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Rugby League Reference Centre


History of Rugby League

Copyright 2006 - Sean Fagan

Centenary of Rugby League


Rugby league began in 1895, as the 'Northern Union', when clubs in the North of England broke away from the RFU. The clubs wanted to compensate their working-class players for time away from work for rugby tours and injuries.

The RFU refused, saying 'if men couldn't afford to play, then they shouldn't play at all'. In the decade that followed, rugby league made changes setting itself apart from rugby union.

Teams were reduced from 15 to 13 players (two forwards were eliminated), and the play-the-ball was introduced to lessen the need for scrums and to replace rugby union's scrappy rucks and mauls (where the ball often disappeared from view for minutes on end).

The changes made League the far more popular code in England amongst spectators and players alike. The increased gate-money allowed the rugby league clubs to pay benefits to the footballers the crowds had come to watch and support.

Meanwhile in Australia (NSW & Qld) and New Zealand, rugby was controlled by the rugby union bodies affiliated to the English RFU. They all enforced the rules of amateurism upon their footballers.

The predominantly working-class rugby footballers and supporters in Sydney and Brisbane were disheartened by the attitude of the rugby union authorities – and seemed likely to turn to Australian rules.

However, for a short time rugby union rode a new wave of popularity – brought about by the arrival of Dally Messenger in 1906. With his individual brilliance, vast crowds flocked to his matches, filling the financial coffers of rugby union. (The NRL's 'Dally M Medal' is named in honour of Messenger).

Unsurprisingly though, rugby's success increased discontent among the players and public sympathy. Where was all the money going, and why couldn't it be spent on the footballers as compensation for injuries or time off work?

In July 1907, the NSW rugby union team attracted an unprecedented 52,000 to a match against the New Zealand All Blacks. By then though, men like Messenger had come to appreciate their own worth.

The son of a professional rower and friend of high-paid Test cricketer Victor Trumper and entreprenuer James J. Giltinan, Messenger had secretly agreed to join the professional rugby league (the NSWRL) being formed in Sydney.

Messenger's allegiance was secured for £50 and the promise of a place in the New Zealand 'All Golds' rugby league team bound for England. The Kiwis arrived in Sydney in August 1907, playing three professional matches (using rugby union rules) against a NSWRL team led by Messenger.

The formation of rugby league, and Messenger's decision to join, prevented Australian rules from gaining hold of Sydney's vast working-class population and swamping rugby union.

With Messenger in their ranks in 1908, the NSWRL and QRL began to build club competitions that were able to provide injury benefits and financial rewards for working-class footballers. The spectator appeal of rugby league ensured it attracted large crowds and gate-takings, with Easts, Souths, Balmain, Wests, Newtown, Newcastle, Norths, Glebe and Cumberland the original NSWRL premiership clubs.

At the end of the 1908 season both the first Kangaroos (League) and Wallabies (Union) toured Great Britain. The Wallabies were accused of being professionals by many in Britain. This attitude took hold of the IRB, who then announced the already poor allowances to rugby union players were to be further reduced. As a result, shortly after their return to Australia in 1909, more than half the Wallabies accepted contract offers to join rugby league.

The following season saw a visit to NSW, Queensland and New Zealand by the first ever 'British Lions' rugby league team. Attracting huge crowds wherever they played, the League authorities were able to build a solid financial base, securing their permanency, and becoming the preferred football code in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle, and establishing a hold in Auckland and Wellington (New Zealand).

The Rugby Rebellion - The Divide of League and Union - click here for a preview!

Unable to attract crowds and gate-money, rugby union was forced to embrace amateurism even more tightly than before, this time as a way of survival. While the effects of WW1 on rugby union further exacerbated their position, the 'rugby war' was over at the end of 1910.

From 1910 onwards, rugby league has held place as the premier winter sport of NSW and Queensland, and maintained a strong following in New Zealand.

The NSWRL club competition evolved into a national competition in the 1990s, and became the National Rugby League in 1998. The NRL competition spans the traditional League areas of NSW, Queensland and New Zealand, as well as Victoria (following the introduction of the Melbourne Storm).

2008 will mark the code's centenary as a professional sport in Australia and New Zealand.

Chronology of Milestones and Major Events
1907: NSW Rugby League formed.
1908: First Club formed (Glebe), followed by Souths, Newtown, Easts, Norths, Balmain, Wests, Newcastle and Cumberland. First Premiership games played in NSW. NSW wins first interstate game over QLD. Souths win first Premiership. First Kangaroo tour.
1909: Members of the 1908-09 Rugby Union Wallabies agreed to play Rugby League.
1910: Presidents Cup introduced for competition between junior representative teams. First England team tours Australia. First country competition (in Newcastle).
1911: Rugby League first played at Sydney Cricket Ground and Sydney Sports Ground. Dally Messenger scored 72 points in three-match series against QLD.
1912: McKivat's 1911-12 Kangaroos first to win the Ashes.
1913: Rugby League first played in Sydney schools.
1916: Interstate football suspended due to war, (resumed in 1919).
1919: First Australian tour to New Zealand.
1920: First edition of The Rugby League News published.
1922: First QLD win over NSW.
1924: First radio broadcast of Rugby League.
1928: First official City v Country match. First night match at Sydney Showground.
1942: Interstate football suspended due to war, (resumed in 1945).
1947: Clive Churchill signs with Souths.
1950: Australia wins Ashes after 30 years. Death of League founder, J.J. Giltinan. (Giltinan Shield is established in 1951.)
1957: Australia hosts the Rugby League World Cup for the first time.
1961: Rugby League's first televised game, (Balmain v Norths). First Rugby League Sevens tournament played.
1965: Record Grand Final attendance. 78,056 fans watch Saints win tenth consecutive Premiership.
1967: Live telecast on all four channels of Souths v Canterbury Grand Final.
1974: Home and away football introduced. Big League Magazine replaces The Rugby League News.
1977: First drawn Grand Final, (St George v Parramatta).
1979: First night Rugby League match played at the SCG.
1980: First State of Origin game played at Lang Park. QLD wins 20-10.
1982: Winfield sponsorship of the NSWRL commences.
1986: Peter Sterling wins inaugural Clive Churchill Medal for best player in the Grand Final.
1988: Rugby League leaves the SCG for the Sydney Football Stadium.
1989: Tina Turner is signed to Rugby League's advertising campaign. What You Get Is What You See becomes the game's anthem. Premiership crowds top 2 million for the first time. NSWRL Coaching and Development Academy is established at Narrabeen.
1990: Salary cap is introduced by NSWRL.
1991: The Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Bill passes through Parliament, ending cigarette-company sponsorship of sport.
1992: Bill Harrigan wins the Rugby League Week Players' Poll rating as the premiership's best referee.
1995-1997: Super League war.
1998: National Rugby League formed.
1999: First Grand Final played at Stadium Australia.
2000: Sydney hosts the Olympic Games.
2001: Telstra becomes major sponsor of the NRL.
2002: Souths are re-instated into the national competition. Bulldogs salary cap scandal sees them penalized 17 competition points and fined $500,000.
2003: The Hoodoo Gurus perform That's My Team for the new NRL ad campaign. NRL computer game launched. Total attendance for Rugby League exceeds 3.17 million.
2005: The NRL record the codes highest ever crowd average for a regular season with on average 16,468 attending each game that season.
2006: The NRL holds the first ever Rugby League Grand Final in the competitions 98 year history involving no New South Wales teams. Brisbane win their sixth Grand Final, defeating Melbourne in the final 15 – 8.
2007: The Telstra Premiership grows to 16 clubs with the Gold Coast Titans joining.