GROWING - rugby league, 100 years on

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In light of the latest expansion team - 'The Dolphins' - George Peterson looks at the growth (and opposite) of the premier rugby league competition in Australia over the last century.


During the 2020 / 21 off season, Rugby League Commission Chairman, Peter V'landys made it very clear that expansion was "on the agenda" again (at NRL headquarters) with a 2nd Brisbane team almost a certainty for Season 2023.   

As of October 2021, the new team became a reality called "The Dolphins" - formerly the Redcliffe Dolphins.  Now that 17 teams will play in 2023, 18 teams is a must and will provide the extra content that Free to Air and Pay TV funders of the competition have been clamouring for, post pandemic.  

100 years of ins and outs

The history of expansion of the Sydney Rugby League, that became the NSWRFL, the ARL and then NRL is littered with broken dreams and empty bank accounts.   

Starting in 1908 it became clear that getting a professional ‘Rugby' competition going and maintaining it, was no easy task.   

Those who've read the history will know that the Sydney Rugby League competition was formed in the working-class suburbs around the Harbour. In 1908 South Sydney, Eastern Suburbs, Western Suburbs and North Sydney were joined by Newtown and Balmain, making up the core of the new competition.  A few others came and went and in 1921 the St George Dragons joined, followed by the Canterbury-Bankstown Berries in 1935.  

Rugby League at the elite level was a stable eight (8) team competition from 1935 until 1946.  Growth in the economy and population of the Sydney region was matched by demands for growth in the number of Rugby League teams. Head office accepted applications from Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the Parramatta Eels (who joined in 1947).  Twenty years later (1967) the Penrith Panthers and Cronulla Sharks were admitted.   

On July 4th 1966, a special meeting of the NSWRL decided to admit two new teams (Cronulla and Penrith) for the 1967 Season.   The Sutherland shire team were admitted unanimously while debate around the second team went well into the night.  The original motion, from the NSWRL Special committee, was that Cronulla-Sutherland and Wentworthville be admitted. However, the Parramatta delegates were worried about their club's proximity to the Wentworthville team (who had won the 2nd Division competition in 1964 and 65). They also worried about how any redrawn boundaries would affect them. They moved that Penrith be admitted instead and eventually that motion was passed 19 votes to 12.    

Although the populations west of the mountains and from the North and South Coasts of NSW had been nurseries for rugby league greats, still no teams directly represented these vast areas of the state and delegates from the Country Rugby League, continued their (so far failing) efforts to block or slow the drift of talented locals to Sydney clubs.   

In December,1980 the NSWRFL voted overwhelmingly to admit a team from the Illawarra region to the first division and called on representatives from Newcastle, Central Coast and Canberra to submit proposals to take up the 14th position in an expanded competition, commencing in 1982.   

The NSWRL meeting endorsed a long-term plan aiming for 20 teams (with two 10 team conferences) at the senior level.  They also decided to develop and promote a strong 2nd division competition with two teams from that division to be promoted (to the senior competition) in the ensuing three to five years.  (As no first division teams would be relegated Clubs were happy to vote for the proposal.) 

Alongside the Illawarra Steelers, the Canberra Raiders joined the existing 12 teams for season 1982.  

Disaster strikes!

Less than two years after embarking on a plan to grow the competition from 12 teams to 20 teams, (at a meeting held on September 26th, 1983), two foundation clubs (Newtown and Western Suburbs) were facing exclusion, because, according to the NSWRL, they were ‘not financially sound'.  

Foundation club Newtown was forced out of the competition because it was unable to guarantee that contracted players would be paid in full or that other costs of running a first grade team could be met.   

Not since 1937 had any team been excluded and Newtown (through then CEO Frank Farrington) planned a rebirth in the south-west area of Sydney, centred on Campbelltown, as soon as 1985.  Negotiations were well under way to sell assets (in and around Newtown) to fund the proposed move and although 1984 would see a competition without the Jets, they would be back for 1985.  (Sadly, it never happened.)  

While many fans were watching progress with Newtown, the NSWRFL also moved to exclude Western Suburbs from the 1985 season.  Unlike Newtown, who accepted their fate and worked for a new start, Wests activated a ‘rear-guard' action taking on the league, in the courts.  When the dust settled, the NSW equity court ruled in favour of Wests and they were readmitted to a 13 team competition.     

Looking for Growth again (and again and again)

Just three years after attempting to cull the 13-team competition back to 12 (discussed above), the NSWRFL changed direction and moved to expand the league from 13 to 16, with the addition of the Brisbane Bronco's, Gold Coast-Tweed Heads Giants and after 80 years, the return of a team from Newcastle, the Knights.  A Newcastle team had played in seasons 1908 and 1909 but withdrew because of the travel needed to play in the Sydney based competition.  In 1908, they agreed or were forced (take your pick) to play every match in Sydney.  In 1909 it was 50/50 home and away and Newcastle finished 4th.  Despite the good result, logistics and cost forced them out of the Sydney league. 

The 12-team competition of the 60's, 70's and 80's headed into the 1990's with 16 competitors but the calls for growth would not be silenced.  The planning for more teams started the day after the announcement of teams,14, 15 and 16!

Seven years later in 1995, the Western Reds (based in Perth), the South Qld Crushers, (headquartered in Brisbane) the Auckland Warriors (NZ) and the North Qld Cowboys (Townsville) were admitted to an expanded 20 team competition.

