From Union to League: The Top Historic Moments of the NRL
Rugby is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most famous sports. Its history can be traced back to hundreds of years, with evidence of indigenous football being played even before the European settlement. While rugby can trace its roots to football, differences like the number of players in each team, the rules on how to score, and the protective gear worn during games spell the uniqueness of each sport. Rugby is a physical game, tackling opponents and initiating contact is not unheard of. Ever supportive of their local teams, Australians are very passionate about rugby whether they are watching the game on the field or on the television. Here are the top historic moments of the NRL that made it the prime league in Australian rugby.
1. Formation of the First Club in 1863
The first rugby club was formed in 1863 at Sydney University. The original members played with visiting crews of British warships or just among themselves. They adhered to their own code based on the story of William Webb Ellis, an English student who was believed to have started rugby. Ellis was said to have become bored with soccer that he decided to pick the ball and run across the field, thus starting the distinctive act we see in rugby today. It was in 1870 when the Sydney University Club faced its first real match, a game versus the Wallaroo Club. The games are more physical and much rougher than what we know today. There were 20 players on each team and many forwards that will fall on top of each other, including the ball. Resin and eucalyptus oil were also permitted to be used on hands, giving birth to the common method of halting the player carrying the ball of putting the defender’s hand on his face. The brutality of the sport and the expansion of teams led to the formation of the first governing body of rugby a decade later.
2. The First Union in 1874
The Southern Rugby Union is the first controlling body of rugby. It was established in 1874 when there were enough clubs formed that competition was made feasible. In the same year, the Sydney Metropolitan competition was established and the first game was held the following year. Most players of the clubs were familiar with the rugby and Australian football codes, so matches were usually held under either or both of the codes. In 1882, NSW hosted a game versus players form four Queensland clubs. This marked the first inter-colonial match, a historic moment for Australian rugby. This resulted in the formation of the Northern Rugby Union in 1883 and the Melbourne Rugby union in 1888. Rugby became so popular that many schools took it up more often than other sports despite its high physicality. Despite the efforts of the Union to control the game by implementing rules, it was still not surprising to hear players bleeding or being punched during games.
3. The NSW Rugby Football League of 1907
At the turn of the century, rugby players were getting angsty. They were not contented with the Union’s amateur stand of not paying the players. There were also concerns about getting insurance for players who suffer injuries during the game. The visit of a professional rugby team from New Zealand who was supported by a local entrepreneur turned out to be the catalyst for this breakaway. In August of 1907, a group of Union players met at Sydney to discuss the formation of the New South Wales Rugby Football League. The key supporters to the League were prominent businessmen, sports champions and politicians, all lending their support to make the new group more credible. The first League matches were played in 1908 with nine clubs in the competition. At the end of the season, the Australian Kangaroos was formed, a representative club that would compete in an English tour. It was a financial loss for the club, but nevertheless a turning point in the history of NRL in Australia.
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4. Wallabies vs Kangaroos in 1909
It was inevitable that the clash between the two codes of rugby would happen soon. It was in 1909 when the Wallabies, the representative team from the Rugby Union, played against the Kangaroos. Rugby fans trooped to see the battle, with the Wallabies being the favourite as they have just come off a successful tour as opposed to the Kangaroos who lost heavily in their own matches abroad. The series of four matches ended in a tie, with both teams getting 2 wins. However, the Kangaroos turned out to be the bigger winner. Many players from the Union transferred to the League. The defection was largely caused by the opportunity to play while being paid, a code that was still being rejected by the Union. This led to the infusion of more talents to the League. Despite the challenges it faced during the first 2 years, the League expanded with the growth of new clubs and increased interstate and international matches. The clash of the two codes is one of the top historic moments of the NRL as it solidified the League’s stand in rugby history.
5. The Bravery of John Sattler in 1970
On September 19, 1970, South Sydney Rabbitohs team captain John Sattler stood out to be the best leader his team could ever ask for. In a brutal moment of the game, John Bucknall of the Manly Sea Eagles punched Sattler, breaking his jaw in three places. Forcing through the injury, he asked teammates to hold him steady so that the opponent will not notice that he is hurt. Despite the excruciating pain, Sattler still managed to make 20 tackles and touch the ball several more times. After many attempts by his coach and his teammates to retire to the bench, he rested on the 77th-minute mark, the moment his team won the Grand Final in a 23-12 victory. The heroics of Sattler battling through an injury to lead his team to the premiership will forever be remembered by the Rabbitohs faithful.
