Australia’s NRL history is a long and colourful one. Born from the origins of rugby union, which is still played in Australia to this day, The Australian Rugby League started following a trend from England who initially developed their Rugby League in 1895.
Where did rugby league start in Australia?
The formation of the Rugby League in Australia took place in New South Wales in 1907. A big part of rugby league’s early popularity was attributed to Australian rugby union player, Herbert Henry “Dally” Messenger. Dally played for various teams under the rugby union code and was a star player, attracting big crowds. When he signed on to the rugby league code in 1907, it was a move which is now considered to have been vital to the formation of the game, and a reason for the early uptake of the new sport.
Over the years, rugby league became the premier sport of NSW and Queensland and its popularity continued to spread across Australia and further afield. The more exciting take on game play attracted large crowds, making more money, which stimulated an early influx of working-class players with offers of injury benefits and better overall pay than rugby union.
External influences in NRL history
The NSW Rugby League was the only major Australian rugby competition from 1908 to 1994. The introduction of pay TV in Australia and increased interest by media organisations created a tumultuous time for rugby league, culminating in what is known as the Super League War. The Australian Rugby League and the Super League were vying for who had control of professional league rugby and its broadcasting rights. The two leagues ultimately united and created the National Rugby League that we know today. The first season of the NRL in 1998 comprised twenty teams; 19 of the left over ARL and Super League teams plus the Melbourne Storm, who were newly formed.
Rationalisation and mergers
The rationalisation process was a big part of early NRL history which went on between 1998 – 2002. There was an agreement between the ARL and Newscorp that there would be only 14 teams in the 2000 season causing the merger of some original NRL teams. The St George Dragons and the Illawarra Steelers became the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Wests Tigers formed in 1999 from Balmain and Western Suburbs teams. The South Sydney Rabbitohs, who were the first NSW Rugby League premiers in 1908, were dropped from the competition until their reinstatement in 2002. Though there have been many changes to the teams competing in the league, the past 15 years has seen the same line-up play out each season.
Since the inception of the NRL in 1997, the code has proven to be a successful part of Australia’s history of rugby league with a large fan base established early on and continuing until the present day, with an visible fan presence in participating team towns and cities on match days. There is a rich and vibrant online community for the NRL which is frequented by fans, and the league continues to break its own records for game attendance. The NRL currently accounts for 24 of the 114 seasons of rugby league which have been played in Australia and remains as one of the country’s most popular sports.