History of the National Rugby League

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This article deals with the history of the current National Rugby League. For histories of prior Australian first grade competitions, see New South Wales Rugby League premiership, Australian Rugby League and Super League (Australia).

The history of the National Rugby League (NRL), the top league of professional rugby league football clubs in Australasia, goes back to December 1997, when it was formed in the aftermath of the Super League war of the mid-1990s.[1] The NRL has, in its relatively brief history, enjoyed growth and record attendance figures.

Structure of the NRL between 1998-2012[edit]

A Partnership Executive Committee administered the agreement between the Australian Rugby League and News Limited as well as making major financial decisions.[2] Three representatives from each party made up this committee. A National Rugby League Board, which was commissioned by the Partnership Committee and is composed of six delegates – three from each party – was responsible for administering the competition. Both bodies nominated a Chairman to lead each board for a term of 12 months on an alternating basis.[2]

The National Rugby League markets the premiership on behalf of the clubs as well as organising the draw and finals matches. When the draw is finalised, teams are responsible for controlling and organising their assigned home games. Clubs each have their own organisational structure but are also bound to the National Rugby League by a common set of rules in club agreements.[2]

In late November/early December each year the NRL holds a conference for CEOs, coaches and players to discuss issues facing the League.

1998: The beginning of the National Rugby League[edit]

With twenty-two teams playing in two competitions in 1997 crowd attendances and corporate sponsorships were spread very thinly, and many teams found themselves in financial difficulty. On 23 September 1997 the ARL announced that it was forming a new company to control the competition in 1998 and invited Super League clubs to participate. On 7 October Rupert Murdoch announced that he was confident that there would be a single competition in 1998 and on 19 December representatives of clubs affiliated with the Australian Rugby League gathered at the Sydney Football Stadium to decide whether to accept News Limited's offer of a settlement – eventually voting in favour by 36 votes to 4.[3] As a result, in the following months the National Rugby League, jointly owned by the ARL and News Limited, was formed.

It was announced that the 1998 Season would have 20 teams competing, 19 Super League/ARL teams and the Melbourne Storm, who were owned by News Limited. Clubs on both sides of the war were shut down. News decided to close the Hunter Mariners and the financially ruined Western Reds, who were $10million in debt at the end of 1997, while the ARL decided to close down the South Queensland Crushers, who were also in severe financial trouble.

Neil Whittaker was the new League's first CEO. At the end of 1998 News Limited decided to close down the Adelaide Rams and the ARL closed down the Gold Coast Chargers, even though they were one of the few clubs to make a profit during the Super League war.

1999–2002: Rationalisation[edit]

National Rugby League team locations in Australia, Sydney and New Zealand

One condition of the peace agreement between the ARL and News Limited was that there would be a 14 team competition in 2000. The 20 clubs that played in 1998 would be assessed on various items such as sponsorship, crowds, on-field success and the like. It was also announced that clubs that merged would receive a large sum of money, as well as a guaranteed position in the 2000 NRL Competition. The St. George Dragons and the Illawarra Steelers were the first clubs to take up the offer, forming the joint-venture St. George Illawarra Dragons at the end of the 1998 season.

The Bulldogs continued in their present form without merging in 1999, however dropped the Canterbury from their club name to simply become known as the Bulldogs.

In August 1999 the NRL's CEO Neil Whittaker announced that he would resign at the end of the season.[4]

The 1999 NRL Grand Final brought about a new official world record attendance for a game of rugby league. 107,999 spectators saw the Melbourne Storm play the newly merged St. George Illawarra Dragons in the decider at Stadium Australia.

Balmain and Western Suburbs formed the joint venture club, the Wests Tigers at the end of 1999, while North Sydney and Manly-Warringah merged to form the ill-fated Northern Eagles.

The 2000 National Rugby League season started with a new CEO in rugby union's David Moffett who replaced Neil Whittaker in late 1999.[5]

As part of another image makeover, a number of teams also released new club logos. The most notable of these was the Sydney Roosters, dropping the City section of their name for the 2000 season and beyond. Souths were controversially axed from the competition at the end of 1999 for failing to meet the criteria.

