Ranking the 10 Most Intimidating Stadiums in World Rugby
Home advantage counts for a lot in sport, especially rugby. If you can turn your ground into a bear pit, it not only galvanizes the home players but will go a long way to unsettling the visiting side as well.
Rugby has a rich tradition of characterful, raucous arenas that prove anything but happy hunting grounds for travelling teams.
Here are the 10 most intimidating.
10. Millennium Stadium
Some grounds can summon enough energy to make it impossible for their side to do anything other than blow their opponents away.
This is what the supporters inside the Millennium Stadium achieved in 2013 when they faced England to decide the Six Nations Championship.
The high-banked stands and closed roof allow the noise to pour down onto the players on the turf below, and that night they did so to devastating effect as England were sent packing 30-3.
New grounds can struggle for atmosphere, but since it’s opening in the lat 90s, the Millennium Stadium has never failed to deliver.
9. Welford Road
Leicester Tigers are renowned for their hard-nosed approach to the game, from the days of the ABC club in the front row to tales of training-ground brawls all designed to produce rough, tough forwards who will never take a backward step on the field.
They are a club without frills. So it goes for their famous home ground. Welford Road is a proper rugby ground. Stands tight to the field, crowd never anything but partisan, passionate and packed in. With two stands now redeveloped, the stadium has lost none of its edge.
The players still come out of the old Crumbie Stand, crossing the concourse to reach the steps down onto the pitch and roared back in by their supporters.
In 2009, to open their new Caterpillar Stand, they hosted the Springboks and beat them on a cold midweek night that reminded everyone of the value of midweek tour matches and the kind of atmosphere they can generate.
8. Velez Sarsfield
South American sports stadiums are never on the quiet side, and in rugby terms, Velez Sarsfield tops the lot.
The 50,000-seat, rough-and-ready arena is known as The Fort.
Situated a short journey from the centre of Buenos Aires, the Pumas play many of their tests here and have not lost to France on the ground since 1998.
No longer with us, the stadium nicknamed the House of Pain was like no other in world rugby.
Nestled on the edge of Dunedin, it was a Mecca for the city’s huge student population, known as "Scarfies," who would often drag sofas onto the terraces and, being students never likely to transport the things home again, set fire to them at the end of the game.
The locals also had a penchant for launching nearly finished cans of the local brew into the air in a Mexican Wave format, creating this blue wave of aluminium thundering around the stands.
If you didn’t duck at the right moment, a night watching the rugby at Carisbrook could, as the nickname suggests, be a painful experience indeed.
The ground was retired before the 2011 World Cup, and rugby is now played at the covered Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Not quite the same ring to it.
Gloucester’s home ground was voted as the most intimidating place in the Premiership in a 2010 survey by Rugby World magazine.
Its famous terrace, known as The Shed, has produced many a withering remark aimed at opposition players down the years.
One man who has sampled both sides of The Shed’s unique place in rugby folklore is Gloucester second row James Hudson, who joined the Cherry and Whites from West Country rivals Bath. Hudson told the Gloucester Citizen:
During my first handful of games for Bath I remember going to Kingsholm in a game we won.
I had never played in anything close to that, it was a massive, passionate atmosphere.
I remember warming up right in front of the Shed and but it was just brilliant and added to the energy.
It was hugely intimidating and one of the best things about being here now is you have The Shed cheering for you and not against you.
5. Croke Park
When Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt into what is now the Aviva Stadium, Ireland decamped to the 80,000-seat Gaelic Games stadium Croke Park.
Rising up from the terraced streets of North Dublin, Croke Park echoes with the history of the troubles.
It was the scene of a tragedy in 1920, when British forces opened fire on players and spectators during a Gaelic football match, killing 14 people including Tipperary player Michael Hogan. Until 2007 the GAA had never allowed "foreign" sports to be played there. That changed with the arrival of the rugby side, who played England there that year.
The fixture inevitably revived memories of the strained political relations between the two countries given what had happened at the ground decades before, and the atmosphere before the game was febrile.
Protests before the game were made in attempts to prevent God Save the Queen to be played before the game. The anthem went ahead, but it was clear from the first whistle that Ireland, on this of all days, would not give England in inch. A 43-13 battering ensued.
Ireland’s move to the Aviva two years later seemed counter-intuitive following that short spell at Croker, a far bigger ground with such a special place in Irish sporting and social history.
