There have been some mammoth attendances in rugby league history, including three officially recorded north of 100,000 people.
Interestingly, seven out of the ten biggest rugby league attendances occurred at the Cathedral of British sport, Wembley Stadium, in London. Two occurred in the wake of the Sydney Olympics when Sydney’s Stadium Australia briefly had a capacity approaching 110,000.
The other occasion was one of the most famous events in rugby league history. In 1954, Halifax and Warrington had a much-storied rivalry which saw the teams contesting both the Challenge Cup Final and, later, the Championship Final at Maine Road, Manchester.
The Challenge Cup Final at Wembley attracted 81,841 fans in what was a disappointing game ending in a four-all draw. A replay was organised for midweek at Bradford’s Odsal Stadium. This was the first occasion since 1928 when the famous tournament’s conclusion had been played in rugby league heartland in the north of England.
The replay attracted an official crowd of 102,569, though this figure significantly underestimated the attendance inside the ground after gates and fences were forced down by the giant crowd. Bradford Police estimated the crowd was somewhere between 120,000 – 150,000, with many, many thousands unable to get anywhere near the ground. A traffic jam extended for many miles from the stadium before, during and after the game, and many fans knocked on the doors of nearby houses asking to listen to the game on the radio when it became apparent that they were not going to get anywhere near the ground.
In reality, rugby league officials had grossly underestimated the desire for fans to get to this game and it was a minor miracle that no significant injuries or deaths occurred, especially given the vast bulk of the stadium was taken up by standing room only terraces made up of cinders and ashes from nearby industry. Crush barriers were rudimentary at best.
In order to properly reflect the size of this event and its importance in rugby league history, the lower figure of 120,000 (rather than 150,000) has been accepted as the most likely and verifiable crowd at this match.
Following the choice of Sydney to hold the 2000 Olympics, what was then Australia’s largest stadium by capacity was constructed in the western suburb of Homebush. Initially, the ground’s capacity was around the 110,000 mark, though this was subsequently reduced so as to give the ground a more intimate feel shortly after the Olympics concluded.
The 1999 NRL season was the first played at the new stadium, at which time the capacity remained at the upper limit. The opening games of the season, a double-header featuring Manly v Newcastle and St George Illawarra v Parramatta, were watched by 104,583 spectators. This figure was then exceeded at the 1999 Grand Final between Melbourne and St George Illawarra when 107,999 spectators filed into the stadium.
Australian rugby league attendances had been significantly limited over the years by the capacity at the sport’s biggest stadium, Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
During most of the period 1914 – 1987, the ground had a comfortable capacity of around 50,000 spectators. However, the large (and famous) grassed Hill area could accommodate the majority of the ground’s attendance and the number of people allowed into this area was routinely dictated by police for safety reasons. Rugby league’s record at the ground was a 78,056 lock-out for the 1965 Grand Final between St George v South Sydney; though the actual crowd was thought to be around the 90,000 mark with illegal entries, fans climbing onto the tops of the SCG grandstands and people cramming into an adjoining stadium’s staircase desperate to watch the game inside the SCG.
With the construction of Stadium Australia, rugby league had a brief window in which to attract spectators in similar numbers to the British game. By 2001, with the changes to the stadium layout, this window was closed.
The only stadium in England to rival Wembley’s capacity for the bulk of the 20th Century was the frequently utilised Odsal Stadium at Bradford. In addition to the aforementioned 1954 Challenge Cup Final Replay, Odsal had hosted numerous crowds in excess of 70,000 – the largest of which outside the Challenge Cup was the 1960 Wakefield v Wigan Championship Final which drew 83,100 spectators.
Undoubtedly one of rugby league’s greatest historical assets has been the Challenge Cup Final, played at London’s Wembley Stadium since the late 1920s. As noted, seven of the ten crowds listed occurred at this game and venue. Wembley’s capacity varied from year to year depending on police limits and other safety considerations. The largest official crowd was the famous 1985 Final between Wigan and Hull which was attended by 99,801 fans. **
The remaining six listed matches were essentially full houses at the famous Twin Towers, the attendances differing due to annual safety adjustments. The largest of these was the famous 1966 derby match between Wigan v St Helens which drew 98,536 spectators, only the second time the sides had met at Wembley (the first derby match between the sides drew 94,672 in 1961).
In the 1969 Challenge Cup Final, an attacking Castleford side, which was made up of largely local products, defeated Salford’s wealth of talent amassed by brilliant Chair Brian Snape. Their Wembley meeting drew 97,939 excited fans, who witnessed the first Castleford victory in the competition since 1935. Castleford made it a double the following year against Wigan, this time before 95,255 spectators.
The 1978 Final remains one of the all-time great Cup Finals, during which both sides had opportunities to win the game in the dying seconds. St Helens and Leeds, always known to be a high-quality encounter, played out a sensational 14-12 match before a capacity 96,000 crowd.
The 1980 Final between Hull and Hull KR could probably have been sold out twice over as nearly the entire city of Hull descended on the English capital. This crowd was capped at 95,000 by police.
The remaining crowd of 95,050 dates from the early post-World War Two period. Rugby league’s biggest English crowd prior to the war was 69,504 for the 1939 Championship Final at Manchester’s Maine Road. In the immediate post war period, the Challenge Cup Final attendances were 54,730 (1946), 77,605 (1947) and 91,465 (1948). The 1949 Final, ninth on the list, attracted 95,050 fans – only just exceeding the next two attendances of 94,249 (1950) and 94,262 (1951).
International crowds have traditionally been lower than the largest club crowds in rugby league, with rugby league increasingly focussed on club competition at the expense of the international game.
The current international rugby league world record is the 2013 World Cup Final which attracted 74,468 to Manchester’s Old Trafford for the neutral clash between Australia and New Zealand. The previous largest international crowds in Australia and England had been 70,419 (the SCG crowd at NSW v Great Britain in 1950) and 73,631 (for the 1992 World Cup Final between Australia and Great Britain, again played at Wembley), respectively.
With Wembley’s capacity at around the 90,000 mark currently and Stadium Australia’s at only around the 83,500 mark, it seems unlikely these records will be surpassed in the near future.
** Other sources list 97,801. It is likely the actual attendance exceeded that number as thousands of fans were allowed to watch from inside the stadium fence for safety reasons. This was repeated at the 1988 Final between Wigan and Halifax (attendance 94,273).
|1954||Challenge Cup Final Replay - Halifax vs Warrington||Odsal Stadium, Bradford, United Kingdom||120,000*|
|1999||NRL Grand Final - Melbourne Storm vs St George Illawarra Dragons||Stadium Australia, Sydney, Australia||107,999**|
|1999||NRL double-header - St George Illawarra Dragons vs Parramatta Eels and Newcastle Knights vs Manly Sea Eagles||Stadium Australia, Sydney, Australia||104,583|
|1985||Challenge Cup Final - Wigan vs Hull||Wembley Stadium, London||99,801***|
|1966||Challenge Cup Final - St Helens vs Wigan||Wembley Stadium, London||98,536|
|1969||Challenge Cup Final - Salford vs Castleford||Wembley Stadium, London||97,939|
|1978||Challenge Cup Final - Leeds vs St Helens||Wembley Stadium, London||96,000|
|1970||Challenge Cup Final - Wigan vs Castleford||Wembley Stadium, London||95,255|
|1949||Challenge Cup Final - Bradford vs Halifax||Wembley Stadium, London||95,050|
|1980||Challenge Cup Final - Hull vs Hull KR||Wembley Stadium, London||95,000|
* Official attendance 102,569; actual attendance more likely to be up to 150,000
% Other sources list 107,558
# Other sources list 97,801