This move was highly controversial and on 11 November 2001 80,000 marched in protest at their continued exclusion. South Sydney challenged the decision in the Federal Court claiming that the NRL agreement was exclusionary, intended to unfairly exclude South Sydney, and breached the Trade Practices Act. Justice Paul Finn ruled that the agreement did not specifically exclude any club and dismissed the Rabbitohs claims for re-instatement into the national competition. Souths appealed this decision and were re-admitted into the competition in 2002.

The Auckland Warriors experienced much financial hardship in the early part of the decade, ultimately collapsing before being resurrected as the New Zealand Warriors for the 2001 season. They made the Grand Final the following year.

In 2001, Australia's largest telecommunications provider Telstra became naming rights sponsor of the NRL, with the competition's name becoming the NRL Telstra Premiership, while in 2002 David Gallop took over the CEO role from David Moffett, and the competition has become more and more popular each season.

Since 2001, the NRL Grand Final has been played on Sunday nights, a shift from the traditional Sunday afternoon slot used for over a decade prior.

2003–2005: Record popularity[edit]

The 2003 season was widely regarded as the most successful since the beginning of the National Rugby League in 1998. The Penrith Panthers rose from the bottom of the table to win the Premiership, while the Broncos returned to Lang Park mid-year. Season 2004 proved even more successful than 2003, with the North Queensland Cowboys going from 11th position in 2003 to 3rd in 2004, narrowly missing out on a maiden Grand Final berth. It also saw the return of the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles after the breakdown of the Northern Eagles merger.

Crowd average records were broken in 2003, 2004 and 2005.[6] In 2005, the NRL reached record levels of popularity for its competition. Total crowds for the competition season almost reached the figures for the last year of the competition conducted by the ARL competition of 1995, prior to the Super League war. From 2004 to 2005 there was a 39% increase in sponsorship, a 41% increase in merchandise royalties and a 12% increase in playing participation.[7] In 2005 Business Review Weekly ranked the NRL 497 in revenue of Australian private companies, with revenue of A$66.1m (+7%) with 35 employees. In 2005, a record national audience of 4.1 million tuned into watch the grand final between the Wests Tigers and the North Queensland Cowboys.[8]

At the beginning of 2005 the NRL became the first mainstream professional sport in Australia to appoint a female director to a governing body, with Katie Page, the managing director of retail giant Harvey Norman, accepting an invitation to join the NRL executive board. She replaced Sydney orthopedic surgeon Dr Merv Cross, who has retired. Former Broncos and Australian captain Gorden Tallis also joined the board, replacing John Brass.[9]

Before the 2005 season the NRL introduced a pension incentive scheme to try to retain top players in the competition.[10]

In the middle of 2005 the NRL reached a broadcasting rights agreement with Foxsports and Channel 9 worth $500 million over six years, representing a 65% increase in direct television income.[11]

2005: Legal action[edit]

On 13 September 2005, the Seven Network began proceedings in the Federal Court in Sydney naming 22 parties (including the NRL) in a conspiracy to shut down the C7 pay television station.[12] C7 had unsuccessfully bid $72,000,000 per annum for the right to broadcast the NRL competition on pay television. After News Limited re-signed these rights, C7 was left without a major sport to broadcast and subsequently ceased operation in March 2002. It is alleged that News Limited used its position as half-owner of the NRL to secure the rights. Jonathan Sumption, QC representing the Seven Network, has said

It is inconceivable that News would have been able to get away with this if it had not controlled one, half the NRL, two, the leading pay TV broadcaster and three, the largest cable network in Australia.[13]

The case is being heard by Justice Ron Sackville. The Seven Network is seeking up to $1.1 billion in damages. Sumption also stated that:

Other alternative remedies (to stop Foxtel illegally acquiring sports) would be to make News and PBL divest Fox Sports or stop them buying AFL or NRL rights in a non competitive environment[14]

2006: A unique year[edit]

The 2006 National Rugby League season kicked off on Friday, 10 March, between defending premiers Wests Tigers and early favourites St George Illawarra Dragons at Telstra Stadium.

