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Challenge Cup

7 May 2022

Elland Road and Rugby League

Elland Road and Rugby League

Today sees three more matches played on the famous Elland Road turf, as rugby league continues an association with the ground that pre-dates the sport itself, and includes some major events in the game’s history.

Back in September 1878 it was announced that the original Leeds (rugby) Football Club would play their home games “on the Peacock Ground, Elland Road”, hosting visits from the forerunners of the current Huddersfield Giants, Hull FC and Halifax Panthers among others.  Their stay was short due to the ground being considered ‘remote’ at a time when Leeds’ urban spread was somewhat less than today and the motor car did not even exist!

Holbeck (rugby) FC were somewhat longer term residents, buying the Old Peacock Ground in 1897 for £1,100. Holbeck had joined the newly created Northern Rugby Football Union for the start of its second season in 1896, and under the terms of the purchase the previous owners Bentley’s Brewery held the catering rights; Bentley’s owned the Peacock Inn situated on the other side of the main road to Elland, giving the ground its original name, before it became commonly known as Elland Road during Holbeck’s tenure, as they started to develop its facilities.

Only a quirk of fate led to the ground being given over to soccer: Holbeck had finished bottom of the first division of the Northern Rugby League, meaning a ‘Test Match’ had to be played against St. Helens who had topped the second division, in the “Million Pound Match” of its day; Holbeck lost 0-7, and rather than drop down a division decided to disband, and those seeking to establish soccer in the rugby mad city snapped the ground up on behalf of the recently formed Leeds City Association FC.

Regular rugby league did not return to the stadium until 1982 when the homeless Hunslet became  tenants, staying for 12 seasons in a rollercoaster spell that saw them play in all three divisions.  Hunslet were returning to the scene of one of their greatest triumphs, having beaten big-spending Leeds 8-2 in the 1938 Championship Final before a then record English crowd of 54,112 to secure their second league title.

In 1921, 1932 and 1950 England had played matches against Wales and France, but it was 30 years before international rugby league returned, with the visit of the touring 1980 New Zealand team.  Big games then became a regular feature at the ground, none-more-so than on 19 May 1982, when Hull defeated Widnes 18-9 in front of over 41,000 in the replayed Challenge Cup Final. Captain David Topliss and 19 year-old Lee Crooks were the inspiration for the black and whites as they collected the famous trophy for the first time in 68 years.

International matches and Yorkshire Cup Finals were frequently staged in the 1980s and 1990s, and as the city’s Rhinos rose to prominence at the start of the 21st century Elland Road became the venue of choice for Tri Nations and Four Nations Finals, with Australia defeating Great Britain / England three times, but most memorably suffering a 0-24 reverse at the hands of New Zealand in one of the biggest upsets seen at the stadium.

Rhinos fans will have fond memories of their epic 37-32 win over Canterbury to secure a maiden World Club Challenge in 2005, roared on by a crowd of over 37,000. Victory in 2008 against Melbourne was followed by disappointment at the hands of Manly in 2009, with the Storm gaining revenge in 2010.

All six-teams who grace the field today therefore are following a well-trodden path of the great and good of rugby league, and have the chance to add their own names to the deeds of those who have gone before them.