If a football team is defined by their venue, then they’re equally defined by who else performs or plays at their venue as well. Given that the Roosters often feel as if they’re clamouring to be heard as the boutique CBD football team, it makes sense that they share their home ground with the Tahs and Sydney FC. At the same time, the Roosters are possibly the NRL team that are most anxious to cultivate an international profile. Sure, Russell Crowe has managed to do that to perfection with Souths, roping in high-flyers like the Burgess brothers, and even getting Tom Cruise on board as a fan. But the staunch rivalry between the Roosters and Souths has tended to make the Chooks even more aspirational, even if their aspirations aren’t always as satisfied, and take a slightly different form. Where Souths aspire to be a kind of interface between Australian and international football, a global team that’s capable of signing players from all codes and countries, the Roosters seem more anxious to promote Australian Rugby League as an international product. Time and again, it feels as if the Roosters are aiming for a degree and type of spectacle that’s going to create ripples overseas, which is perhaps why it was so traumatic when Sonny Bill Williams finally – inevitably – left in search of a more expansive spotlight.
It makes sense, then, that Allianz is also associated with the Socceroos, the Wallabies and the Kangaroos. While Australian teams don’t tend to have home grounds per se, all three of these outfits have a special connection with Allianz that often makes it feel like the heartland of Australian representative football. As a Sydneysider I’m a bit biased, but it often feels as if Sydney is seen as being the heart of Australia, or the capital of Australia, in the sporting imagination, especially since the 2000 Olympics. While the Socceroos, Wallabies and Kangaroos may sometime play at other Sydney venues, there’s something about seeing them at Allianz, in the very heart of the city, that makes their status as Australian teams resonate more memorably. By the same token, teams that represent Sydney, or New South Wales, often feel as if they’ve got something of the status of national teams as well.
There can be no doubt, for example, that the Tahs enjoy a cache both in Sydney and abroad that’s not really experienced by the Reds or the Rebels. The Brumbies come a close second, partly because they actually represent the nation’s capital, but mainly because of how absolutely they divest themselves of the representative burden taken on by the Tahs at the same time. Like the Raiders, they play for Canberra as if it’s a small country town, although that feels like a more definitive gesture when it comes to Union, which perhaps explains why they’ve got such a militaristic presence within the Super 12 landscape. Similarly, Sydney FC enjoy a status within Australian A-League that seems to go above and beyond whether they’re winning or losing. As the only team that’s actually named exclusively after their location – no mascot, no symbol, no gimmick – they seem to be a kind of manifesto for soccer as a specifically Australian sport. So effortlessly do they seem to command Sydney and Australian soccer that the Western Sydney Wanderers don’t even really seem to register as rivals, just as the Swans’ hegemony has ensured that their relationship with the GWS Giants has never solified into the kind of rabid regional rivalries that characterises so many older urban outfits in the NRL.
Put that way, you could say that part of the rivalry between the Roosters and Souths is who has the better claim to being the Sydney team, and by extension the Australian team. And while each outfit may have their own artillery, Allianz is one of the strongest arrows in the Roosters’ quiver. Playing alongside the Socceroos, the Wallabies and above all the Kangaroos, they seem to segue quite naturally from an Australian to an international performance when they’re performing their best at Allianz, despite the fact that there’s only one Rooster in the current Roos lineup. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Allianz tends to be the venue reserved for flagship NRL events, most of which tend to involves the Roosters, including the semi-finals, the preliminary finals, and the traditional ANZAC Day clash with the Dragons, all of which are classic Allianz spectacles as much as they’re classic Australian sporting spectacles. Watching football at Allianz, you’re always super aware of experiencing a National Rugby League.
Granted, the biggest events in the entire NRL calendar – Origin and the Grand Final – tend to be played at ANZ Stadium, currently a home venue for Souths and the Dogs. Yet neither South Sydney nor Canterbury-Bankstown have the same organic connection to ANZ as the Roosters do to Allianz, who’ve occupied the same corner of Anzac Parade long before it became the Sydney Football Stadium. While ANZ may be the perfect venue for Russell Crowe’s rebranded Souths – a spectral version of Redfern Oval suited to a new age of Rugby League marketing – it wouldn’t at all suit the Roosters, whose whole identity depends on playing in a venue that feels inextricable from Sydney. Of course, the Sydney 2000 Olympics turned ANZ Stadium into a flagship for Sydney as well, but the paradox of those kind of prefabricated sporting precincts is that they tend to lose their organic connection to city and national identity as soon as the event they were designed to facilitate has passed. For all the bombast surrounding ANZ, these days Allianz feels more like the quintessential Sydney and Australian football venue.
That’s not to say, though, that the Roosters haven’t taken their lessons from ANZ either. While a full-blown precinct would get rid of a lot of the charm of Moore Park, the Roosters have aimed to put their signature on the Allianz environs in a fairly canny way as well, establishing their High Performance Centre and Administrative Departments on site. While the entire area may be managed by the SCG Trust, it’s the Roosters who are now the most visible team, thanks to a marketing strategy and décor approach that stresses their historical connection to the Sydney Cricket Ground along with the wider Sydney sporting community. Positioning the Roosters as a summary of Australia’s best AFL, Union, Soccer and Cricket heritage was a bold move, but has paid off, creating a Roosters precinct that also seems to encompass the entertainment cache of Fox Studios as well, which perhaps explains why the Roosters are so beloved to the Fox Sports news team, who always seem keener to cut them a break than their competitors on Channel 9. While I didn’t follow NRL as closely in my younger years, I’d also bet that there was something about the old Easter Show that encapsulated the Roosters’ gritty entertainment value as completely as the new Easter Show has subsumed itself into the managerial sterility that seems to characterise so much ANZ spectacle as well.