Should the IRFU decide to bid for a future Rugby World Cup, Croke Park simply has to be on the list of venues.
4. Stade Felix Mayol
In professional sport, teams who rise quickly on the back of an injection of new money can often struggle to create a genuine sense of identity and atmosphere.
Such qualities are forged over years, decades even. Toulon’s rise, therefore, is unique. Splashing around in the second tier of French rugby until around 2005, the millions of owner Mourad Boudjellal has propelled them to Heineken Cup glory in a short space of time.
But it has also been accompanied by the kind of raw-boned fervor at their home ground you would expect from a club who had been top of the pile for much longer.
The Stade Felix Mayol, nestled down on the French Riviera, is a place of manic, passionate support.
From the pre-game war cry of “Pilou! Pilou!” to the hailstorm of torn up newspaper following the team’s opening try, the star-studded squad of Toulon enjoys one of the most raucous home-ground atmospheres anywhere in Europe.
3. Thomond Park
The home of Munster has undergone a major transformation with the low-profile pitch-side terracing replaced by giant, arcing all-seater stands, but it has lost none of its atmosphere in the process.
The crowd played a huge part that day, as prop Gerry McLoughlin remembers in Alan English’s brilliant book Stand Up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks:
“One hundred thousand people say they were at Thomond Park that day. Ninety thousand of them are liars.”
And in 2009 , after the ground was reopened, Paul Rees of the Guardian previewed a decisive Heineken Cup visit there by Sale Sharks:
Sale faced Munster at Thomond Park in the final group match three years ago. They arrived as the pool leaders but left knocked out of the tournament after being blown away by a combination of the fervour generated by the crowd and the ferocity of Munster from the first minute to the last.
"There seems to be a perception that Thomond Park is not as intimidating for visiting sides as it was, but I do not go along with that," said [Munster hooker] Jerry Flannery. "It houses a greater number of spectators now and that means more noise. The All Blacks left here last November saying they had never experienced an atmosphere like it and Sale should know what they face."
2. Ellis Park
As New Zealand went in search of a perfect 2013, mid-way through the year they faced the toughest test of their invincibility when they travelled to South Africa for the deciding rubber in the Rugby Championship.
With the silverware riding on the game, the Springboks decided to relocate the fixture from the gleaming new stadium in Soweto to their favoured Ellis Park.
They knew what they were doing. Former All Blacks scrum half Justin Marshall told Fairfax NZ News:
It's notable the Springboks have scheduled their rematch against the All Blacks for Ellis Park - the most intimidating rugby ground I've ever played at. The Ellis Park factor could be huge in the competition finale. It's interesting they've taken the fixture from Soweto, which generates more revenue, to a smaller stadium where they've had success against the All Blacks. That says to me they're driven by results this year.
Even the drive to Ellis Park on the bus is daunting, where often supporters push the bus, and certainly make it very clear you're in enemy territory.
On the field it's an atmosphere like no other - hostile and very passionate. No coincidence that the Springboks play better there than at any ground in the country.
They're different beasts when they run on to Ellis Park. Something in them stirs.
New Zealand did win that day, and it was the first time they had done so at Ellis Park since 1997.
1. Parc Des Sports Marcel Michelin
At the time of writing, Clermont Auvergne have won 76 matches at their Massif Central home. It has almost reached the point where visiting teams are resigned to their fate before they set foot off the bus.
It can only hold just over 18,000 souls, yet it’s banked stands somehow encase the racket made by the garish yellow-clad supporters to make it feel as though there are 70,000 bearing down on the playing surface.
The Telegraph’s Alasdair Reid described the scene this season after a yellow card for No. 8 Fritz Lee, with the score against Toulon locked at 16-16, looked to have condemned their winning run to the record books:
Over the next few minutes the noise levels grew and grew, far louder even than in the opening quarter when they had raced into a 13-0 lead, to a crescendo of urgency and exhortation. “Tous ensemble. Tous ensemble. Allez ASM.” When the going gets tough, no crowd gets going like this one.
By the time Lee returned, Clermont were coasting. In his absence, they had taken the game by the scruff of the neck, Morgan Parra had clipped over a penalty and the will and the colour seemed to have drained from Toulon. In the final minute, Parra kicked another penalty for a 22-16 victory. It was Clermont’s 74th home win on the trot.