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History of Rugby League

Excerpt: Centenary of Rugby League
Copyright 2006 - Sean Fagan

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).

2018 will mark the code's 110th year as a professional sport in Australia and New Zealand.


Year  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 Chris 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) NO 1957 (Bal v CB). 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.
1995-97 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 reinstated 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.
2008 The centenary of rugby league in Australia and NZ is marked by a year of celebrations at all levels of the game. NZ win the RLWC for the first time by defeating Australia in the final at Brisbane.
2009 Two referees introduced for NRL matches. 
2010 Melbourne have their 2007 and 2009 premierships withdrawn after the discovery of salary cap abuse by them during those seasons.
2012 Rugby League Central opens, providing a home for all the game's administration under the one roof. Rugby League Museum opens.
2013 Australia reclaim the Rugby League World Cup with a 32-4 win over New Zealand in the final.
2014 South Sydney win their 21st premiership.
2015 North Queensland defeat Brisbane in first all Qld Grand Final.
2016 Cronulla win their first premiership.
2017 Australia wins both men's and women's RLWC titles after a stellar tournament hosted across Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.