Hand of God hovers over opening match-up at Allianz

Maradona: Good, but he’s no Sonny Bill Williams. Photo: Tim ClaytonSonny Bill Williams may just be a bigger drawcard than Maradona.

Allianz Stadium officials are hoping Williams’ return to the NRL will set a new ground record, eclipsing the mark of 43,967 set when Diego Maradona’s Argentinian side drew with the Socceroos in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in 1994.

There are only a few thousand tickets left for the NRL season opener between South Sydney and Sydney Roosters on Thursday. The spotlight will be on Williams, who will come off the bench in his first rugby league match for five years.

It’s hoped Williams’ presence will help to smash the 19-year attendance record. “That’s what we’d like to see the game compete for. At this point it’s possible,” said Pat Wilson, general manager of events and operations at the SCG Trust.

“It’s great to see two foundation clubs opening the season. The Rabbitohs fans, along with the Roosters, get to play in their heartland. It’s just a great initiative by the NRL to open the season on a Thursday night with a blockbuster.”

The biggest rugby league crowd at Allianz Stadium was the 43,400 who came to watch the Newcastle-Manly grand final in 1997. The game on Thursday is already on track to be the biggest opening-season encounter between the rivals, beating the mark of 35,000 set in 2002 after the Rabbitohs were readmitted into the competition.

“This is a must-see game,” Wilson said. “It’s a new, exciting era for the NRL and we’ve got two marquee teams. From a venue perspective, we’re excited and have been planning this well in advance. We’ve got good relationships with both clubs and we’re excited by the new Roosters recruits. We’re anticipating a great night.”

While most of the attention will be on Williams, there are plenty of intriguing match-ups. One is the clash of the halfbacks, with Rooster Mitchell Pearce and Rabbitohs counterpart Adam Reynolds likely to vie for the NSW No. 7 jersey.

Australian coach Tim Sheens said that Pearce was a strong chance of being included in his 40-man Kangaroos squad for the World Cup if he performed strongly throughout the season.

“I’d say the NSW and Queensland halves will be close to your one and two,” he said.

“It depends on what [NSW coach] Laurie [Daley] does. If he picks him and goes well . . . [it’s possible].”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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