Familiar Faces In Unfamiliar Places - Rugby League And Rugby Union Teams Are Hitting The Road

Familiar Faces In Unfamiliar Places - Rugby League And Rugby Union Teams Are Hitting The Road
11:44, 23 Mar 2018

Supporters of Newcastle United and Leeds United regularly flock to St James’ Park and Elland Road in their thousands.

They back their team with almost religious zeal and are famed for being among the most passionate supporters in English football.

This weekend, the famous grounds will host rugby union and rugby league respectively.

Newcastle Falcons are staging their home Aviva Premiership fixture against Northampton at St James’ Park on Saturday teatime.

The upwardly mobile Falcons are calling it ‘The Big One’ and their marketing of the match has been so successful that a crowd of over 25,000 is expected.

Consider that Newcastle’s record Premiership home crowd currently stands at 11,750 – set against Bath in May 1998 – and the magnitude of this weekend’s encounter becomes clear.

St James’ Park is an imposing structure, a cathedral in the heart of the city centre where the best part of 50,000 Geordies turn up every other week.

Credit to the Falcons for staging a game there instead of their usual home at Kingston Park. Dean Richards’ men are a team on the up and currently lie fourth in the Premiership table – their best position for years.

Leeds Rhinos have set standards on and off the field for much of the Super League era and will head across town to Elland Road for the second time this season on Friday night in a game billed as ‘The Clash’.

They played Hull KR there last month and have opted to return there to face Castleford because Headingley is currently undergoing a major redevelopment.

The Rhinos are seeking to break the regular season Super League attendance record, which is currently held by Wigan who attracted 25,004 for their clash with St Helens in 2005.

Wigan, meanwhile, recently played a ‘home’ game against Hull FC in Wollongong, Australia.

Last month’s clash at the beachside WIN Stadium, the home of NRL side St George Illawarra, was the first Super League match to be staged outside of Europe.

The significance of playing on the other side of the world went deeper than swapping an English winter for the sunnier climes of an Australian summer.

Wigan viewed the trip, which also saw them play South Sydney Rabbitohs and Hull face St George respectively in a double-header of ‘exhibition’ matches, as a money-making exercise.

Warriors’ executive director Kris Radlinski admitted they would not have arranged the venture if it simply meant breaking even.

One of the best-supported and most famous clubs in the 13-man code, Wigan are no strangers to innovation.

They once played Warrington in a friendly in Milwaukee, won the Twickenham Sevens and memorably hammered Bath 82-6 in a cross-code match.

Three seasons ago, the Warriors hosted Catalans in a gospel-spreading mission at Millwall FC, which drew an attendance of 8,101 – the largest Super League crowd in London for nine years.

The concept of taking big games on the road is not new, of course, and rugby union’s Premiership, the NBA and NFL all stage matches in other countries.

Last September, for example, Newcastle suffered their first Premiership defeat of the season when losing to Saracens in America.

The game was played in front of banks of empty seats at the 18,500-capacity Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia.

In March 2016, Saracens beat London Irish 26-16 in front of 14,800 at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

The 'London Double Header' began in 2004 and opens the Aviva Premiership season when two games are played consecutively at Twickenham.

Super League’s annual Magic Weekend has been staged in Cardiff, Murrayfield, the Etihad Stadium and, for the last three years, at St James’ Park in Newcastle.

Both rugby codes have proved themselves to be innovative and it should be fun watching events unfold this weekend.

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