The weekend of March 11/12, 1995, saw twenty (20) teams start the chase for the NSWRL premiership.  They were:

Western Suburbs Magpies 
South Sydney Rabbitohs 
South Queensland Crushers 
Newcastle Knights 
St George Dragons 
North Sydney Bears 
Illawarra Steelers 
Sydney Roosters 
Manly Sea Eagles 
Parramatta Eels 
Balmain Tigers 
Gold Coast Seagulls 
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 
North Queensland Cowboys 
Canberra Raiders 
Penrith Panthers 
Brisbane Broncos 
Western Reds 
Auckland Warriors 

(the eight teams in bold became the Super League in 1997 along with two new sides)

One year later with the "pay-tv" monster looking for exclusive content (Rugby League was seen as the pathway to signing subscribers in NSW and QLD),  a number of teams forfeited their first match - because as the clubs put It - upwards of 95% of their senior players had signed with the Pay TV "Super-League".  Just 8 teams fielded teams in Round 1, 1996.  Wests vs Illawarra, North Sydney vs Gold Coast, Easts vs Balmain, Manly vs South Sydney.  The courts became involved, and the "Super-League" players were ordered to fulfill their obligations for 1996 - BUT, planning for a new league starting in 1997 went on.  

Pay-TV owners and funders of Super League, News Ltd knew an 8-team comp was not viable and immediately set out to add two more teams.  That's when the madness set in.  The city of Newcastle already had one team but would now be the base of a 2nd team, the Hunter Mariners.   To make up the 10 team National competition the Adelaide Rams was created and new money started soaking up fringe first graders, to fill the two new rosters. Player wages boomed.   

In 1996, 620 Players participated in the 20-team competition won by Manly.  

In 1997, 285 Players pulled on the boots in the ‘Super League' and 366 Players were in the Australian Rugby League (ARL) competition.  (651 players in total!!) 

Peace was declared and after around $100 million had been thrown down the toilet. A combined competition with 20 teams was mandated for 1998, with jobs for (600 Players) 

The Hunter Mariners and the Western Reds were dropped, while all 12 ARL teams and 8 Super League teams were INVITED to play in the National Rugby League (NRL), which was a 50/50 joint venture between News Ltd and the Australian Rugby League.

Organising the NRL for 1999 onwards.  

As part of the "peace deal" a team based in Melbourne would be part of the 1999 competition and the competition would be reduced to 16, using financial inducements and a big axe.   

The Adelaide Rams and Perth Reds were disbanded, and with them went the fantasy of a National Rugby League competition. The South-Qld Crushers admitted in 1995, were also thrown on the scrap-heap.

As part of the 1997 "treaty", another team, the Melbourne Storm was born and although there was no history of community support for Rugby League in Victoria, the team would be funded and maintained (by News Ltd) to provide evidence that an elite team, given time and money, can grow its own grass roots.  After all, the city of Melbourne was the 2nd largest population centre, while Sydney the biggest - was the home of Rugby League in Australia and it supported 10 teams.   

Unlike any other newly admitted team in league history, Melbourne was gifted a budget equal to their competitors and got first pick, from the Perth, Adelaide and Mariners surplus players. Twenty-two years later, Melbourne is (not surprisingly some would say) the most successful team in history.

The Summary (Money really does Matter)

In 1947, 1967, 1982, 1988 and 1995 new teams were admitted to the NSWRL competition but they were not coddled financially,  they had to grow at their own speed to achieve results.

The 1947 teams Manly (1972) and Parramatta (1981) took 25 and 34 years respectively to win their first Premiership.                                                                                 

The 1967 teams Penrith (1991) and Cronulla (2016) took 21 and 50 years to win theirs.                   

The 1982 teams Illawarra and Canberra (1989) had different trajectories and outcomes. Amazingly, Canberra won their first Premiership after just 7 years. Illawarra made the "finals" just twice in 16 years and were merged, subsumed, taken over by (choose your own adjective) by 'big brother' St George as part of the "financial peace treaty" after the 1997 "war".  Many would argue that Illawarra was never really given the time and resources needed to develop into a winning elite sporting team.                                                                                           

The 1988 teams, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Newcastle would be at the centre of Rugby League politics and finance for all of their first two decades. Two of them (Brisbane and Newcastle) survived the war (even if Newcastle had a near death experience along the way) and the Gold Coast would be killed off in 1999, then reborn in 2007.)      

Brisbane (1992) won their first Premiership in their 5th season. They have qualified for the finals, in 28 of their 32 seasons, winning the competition 6 times.  Brisbane's results are evidence of the benefit of being the only team in a city of 2 million, that loves Rugby League and having owners with deep pockets.                              

Of the four 1995 teams, the Western Reds (Perth) and the South Qld Crushers, (Brisbane) would not survive into the new competition.    

The North Qld Cowboys took 20 years to win their first premiership (2015). The NZ Warriors (NZ) have played finals in 7 seasons,  but have no silver wear in the cupboard.  

Conclusion

‘The Dolphins' will succeed because, like Melbourne and Brisbane, they will be a competitive NRL team from day one.  They have been handed an equal share of funding courtesy of News Ltd / Foxtel and have decades in the QRL competition behind them.

The men and women who sat around the ‘boardrooms' of Manly, Parramatta, Penrith, Cronulla, Canberra, Illawarra, and Newcastle would be staggered to learn how Brisbane, Melbourne and now Redcliffe were welcomed into the elite rugby league competition.