Melbourne has the opportunity to join an unlikely band of cities with London, Sydney and Bradford on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, by entertaining a 90,000 plus crowd at a rugby league match (Game 2, State of Origin, 2015). This select group of cities has hosted the previous biggest attendances at rugby league matches around the world.
While many other major world cities have featured important rugby league matches: Paris, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Moscow, Philadelphia, Barcelona and Dublin to name a few of the less recognisable venues, the domain of the gigantic crowd of 90,000 or more has been much more limited.
Melbourne of course has teased rugby league before in this area, with a sterling turn-out of 87,161 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for Game 2 of Origin 1994, when a desperate NSW coached by Phil Gould, ground their way to a dour 14-0 result over Queensland, in a match which entertained the Blues camp – and almost no-one else at the stadium.
Sydney – traditionally self-proclaimed as the rugby league centre of the world – has, like many other rugby league heartlands around the world, been hamstrung in terms of venue size for most of its history. While NSWRL President Bill Buckley enthused about a proposed 100,000 seat stadium under rugby league’s control to be built in St Peters, Sydney in 1962, this treasured personal project never got past the planning stage. The 2000 Sydney Olympics provided, an albeit short, window of opportunity for rugby league to have access to a stadium to compete with the grandeur of the cricket temple located at Jolimont, Melbourne with the building of Stadium Australia (aka the Homebush Olympic Stadium – originally configured at around 110,000 capacity for the period 1999 – 2001 only. After this, the ground configuration was changed dropping capacity to around the 83,500 mark.)
Sydney rugby league fans took full advantage with crowds of 104,583 at the opening of the stadium in 1999, 107,999 at the 1999 NRL Grand Final (Melbourne v St George Illawarra), 94,277 for the 2000 Grand Final (Brisbane v Roosters) and 90,414 for the 2001 Grand Final (played at night between Parramatta v Newcastle) all breaching the 90,000 “ceiling”.
The SCG, long the home of rugby league in Sydney, had featured many capacity crowds of over 50,000, including dangerously large 65,000 plus crowds in each decade between 1920 – 1970, but the capacity of the ground (while elastic due to the nature of the massive grassed Hill) was never much more than a comfortable 55,000 fans. Despite this, it is adjudged that 90,000 people did attend the 1965 NSWRL Grand Final (St George v Souths), when the official crowd of 78,056 was boosted by many, many thousands more grabbing every conceivable vantage point, including the stairs of the next door Sydney Showground and perched on the roofs of the SCG stadia – an amazing fact to consider in this overtly health and safety conscious society in which we live.
Of the English cities, Manchester and Leeds have also gone close to eclipsing the magical 90,000 barrier. Manchester has hosted many massive rugby league crowds throughout history – from the 75,194 for the 1949 Championship Final (Huddersfield v Warrington) at Maine Road to the 74,468 for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final at Old Trafford. Leeds hosted a grand exhibition of rugby league sevens football between Australia v England before a crowd of 80,000 (and Royalty) at the city’s Roundhay Park in 1933; while the rugby league “All-Leeds” Championship Final at Elland Road in 1938 (Leeds v Hunslet) had seen a dangerously large crowd of 54,112 inside the ground with many, many thousands locked outside.
London has drawn immense crowds for rugby league in the period since the Second World War – including 20 at or about the magical figure of 90,000. All have been for the Challenge Cup Rugby League Final, a long established fixture on the English sporting calendar. The biggest crowds have been for the following Finals: Hull – Hull KR 1980 (100,000), Wigan v Hull 1985 (99,801), St Helens v Wigan 1966 (98,536) and Salford v Castleford 1969 (97,939) (all capacity having regard to various annual factors).
1954 saw Bradford enter the 90,000+ club, hosting the replay of the Challenge Cup Final in the north of England for the first time since the Final moved permanently to London in 1929 (the replay was to be contested between Warrington v Halifax after 81,841 had witnessed the teams draw the Final 4-4 at Wembley a week earlier). A great wave of humanity swept down upon the Yorkshire city’s Odsal Stadium, with up to 150,000 people trying to gain access to the stadium. Such was the crush that many of the approximately 120,000 people within the ground had no view of the play and traffic was still returning to Warrington at 5am the next morning. Legend tells of many thousands of people stopping at nearby houses to ask to listen to the radio broadcast of the game as it soon became evident they would not reach the stadium when the nearly endless traffic jam seized up prior to the start of play.
The 1960 Championship Final at Odsal nearly reached the same proportions with similar crowd scenes, this time with a “mere” 83,190 fans in attendance.
It is this rich history of huge spectator congregations that awaits the Origin teams on Wednesday…in what should be an immense pleasure for both fans and players alike.
by Lyle Beaton
Photo: Jeremy Ng