To its critics, international rugby league is an oxymoron. The suggestion is that the game is followed only in sporadic patches around the world and is dwarfed by other sports, such as soccer.
To an extent this is true, but on the whole, it is a rather skewed and distorted view of rugby league’s influence as a sport around the world.
For example, rugby union, a sport with global pretensions, but which is, in reality, played seriously only widely throughout parts of the former British Empire, has been dramatically influenced by rugby league since the late nineteenth century – not least the great split of the formerly unified rugby code into rugby union and rugby league in 1895 and rugby union’s belated admission of professionalism (over amateurism) in 1995 (which first occurred anywhere in the world in Sydney, New South Wales, under direct pressure from Australian Super League - ie. rugby league - money).
Even on this basis alone, rugby league has had a considerable impact on international sport more broadly.
Of course, by definition, the playing of international rugby league since 1908 (Wales vs New Zealand in Wales), makes the game itself an international one. However, it will doubtless surprise some that the game has been played in numerous countries on five different continents (as this list will reveal).
Further, rugby league as a sport created its own World Cup in 1954 well before other international sports such as cricket, rugby union and netball did so.
That this same competition (RLWC 2021) will in 2022 feature teams from Greece and Jamaica (both men’s) and Brazil (women’s) speaks volumes for the increasing internationalisation of the game – despite a worrying lack of interest from Australia’s myopic National Rugby League (NRL).
With proper scheduling and funding, rugby league’s international future has, in reality, never looked brighter.
England - 120,000
The birthplace of the game has traditionally provided massive crowds for rugby league. As previously discussed, some 120,000 people attended the 1954 Challenge Cup Final between Halifax and Warrington at Odsal Stadium, Bradford.
This remains the largest English crowd, although numerous crowds hovering around the 100,000 mark have also been recorded at the UK’s National Stadium – Wembley, London.
Australia - 107,999
A mainstay of rugby league since the game commenced there in 1908, Australia has regularly provided some of the largest rugby league crowds for both club and international matches. The largest-ever Australian crowd of 107,999 attended the 1999 NRL Grand Final between St George Illawarra and Melbourne at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium.
Wales - 74,213
Perhaps surprisingly, Wales comes in at third place in this list. However, the club and international game has been played in the Principality since 1908 and some of the game’s greatest ever players have been Welsh – names such as Gus Risman and Billy Boston.
74,213 fans attended the 2005 Challenge Cup Final between Leeds and Hull at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Scotland - 67,247
Coming in at a shock fourth position, Scotland has a relatively unknown but distinguished international history in rugby league – with the first person to raise the Rugby League World Cup in 1954, Great Britain’s Dave Valentine, being a proud Scot.
The 2000 Challenge Cup Final between Bradford and Leeds attracted a vast crowd of 67,247 to Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium.
New Zealand - 47,363
Few countries have as long and proud an international history in rugby league as do New Zealand. While the Kiwis have been consistently hamstrung by the size of stadia available to them within New Zealand, they have produced very large crowds of up to 40,000 since the days the Great British Lions rugby league team toured Aotearoa in 1920.
The biggest attendance in New Zealand for rugby league remains the capacity crowd of 47,363 for the 1988 World Cup Final between the Kangaroos and the Kiwis at Auckland’s Eden Park ground.
France - 37,471
The French continue to keep the treiziste flame burning despite nearly a century of hard knocks levied against rugby league by the likes of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government which banned the game in all forms, outright, in 1940.
The largest crowd to watch rugby league in France was the 1954 World Cup (preliminary) match between France’s Chanticleers and the British Lions which was graced by a capacity 37,471 paying spectators in Toulouse’s main Stadium. France will hope to improve this record at their home World Cup scheduled for 2025.
Papua New Guinea - 35,000
While nations like New Zealand have often been the victim of draconian internal politics depriving them of access to suitable grounds for rugby league events, the major problem for PNG rugby league has been even having grounds which are big enough to hold the spectators wanting to view their national game.