Melbourne, after leading the competition for most of the season, comfortably claimed the minor premiership, with the Bulldogs, Brisbane, and Newcastle making up the top four. Manly, St George Illawarra, Canberra and Parramatta took places five to eight.

The 2006 NRL Grand Final won by the Brisbane Broncos over the Melbourne Storm, 15–8. The matchup was a significant milestone in the history of the NRL, as two interstate teams (teams not from New South Wales, the perceived "heartland" of the NRL) contested the grand final for the first time ever.

The game itself once again enjoyed immense support, with more record TV ratings, particularly capturing Melbourne on Grand Final night[citation needed]. Crowds were down on 2005, however were better than any other year prior to that.

2007: Expansion once more[edit]

The 2007 NRL Season kicked off on Friday 16 March 2007 with eight games each round. Monday night football returned during the 2007 season, the first match saw the Sydney Roosters go down to the South Sydney Rabbitohs 18–6 on 19 March 2007. The opening round also saw two matches at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, the first featuring reigning champions Brisbane against fellow Queensland side the Cowboys, while the second match featured the new club, the Gold Coast Titans. The finals series was contested over a period of four weeks, culminating with the NRL Grand Final held on Sunday 30 September 2007 where Melbourne beat Manly 34–8.

Another change from the previous season included a reduction in the number of byes per team in the season. With an odd number of teams contesting between 2002 and 2006, the draw meant that at least one team would have to have a bye each weekend. With the inclusion of the 16th team for the 2007 season, the National Rugby League had the option of reverting to back to the system used between 2000 and 2001 where every team played each round. This system was not used however, but rather teams were given just a single bye during the year, grouped in periods that assisted clubs around the representative fixtures.

Following the 2011 season, the newly formed independent Australian Rugby League Commission took over control of the NRL.

A 2013 report conducted by Brand Finance valued the Penrith Panthers club at $46.2m, the highest of any Australian sporting brand, while the Brisbane Broncos had the highest brand equity.[15]

Teams that have joined the NRL since its inception[edit]

Club Colours Years Contested
Melbourne Melbourne colours.svg 1998 – current
St George Illawarra St. George colours.svg 1999 – current
Wests Tigers Wests Tigers colours.svg 2000 – current
Northern Eagles Northern Eagles colours.svg 2000 – 2002
Gold Coast Titans Gold Coast Titans colours.svg 2007 – current

National Rugby League Premiers[edit]

NoteMelbourne Storm were stripped of their 2007, 2009 premiership titles and their 2006, 2007, 2008 minor premiership titles due to their 2010 salary cap breaches. Although they have been stripped, the NRL declined to make the second placed team the premiers/minor premiers.

Season Grand Final Information Minor Premiers
Premiers Score Runners-Up
1998 Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos 38–12 Canterbury colours.svg Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos (37 pts)
1999 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm 20–18 St. George colours.svg St George Illawarra Dragons Cronulla colours.svg Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (40 pts)
2000 Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos 14–6 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos (38 pts)
2001 Newcastle colours.svg Newcastle Knights 30–24 Parramatta colours.svg Parramatta Eels Parramatta colours.svg Parramatta Eels (42 pts)
2002 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters 30–8 New Zealand colours.svg New Zealand Warriors New Zealand colours.svg New Zealand Warriors (38 pts)
2003 Penrith colours.svg Penrith Panthers 18–6 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters Penrith colours.svg Penrith Panthers (40 pts)
2004 Canterbury colours.svg Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 16–13 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters (42 pts)
2005 Wests Tigers colours.svg Wests Tigers 30–16 North Queensland colours.svg North Queensland Cowboys Parramatta colours.svg Parramatta Eels (36 pts)
2006 Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos 15–8 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm (44 pts) *stripped
2007 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm *stripped 34–8 Manly Sea Eagles colours.svg Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm (44 pts) *stripped
2008 Manly Sea Eagles colours.svg Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 40–0 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm (38 pts) *stripped
2009 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm *stripped 23–16 Parramatta colours.svg Parramatta Eels St. George colours.svg St George Illawarra Dragons (38 pts)
2010 St. George colours.svg St George Illawarra Dragons 32–8 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters St. George colours.svg St George Illawarra Dragons (38 pts)
2011 Manly Sea Eagles colours.svg Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 24–10 New Zealand colours.svg New Zealand Warriors Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm (42 pts)
2012 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm 14–4 Canterbury colours.svg Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs Canterbury colours.svg Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (40 pts)
2013 Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters 26–18 Manly Sea Eagles colours.svg Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters (40 pts)
2014 South Sydney colours.svg South Sydney Rabbitohs 30-6 Canterbury colours.svg Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters (36 pts)
2015 North Queensland colours.svg North Queensland Cowboys 17-16 Brisbane colours.svg Brisbane Broncos Eastern Suburbs colours.svg Sydney Roosters (40 pts)
2016 Cronulla colours.svg Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 14-12 Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm Melbourne colours.svg Melbourne Storm (42 pts)

