They built it and they came: Parramatta's new stadium debuts

PARRAMATTA, Australia -- The Parramatta Eels ran onto the perfect billiard table-like surface of Bankwest Stadium, hosting Wests Tigers in front of what was hoped to be a full house. The new stadium with its steeply sloped stands provides a perfect combination of suburban ground intimacy and state of the art facilities. The atmosphere is crammed into the relatively small arena and every fan's cheer and every player's impact can be heard throughout.

The Eels, who are officially co-tenants with the A-League's Western Sydney Wanderers, had the honour of christening the new stadium and it couldn't have been a greater welcome home party. The Tigers opened up their defensive line to let in five first half tries, before sneaking in for one of their own before the break. In the second half the blue and gold attacking wave drowned the visitors, with the final score an embarrassing 51-6 and the crowd loved it. The Eels were home and playing good footy as well.

In New South Wales there has been a lot of controversy lately about stadia and the need to rebuild or refurbish the facilities available to the people of Sydney. When Roman Emperor Vespasian built Rome's colosseum in around 70 AD, he did it to appease the people who had grown restless following the tyranny of the previous Emperor. The crowds filled the 70,000 capacity stadium to watch gladiatorial conflicts and the people were happy again.

While Sydney's greatest outrage was saved for the proposed knock-down and rebuild of ANZ and Allianz Stadiums, in the heart of Parramatta a new ground was being built. The development had its own controversies, with the neighbouring public pool swallowed up by the plans, but the anticipation which grew as its opening approached gave Sydney sports fans something to savour.

Wanderers fans are eagerly awaiting their team's first game at the venue which comes on July 20 when Leeds United visit from England. Before then the ground will see the Eels host a further four games, the Tigers host four of their own and the Waratahs host three Super Rugby clashes.

It will be a very busy venue and the crowds that turn up to watch will justify its existence. The official attendance for today's game was 29,047, but there were clearly more than a thousand empty seats in the 30,000 capacity stadium. The economic benefits flow well beyond the sardine can shaped stadium, whether or not it is completely full. Church Street Parramatta, which has wall-to-wall restaurants and cafes was full of people in the hours after the game. In every window, at every street-side table there could be seen Eels and Tigers jerseys. Game finishes at 6pm? Let's go have dinner.

Sydney Roosters, disillusioned with the surface, atmosphere and attendance at their most recent home game at the SCG, are even looking at the possibility of moving some of their home games there. Whether there will be room for yet another "home" team is to be determined.

The Eels have certainly set a high bar when it comes to creating an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams. The "Parra, Parra" chants rattled the air and the roar following Eels' tries was near-deafening. Tigers coach Michael Maguire wouldn't have a bar of blaming the occasion or the venue for his team's appalling lack of effort.

"Coming here too was a big occasion for us... I'm not going to take any excuses around what happened around the game, because we just didn't turn up and put our shoulders in as individuals and as a team... from being able to turn up in a full stadium a brand new stadium there is no reason you shouldn't turn up to play," Maguire said.

Maguire was impressed by the venue and promised the Tigers would put in a much improved performance when they returned as a home team.

"Incredible, I reckon it is one of the best things that's happened to rugby league for quite some time. That hurt obviously, having that scoreline out there, but to me I think this is going to change the game. When we get our new stadium in town I think it is going to go up another level... it was a complete spectacle out there, it was just unfortunate that we didn't play our part," he said.

It wasn't the first time the Eels christened a brand new stadium at that same location with a big victory. In March 1986, Parrramatta Stadium was opened with a crowd of 26,850 there to see Peter Sterling lead the Eels to an equally impressive 36-6 win over the Dragons. In August of that season the club record crowd at Parramatta was set at 27,243 during a match against the Rabbitohs. That record was broken today.

That year was also the last time the Eels won the premiership. New stadium, new outlook, new hope?