This is evidenced clearly by an event such as the 1985 PNG Grand Final between Hobar West and Air Niugini, played in heavy rain, which resulted in a crowd of some 35,000 spectators – only 20,000 or so of whom were able to actually get inside Port Moresby’s Lloyd Robson Oval (with the remainder crammed around the fences and grabbing any possible vantage point, including nearby trees!).
Russia - 35,000
While rugby league has regrettably let the largest country by area in Asia slip since the start of this century, a tremendous amount of rugby league development work was undertaken in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
This resulted in considerable enthusiasm for the game in the 1990s and early 2000s, making attendances like the 35,000 in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium for the 2002 international between Russia and the USA possible.
Spain - 31,555
The natural affinity of Catalans for rugby league (since the 1930s) has meant there remains a market for rugby league across the French-Spanish border in nearby Barcelona. While recent rugby league development in Spain has centred around the south (especially Valencia), the capital of the Spanish Catalan culture, Barcelona, remains home to the largest crowd yet to attend rugby league in Spain – the 31,555 spectators who attended the Catalans v Wigan game in 2019 at the world famous Nou Camp ground.
USA - 19,320
The world’s largest sports market remains the dream for many internationalists in rugby league, despite the notoriously difficult to crack “top four” sports hegemony which has predominated in the USA for many decades (US football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey).
For many years, the largest rugby league crowd in the USA was the fiery 1989 Warrington v Wigan challenge match played in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with 18,000 fans in attendance. This figure was extended to 19,320 spectators by the (NRL maligned) 2018 New Zealand and England Test match in Denver, Colorado, at Mile High Stadium.
Ireland - 15,000
The growth of Ireland to become the narrow loser of a semi-final qualifier of the Rugby League World Cup in 2008 has been a gradual one, heavily influenced by local devotees. Irish rugby league as a game is yet to capitalise on the improved national showings of its players in terms of domestic attendances.
However, it may surprise readers to know that the largest rugby league crowd in Ireland was actually recorded as far back as 1954, when Halifax and Warrington extended their (then) fierce rivalry across the Irish Sea to Dublin, playing a match before some 15,000, no doubt curious, spectators.
Fiji - 10,000
The Fijian temperament for the game of rugby league can be best demonstrated through their exceptional record since the game was formally commenced professionally in that country only in 1992 – three times successive semi-finalists of the World Cup in 2008, 2013 and 2017.
Sadly, this rich international harvest has still not resulted in the proper allocation of games of note to the Pacific Island paradise. In a country hardly flush with world-class sporting facilities, Fijian rugby league has still managed to post a record crowd of 10,000 in Suva for the 1994 Pacific Cup Final against Tonga.
Canada - 9,974
Canada has a surprisingly long, albeit sporadic, association with rugby league dating back to the 1920s. Despite this, nothing as remarkable as the emergence of Toronto Wolfpack as a force in the immediate pre-COVID period has occurred in the history of Canadian rugby league.
Discovering a hotbed of local support in Toronto, the Wolfpack tore through its Trans-Atlantic opposition, eventually reaching Super League before its (again myopic) Super League compatriots threw it out of the competition. Prior to doing so, Toronto achieved consistent near-capacity crowds at its home ground of Lamport Stadium; the largest of which was the sell-out 9,974 attendance against Featherstone Rovers in the Championship play-off final of 2019.
South Africa - 9,900 (approx.)
Perhaps only France has suffered a similar level of persecution in rugby league which can compare with that experienced by the South African game. Numerous attempts to properly establish rugby league in South Africa have been undermined by a ruthless South African rugby union since the 1950s – though a toehold still remains to this day.
Despite this, brilliant black and white South Africans have graced rugby league the world over – think Green Vigo and the legendary Tom van Vollenhoven. The largest rugby league crowd in South Africa remains the nearly 10,000 who attended the match between Great Britain and a Rugby League South Africa XIII at Pretoria’s Pilditch Stadium in 1962.