Famous NRL Rivalries[edit]

NRL Club Rivalries:

Representative Rivalries:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Rugby League: Long-awaited merger agreed in Australia". The Independent. London. 20 December 1997. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c NRL History National Rugby League. Retrieved 14 January 2006.
  3. ^ "Sydney Football Stadium Magic Moments". sydneycricketground.com.au. Sydney Cricket & Sports Ground Trust. Archived from the original on 16 August 2007. Retrieved 2 September 2009. 
  4. ^ sportsillustrated.cnn.com (1999-08-13). "NRL boss Neil Whittaker quits". CNN Sports Illustrated. Australia: Reuters. Retrieved 24 December 2009. 
  5. ^ Hadfield, Dave (30 November 1999). "Moffett insists conversion is no miracle". The Independent. London, UK: Independent News and Media Limited. Retrieved 24 December 2009. 
  6. ^ Rugby League Tables / Attendances 1957–2006 / All Teams Archived 8 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Courier Mail
  8. ^ Storm the sentimental favourite in Sydney – League – Sport. theage.com.au (2006-09-24). Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  9. ^ Masters, Roy (20 January 2005). "Woman on board as NRL turns a new page". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Digital. Retrieved 6 October 2009. 
  10. ^ Richards, Martin (2005-02-17). "NRL provides incentive with pension plan". The Times. London, UK: Times Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  11. ^ "NRL secures $500m rights deal". ABC News. Australia: Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 1 July 2005. Archived from the original on 9 March 2010. Retrieved 4 December 2009. 
  12. ^ Seven's footy legal battle to kick off, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2005
  13. ^ News plotter used NRL spot to outbid C7, The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 2005
  14. ^ Seven wants $1.1b payback over C7 demise, The Age, 19 September 2005
  15. ^ Baker, Rosie (5 December 2013). "NRL versus AFL: Penrith Panthers 'most valuable Aussie sport brand'". adnews.com.au. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 
  16. ^ Lutton, Phil (16 July 2010). "Broncos get more bang from another young buck in win over Titans". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  17. ^ "Broncos outlast Cowboys in Queensland derby". 13 July 2007. Archived from the original on 17 February 2011. 
  18. ^ a b c "Bulldogs and Parramatta rekindle their bitter rivalry". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  19. ^ a b c d "Wests Tigers demolish Raiders". 26 July 2009. 
  20. ^ "Manly, Storm resume rivalry". 2010-04-08. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. 
  21. ^ a b "Rivalry drives Knights". 2010-02-08. Archived from the original on 2012-03-14. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  22. ^ a b Film Camp. The Fibros and the Silvertails. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  23. ^ a b "Warriors v Storm Preview". 14 Jul 2010. 
  24. ^ Stevenson, Andrew (1 August 2009). "Dragons' fire douses Storm's hopes". The Age. Melbourne. Archived from the original on 5 November 2012. 
  25. ^ "NRL: Rabbitohs: The rivalry between South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters is legendary". 10 March 2010.