly defined by their venues, you can also tell a lot about a team by who else plays or performs at their venues as well. Nothing summarises the Roosters’ aspirational character more than the fact that they share their home ground with the Tahs and Sydney FC, nor that it’s Sydney’s outdoor concert venue of choice, having hosted Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and Taylor Swift along with a whole host of other pop stars anxious to cement their Australian tours with a big Sydney venue. Folded into the same megatainment complex that includes the Sydney Cricket Ground and Fox Studios, it’s the perfect icon for a team that’s anxious to incorporate every possible spectacle into their own entertainment brand.
1300SMILES couldn’t be more different. Where Allianz traffics in world-class teams and singers, the Cowboys’ home venue is more like the sporting fields at Homebush when they’re temporarily made over for the Royal Easter Show: a makeshift space that caters for all sizes and scales of entertainment. Motorcycle and dirtbike races and displays are held here, but so is boxing – most notably Kosta Tszyu’s World Title qualifier – along with state soccer and cricket clubs, and a plethora of local footy clubs. As a result, 1300SMILES is intertwined with the local sporting community in quite a unique way for a NRL venue. Where teams like the Roosters often feel diminished playing against their massive home grounds, the Cowboys always feel magnified, but in an enjoyably improbable way, like a local footy team that just happens to be playing at representative grade on national television.
At most NRL venues, there’s always a bit of spillage onto the field in the wake of an exciting game, but for the most part even the craziest fans respect the boundaries of the perimeter fence. However, things are a bit different at 1300SMILES. Whether because its haphazard construction has never quite concealed those terraces and grassy hills, or whether because the boundaries between the field, the stands and the parking lot are so minimal and fluid – you can walk from the try line to the street in a matter of minutes – 1300SMILES is one of the few spaces where the public can walk out onto the field after a game without feeling invasive or aggressive. Like walking on the road during a street parade, there’s a sense of carnival at Thurston’s ranch that makes the fans feel like an intimate part of the game, which is one of the reasons why the Cowboys have such a great record with home matches.
However, just because 1300SMILES is a quintessential Townsville venue doesn’t mean that it is an exclusively Queenslander venue, or even an exclusively Australian venue. In many ways, the Cowboys operate as the NRL’s gateway to the Pacific, sourcing more players from New Zealand than any other team, and more players from the Pacific Islands than even New Zealand. For all its local cosiness, then, 1300SMILES is where you also start to glimpse Rugby League for what it truly is: a Pacific sport that just happens to be centred in Australia. In fact, when the Cowboys are really smashing at their home ground, it almost feels as if Townsville is a separate Pacific nation-state, as distinct from the Australian mainland as it often seems to be in the imagination of the NRL. And if 1300SMILES has anything resembling a streamlined brand, it’s in the Pacific matches it’s hosted over the last two decades, starting with the Test Match against Papua New Guinea in 2000 and moving on to host a variety of Australia v New Zealand matches, as well as an appearance from Japan in the Rugby Union World Cup. At the moment, there’s been a lot of talk about opening Origin up to the Pacific. If that happens, 1300SMILES would be an amazing Maroons stronghold, as well as an amazing venue to see the Blues give it all they’ve got.
One of the interesting byproducts of that Pacific connection is that 1300SMILES is possibly the only venue in the NRL, with the exception of Mt. Smart Stadium, that manages to seamlessly fuse Rugby Union and League fanbases. Sure, Allianz also hosts the Tahs, but the whole point of the Roosters is to aspire to Union greatness, rather than fuse Union and League into a single grassroots ambience in the manner so typical of New Zealand. In that sense, 1300SMILES is unique in that it’s a contender for being a major Union venue in the future – it’s hosted the Reds, the British and Irish Lions, as well as Australia A and Japan in the IRB nations – despite being utterly inimical to the kinds of private-school pomposity that characterise Rugby Union in an Australian context. Perhaps that why I’ve always felt that Union at 1300SMILES is different from Union elsewhere. Relegated to the fringes of the NRL and Union universe – at least in Australia – the Gilbert suddenly stops feeling like a symbol of heroic empire and starts to feel more like a picaresque, playful, provisional way of dodging empire. If Union is the ultimate Australian prestige sport, and 1300SMILES is anti-prestigious by nature – the North Queensland Fury only lasted a couple of years in the A-League – then the prospect of 1300SMILES as a burgeoning Union venue is fascinating in the extreme.
If there is any high profile, prestige playoff that would work perfectly in sync with 1300SMILES, it’s probably the Four Nations, a League event that always feels curiously homeless and listless. As a kind of hypothetical midpoint between England, Sydney, Scotland and New Zealand, Townsville feels as if it has just what it takes to puncture the Anglophonic overtones of this ultimate prestige League playoff by situating it amongst all the First Nations that really constitute the backbone of the game today. Still, even the Four Nations might be a little too highbrow for 1300SMILES, whose true inhabitants, after the Cowboys, are their successors, the North Queensland Young Guns. Given how much the NRL loves their young guns – as well as the scramble between commentators to decide which teams have the best new crop – there’s something audacious about the next generation of Cowboys quietly assuming the moniker for themselves. At the same time, it makes perfect sense against the backdrop of 1300SMILES as well, which is nothing if not a generational space, suffused with the same nurturing spirit that makes Thurston the very heart and soul of his team.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that there have been some movements to scrap 1300SMILES altogether. As part of their Australia’s 2022 FIFA World Cup bid, it’s been proposed that the entire heterogeneous structure be scrapped in favour of a stadium that’s closer to town and fitted out with better parking, traffic and entertainment infrastructure. The argument is that this will integrate the Cowboys more into the Townsville community, and while it would almost inevitably move their home ground closer to the Flinders Street Leagues Club, the proposal glosses over the fact that Townsville is a fairly sprawling city, with most fans of the game living outside the immediate city centre, which is more of a tourist destination than a residential community. If the Cowboy’s salary cap crisis taught us anything – and more on that later – it’s that even the team’s most prestigious players prefer to live in the suburbs, which is where most of the fans presumably are as well. Doing a complete overhaul on the sprawling space that is 1300SMILES would remove its connection from the suburban sprawl whose rhythms it gathers up more effortlessly than any other venue in the game. Here’s hoping it won’t happen.
If I do have any issues with 1300SMILES, it’s the name itself. At some level, there’s something too technologically cheerful about that name, totally inappropriate for a stadium that was only retrofitted for night broadcasts in 2005. At the same time, though, the Cowboys’ home grounds have always had a sense of the improbable, from the way they’ve almost single-handedly maintained contact between Australian and Papua New Guinean League, to the fact that Elton John chose it as the backdrop for his “Knight Under The Stars” tour, a choice that feels totally right for me, even if I can’t explain why. At the same time, there’s something about Thurston’s 1300 smiles that makes it feel right too. And maybe the name doesn’t really matter in the end anyway, since this will always be the Cowboys’ stadium, and Thurston’s stadium, whatever takes place on the grass.