Russell Crowe, The Leeds United Loving Gladiator Who Bought A Rugby League Team

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Crowe classic, Gladiator
15:32, 12 May 2020

‘Makin’ movies, makin’ songs, and fightin’ round the world’ was how South Park infamously immortalized the career of Hollywood actor Russell Crowe.

It’s been 20 years since he was propelled into the stratosphere with his star-making turn in the blockbuster Gladiator, a $500million behemoth of a movie that instantly became a cultural phenomenon and an Academy Award sweeper after the millennium had just rolled around. That relentless warrior element Crowe portrayed on screen earned him a Best Actor award. For better or worse, it’ll likely be the role he’ll eternally be associated with. The fact that it translates well for headlines in tabloid fodder for his notorious off-screen ruckuses doesn’t hinder that stigma.

He’s reportedly whacked a co-star, a producer, his own bodyguard, thrown a telephone into the face of a hotel concierge and once got into a fight in the bathroom of a London restaurant with the owner of the New Zealand Warriors rugby team, an altercation that had to be broken up by Grant Mitchell himself, Ross Kemp.

The South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t hold back: “He fights his directors and he fights his fans, it's a problem no one understands. If there's two things he love it's fighting and Fight-in' Round The World!”

It’s appropriate to add sport to the list of Crowe’s passions, and for one particular team it’s proven extremely profitable if unable to curb Crowe’s endearingly fiery personality.

A club that had been in exile several years before, the South Sydney Rabbitohs have been transformed by the Oscar-winner combining his boyhood interest in the rugby league team with his Hollywood millions.

Crowe has been the co-owner of the Rabbitohs since 2006, an initial collaboration with Australian businessman Peter Holmes à Court, the son of the country’s first billionaire, and in the 14 years following Crowe has become even more of a regular fixture at both games and training sessions, sporting garbs with the Rabbitohs logo adorned. In 2014, the club finally ended their 43-year wait for a premiership.

Russell Crowe loving life at the 2014 NRL Final in
Russell Crowe loving life at the 2014 NRL Final in

"They’d fallen into a state of disarray and they were perennial losers,” he told broadcaster Simon Mayor in 2015, “So, nine years ago, I put my cheque book where my mouth is and bought the club."

After receiving death threats due to opposition for his takeover, Crowe reportedly used President Bill Clinton’s own private investigator to surveill potential perpetrators.  He helped wipe $7million worth of debt and determinedly pursued the acquisition of Sam Burgess, the Englishman becoming one of the greatest ever foreign players to ply their trade in Australia.

Burgess arrived in Sydney on his 21st birthday ahead of his debut NRL season in 2010 and would go onto play 182 matches for South Sydney, including the 2014 NRL Grand Final in which he was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal having played the entire game with a shattered cheekbone and eye socket. He remains the only South Sydney player to have won the award named after the Rabbitohs’ greatest player, ‘The Little Master’ Clive Churchill, and the only non-Australian to have ever claimed the award.

“To Russell - for making all this happen initially - I’ll be forever indebted to you. Your passion is infectious,” Burgess said in his sign-off message after being forced to retire from the sport in 2019, due to a chronic shoulder injury.

In January 2008, Crowe arranged the first professional rugby league game between teams from Australia and England to play each other in the United States of America. His band The Ordinary Fear of God of course performed the post-match function. In front of 12,000 fans at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville the Rabbitohs lost 24–26.

Their opponents however held some significance, for the Leeds Rhinos reflected Crowe’s allegiance with another certain city.

“I've been voted one of Australia's 50 national treasures. I've even had my face on an Australian stamp - the only non-Australian to do so, apart from the Queen, of course,” he once said.

Though Crowe has repeatedly been denied Australian citizenship despite having lived in Oz for over half a century, the Wellington-born actor can be reassured that he can always claim asylum on the far side of the world, in the heart of West Yorkshire.

Due to his outspoken affections for Leeds United Football Club, the Hollywood superstar would no doubt be welcome with open arms at the home of the Whites, Elland Road.

Crowe's beloved Leeds United
Crowe's beloved Leeds United

Crowe has been a narrator for the Amazon documentary covering Leeds’ 2018/19 season, consoled his fellow supporters after missing out on promotion in the playoffs (“Leeds... Next year. We’ll be right.”) and has even teased the possibility of him orchestrating a takeover of the club.

Speaking to Radio Five Live, Crowe divulged his unabashed support for the Championship side, stating that it stemmed from the highly-successful Don Revie era at the club in the 60s and 70s. "I followed Leeds since I was a little kid," he said, "I used to come home from sport in the afternoon, me and my brother, and watch Match of the Day. We're talking about a period of time in Australia when we had very few TV channels."

Crowe lent his recognisable dulcet tones, which has in the past given cinematic voice to Maximus Decimus Meridius and Jim Nash on the silver screen, to the Leeds-oriented docuseries ‘Take Me Home’ which tracked Leeds’ ultimately failed promotion push in head coach Marcelo Bielsa’s debut season: “This is a story that plays out in one of the most extraordinary seasons in this remarkable club's history," Crowe growls.

After a fan implored Crowe to buy the club, the actor asked his Twitter followers "Anybody else think this is a good idea?" an interrogative that sent tongues wagging and Whites’ hearts fluttering.

However, in a series of follow-up posts on the social media platform Twitter, Crowe explained his decision not to pursue a potential takeover. “I stand by my belief that LUFC is a massive opportunity. When my trusted associates tested the idea we found multiple potential...Economics tell the folks in my organisation we could smash this, but, I know the personal toll it takes, and I know without my actual hands on the wheel in Leeds I can't guarantee investors a return.

"I've loved Leeds all my life. I will always. I will not though steal anymore time from my children. It's that simple. Think about this, here's a hundred thousand who will march on together at least, stand up Leeds. Stand and be counted. #marchingontogether."

“It would give me nothing but pleasure to see that white army marching on together, getting back in the Premiership and being where they should be,” he once said. 

If Leeds United channel that Gladiator spirit of their most famous fan and start punching just that little bit higher, it shouldn’t be an issue.