6. Steve Jackson Delivers Off the Bench in 1989
While the Balmain Tigers were resting, the Canberra Raiders were playing sudden-death matches every week. It was expected that the Tigers will breeze through the premiership, but the Raiders had pulled off an exciting move at the last minute to secure the 1989 finals. With the Tigers leading 12-2 at halftime, Canberra had to seriously regroup during the break. They came out a little more composed and trailed throughout the second half until they levelled the score at the last two-minute mark. Chris O’Sullivan delivered a field goal then, giving the lead to the Raiders 15-14. Steve Jackson was coming off the bench, the last man chosen for the Canberra team. But with three minutes left in the game, he found himself with the ball. Teammate Meninga was tackled by the Tigers’ Brasher. Jackson held onto the ball and ran for his life, averted defenders and tackled four more, before making reaching his arm over the try line. This gave Canberra a 19-14 lead which they will never give up. The grand final marked the first time a team won the premiership from fourth place, a stunning come-from-behind victory that deserves a place in the history of the NRL.
7. Formation of the NRL in 1998
For the last decades, several leagues that had different member-clubs have been running premierships parallel to each other. The NSWRL has been running the major rugby league competitions since its first games of 1908. After the Super League war of the 1990s, the National Rugby League was formed. The “war” was brought about by the attention that rugby drew from advertisers because of pay television. In what started out as a media and advertising conflict, the rugby world was shaken. The expansion of the league with the inclusion of non-Sydney teams created the need to have a national league, thus the establishment of the NRL. Sixteen teams, fifteen of which are based in Australia and one in New Zealand, vie for the Telstra Premiership. The professional league is considered to be the highest viewed rugby league competition in the world, with the grand final attracting thousands of spectators and drawing in millions in television views.
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8. The Comeback of Storm vs Dragons in 1999
In what is to be a rather unpleasant reminder of how brutal rugby could be, we take a look at the historic comeback of the Melbourne Storm against the St. George Illawara Dragons in 1999. The Dragons were leading 14-0 at halftime and all points were leading to a St. George victory. The turning point of the game was when Anthony Mundine made a successful try. The storm quickly recovered from the huge deficit after Mundine’s success, getting to 18-14 towards the end. At the 77-minute mark, Jamie Ainscough of the Dragons knocked Storm Craig Smith unconscious. This was caught by the referee and a penalty try was given to Melbourne. The try was successfully converted, bringing the storm the premiership with a 20-18 victory over the stunned Dragons.
9. The Comeback of the Roosters vs the Sea Eagles in 2013
The 2013 finals between the Sydney Roosters and the Manly Sea Eagles is one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Australian NRL. Manly was poised to win the game with a lead of 18-8. However, the tables were turned with only 25 minutes left in the game. The Roosters made a stunning comeback capped off with a Michael Jennings score in the last minutes of the game. They will eventually win the premiership, the club’s first one since 2002, with a score of 26-18. The final was everything that a fan could ask for. It was a close game, there was tension from the high physicality of the game, high athleticism from the players as seen in the game quality, a little drama from the player contracts that are about to end with the season, and even a little controversy sparked from what are seemingly questionable calls or non-calls from the referees. Overall, this is one of the most exciting games of rugby that fans will surely remember for a long time.
10. The First Final Draw in 2015
In what is one of rugby’s greatest finals, the match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos will go down in history as the first final that ends in a draw. The game was tight, to say the least. Both Brisbane and Queensland were brilliant at the defensive end. There were lead changes even during the first half and it could not be predicted who will win at the end. Failed attempts from both teams put the score at 16-all at the end of regulation. During the extra period, North Queensland was able to go on the offensive. The Broncos were brutal on their defence and it was only in the fifth tackle that Johnathan Thurston was able to slot the field goal, making up for his previous missed conversion. The Cowboys will then win by only a margin of one, 17-16, marking the first Grand Final that was decided by the Golden Point.
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Rugby has a long and rich history in Australia. With influences from different games and played under different codes, it is no surprise that the game is as intricate as the rules and regulations that it follows. The top historic moments of the NRL describe a legacy of challenges, innovation, trials, and victories. Although the game is famous for its physicality and some seasons are rife with controversies, rugby is a well-loved sport for the athleticism and passion showed by its players and supporters. The NRL will continue to be the leader in innovating the game, raising professional rugby to greater heights in the years to come.