For all those reasons, then, Allianz is the quintessential Roosters venue. But there’s also something about the architecture of Allianz itself – or, rather, the architecture of Sydney Football Stadium, since that’s the name of the actual building as it was designed – the captures the aspirational stance and sweep of the Chooks as well. Assuming, for the moment, that Allianz and ANZ exist in a kind of architectural conversation, you could say that the difference is all about the shape and flow of the roof. At ground level, most major stadiums are pretty much the same: rectangular field, rows of stands, pedestrian corridors. Even the lighting tends to be more or less standard. What distinguishes one stadium from another, then, is how it engages your eye when you look up, as well as how the stadium looks from afar, amongst the urban landscape it was designed to service. How it looks from the air is also important, since that’s the perspective that’s most often used in promotional footage, as well as the perspective reserved for the most sublime moments in actual games, moments when the winning team becomes one with the heroic, inspirational, exotic architecture surrounding them.
In some ways, ANZ is much more of an aerial, long-distance-approach stadium than Allianz. As the premium Sydney 2000 venue, it’s designed to complement and consummate virtually every sightline at Homebush Stadium, while the Olympic Torch necessitated a structure that could be endlessly photographed from above. In that sense, it’s the ultimate streamlined stadium, syncing effortlessly with the surrounding precinct, and imbuing it with the kind of distraction-free functionality so important in an Origin match or a Grand Final. In that sense, it is the emphatic opposite of a venue like Aviva Stadium, which emerges from the surrounding Dublin sprawl with such an unexpected lilt and lift that it seems to requires some science-fiction backstory to explain its sheer presence. One version of that story was told in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 film This Must Be The Place, an absurd drama starring Sean Penn inspired by the Talking Heads song of the name that opened and closed on the outskirts of the Aviva precinct.
Allianz Stadium, by contrast, falls somewhere between ANZ and Aviva. While it’s not self-consciously avant-garde in the vein of Aviva, there’s more of a sense of sudden and somewhat unexpected emergence from the surrounding landscape – high-density, terrace-driven Paddington suburbs – than you find at ANZ as well. By the time you sit in your seat at Allianz, you feel as if you’ve been funnelled along an escalating spectacle-trajectory that makes the city feel much farther behind than it is – or, rather, gathers the whole pulse and rhythm of the city up into the architectural dynamism of the stadium itself. Entering ANZ, you can’t but help feel a bit streamlined, even if it’s somewhat. reassuring to get to kickoff as quickly and efficiently as possible. Entering Allianz, however, you always feel inspired and surprised by the way in which the carparks, hilly streets and traffic snarls just fade away into the distance. You don’t get that sense of pleasurable shock when you’ve traversed a whole Olympic precinct for thirty or so moments before arriving at the field itself.
In many ways, that reflects the endurance of architect John Cox’s vision. As a pioneer of the “Sydney Style” in the 1950s and 1960s, Cox has long had an interest in structures that fit organically into the local urban landscape. Not only has he designed some of the city’s most iconic buildings, such as the National Maritime Museum, the Sydney Exhibition Centre and a great deal of the Sydney Olympic precinct, but he’s been a vocal critic of enclave developments like Barangaroo that don’t sufficiently engage with the surrounding environment. Add to that his pioneering work with tensile structural forms – iconically with the Exhibition Centre, but more recently with Singapore’s Marina precinct – and you have a uniquely dynamic architectural engagement between Allianz and Sydney’s wider sporting culture, all the more unique in that such a major-event stadium doesn’t go to any great lengths to announce itself until you’re up close. Where ANZ’s signature curve can be seen far and wide, Allianz’s triangular hairpiece seems designed to be glimpsed through dense urban infrastructure.
And while those triangular accoutrements may not be visible from within Allianz, the unique warp and weave of the roof seems to pull every sightline upwards, so that the aspirational movement of entering the stadium doesn’t simply end when you sit down but continues to gravitate your eyes to the very highest that a ball is likely to reach in whatever kind of football you’re planning to watch. While AFL and Rugby Union may have bigger kicks, the sheer brute force of League makes those moments when the ball is in the air feel even more graceful and majestic by comparison. Even when it’s simply being flipped from hand to hand, there’s a buoyancy to a Steeden in motion you don’t get from a Gilbert or Sherrin, and something about the sweep and arc of Allianz seems to capture NRL at its most mobile and curvaceous as well. If the best NRL photography captures the sheer serendipity of the way players choreograph themselves around the ball in motion – think Billy Slater jumping to intercept a pass or Greg Inglis diving to ground – then Allianz is a stadium that takes its sense of movement and momentum from the iconic split-second poses and postures that emerge at the very moment of ball contestation. Of course, that makes it one of the most posey stadiums as well, a perfect backdrop for the upward mobility that the Chooks are so keen to appropriate and market as their own unique brand. But it also captures the mobility that keeps Rugby League going, making for one of the most moving venues to see the sport at its most moving.