Wikipedia - National Rugby League

The National Rugby League (NRL), formed in 1998, is the pre-eminent rugby league club competition in Australia and New Zealand. It contains some clubs from the original Sydney club rugby league competition, which had been running continuously since 1908. A single team from New Zealand also plays in the league. The NRL formed in the aftermath of the 1990s' Super League war as a joint partnership between the Australian Rugby League (ARL) and media giant News Corporation–controlled Super League, after both organisations ran premierships parallel to each other in 1997. This partnership was dissolved in February 2012, with control of the NRL going solely to the re-constituted ARL, which was re-structured with an independent board of directors and renamed as the Australian Rugby League Commission.

NRL matches are played in Australia and New Zealand from March to October. The season culminates in the premiership-deciding game, the NRL Grand Final, traditionally one of Australia's most popular sporting events. In addition, the NRL premiers also play in the World Club Challenge against the champions of the Super League competition. The reigning premiers are the Penrith Panthers, having won their third premiership at the conclusion of the 2021 season.

History

Origin and establishment

The New South Wales Rugby League ran the major rugby league competition of New South Wales from its inception in 1908 until 1994. Following the introduction of a new format for interstate rugby league, the State of Origin series in 1980, the decade of the 1980s brought about expansion of the NSWRL premiership, with the introduction of commercial sponsorship, the Winfield Cup, and the addition of non-Sydney-based teams, Canberra and Illawarra in 1982. Although this move brought more interest in the competition statewide in New South Wales, it would spell the beginning of the demise of some of the traditional Sydney-based clubs as well as having a negative effect on the Brisbane Rugby League premiership. Following the 1983 season, Sydney foundation club Newtown Jets were ultimately forced to withdraw from the competition because of financial difficulties.

Further expansion of the league followed in 1988, with another three teams based outside Sydney introduced to the competition; the Newcastle Knights and the first two Queensland teams, the Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast-Tweed Giants. The Brisbane and Newcastle sides proved to be successful and popular and paved the way towards a push for a truly national competition. This was attempted in 1995 with control of the premiership passing from the NSWRFL to the Australian Rugby League (ARL), who invited four more teams from outside NSW to participate in 1995. Ultimately this competition failed, but in its demise the National Rugby League was born, incorporating the traditional Sydney clubs, successfully coercing the Sydney market to follow the newly created national competition.

The prospect of a truly national rugby league competition in addition to the introduction of pay television in Australia attracted the attention of global media organisation, News Corporation, and it followed that professional rugby league was shaken to its very foundations in the mid-1990s with the advent of the Super League war. Initially a conflict over broadcasting rights, it became a dispute as to who controlled the sport and which traditional clubs would survive into the new national era, as News Limited formed their own Super League and admitted some former ARL clubs, poaching players from the original ARL league with high salaries. With twenty-two teams of highly varying quality playing in two competitions that year, crowd attendances and corporate sponsorships were spread very thinly, and many teams found themselves in financial difficulty. The ARL undertook moves to invite the traditional clubs that had moved to the Super League competition back into a re-unified competition. Following a period of negotiation with News Corporation, on 23 September 1997 the ARL announced that it was forming a new company to conduct the competition in 1998. On 7 October News' Manaaki Ranginui announced that he was confident that there would be a single competition in 1998. 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. 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 inaugural National Rugby League (NRL) season of 1998 would have 20 teams competing, 19 remaining Super League and ARL teams plus the Melbourne Storm, who were created by Super League for their 1998 season. Clubs on both sides of the war were shut down. Super League decided to close the Hunter Mariners and the financially ruined Perth Reds, who were $10 million 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.[] Additionally, at the end of 1998 the NRL decided to close down former Super League club, the Adelaide Rams and former ARL club, the Gold Coast Chargers, despite the Gold Coast franchise being one of the few clubs to make a profit during the Super League war.[]

1998–2002: Rationalisation

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 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 defeat the newly created 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 created the ill-fated Northern Eagles. 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 12 November 2000 about 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 in 2002 and then again in 2011, losing both encounters to the Sydney Roosters and the re-instated Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, respectively.

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.

In 2001 the NRL Grand Final started to be played on Sunday nights, a shift from the traditional Sunday afternoon slot used for over a decade prior.

2003–2010: Record popularity, expansion and centenary

The 2003 season was widely regarded as the most successful since the beginning of the National Rugby League in 1998. The Manly Warringah Rugby League Football Club took over the NRL licence from the Northern Eagles franchise, after the financial bankruptcy of the North Sydney faction made the joint-venture untenable. The Penrith Panthers rose from the bottom of the table to win the Premiership, while the Brisbane club returned to Suncorp Stadium 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.

Crowd average records were broken in 2003, 2004 and 2005. 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. The average attendance record remained until 2010. From 2004 to 2005, there was a 39% increase in sponsorship, a 41% increase in merchandise royalties, and a 12% increase in playing participation. 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 2004, Canterbury-Bankstown put a year of turmoil and disgrace at the aftermath of the alleged rape scandal to hold aloft the NRL trophy and give the club their first premiership since 1995. In 2005, a record national audience of 4.1 million tuned in to watch the grand final between the Wests Tigers and the North Queensland Cowboys.

The 2006 NRL Grand Final was 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 "heartland" of the NRL) contested the grand final for the first time. In the city of Melbourne, whose team was playing in their second grand final, the game's television ratings were higher than in Sydney where the game was played. Crowds were down on 2005, however were better than any other year prior to that.

In its tenth season the NRL returned to having a club based on the Gold Coast, Queensland with the inclusion of the Gold Coast Titans. The Titans were the first professional sporting team to occupy the Gold Coast since 1998, when the Gold Coast Chargers were one of the teams removed during the NRL's rationalisation process between the end of the Super League war and the 2000 season.

The 2007 season saw the return of Monday Night Football and the inclusion of two Friday night games. Both of which turned out to be ratings successes. Another change from the previous seasons was 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. That system was not used however, with teams were given just a single bye during the year, grouped in periods that will assist clubs around representative fixtures.

The opening round saw two matches at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, the first featuring reigning champions Brisbane against fellow Queensland side North Queensland, while the second match featured the new club, the Gold Coast playing St. George Illawarra. The weather during the middle of the season was less than ideal, with cyclonic conditions severely affecting many NRL games played in Sydney and Newcastle.

The 2007 finals series saw the South Sydney Rabbitohs return to finals football for the first time in decades. The season culminated on 30 September 2007, with the Grand Final contested between Manly and Melbourne. Melbourne won the title 34–8 and the Grand Final achieved the honour of being the most watched television show in Australia in 2007.

Throughout 2008, the NRL celebrated 100 years since rugby league was introduced into Australia, with several initiatives to recognise the important milestone, including an extensive marketing campaign called the 'Centenary of Rugby League'. The competition began in March, with a special Heritage round held in mid-April, coinciding with the first round of competition played in 1908.

At a Gala event on 17 April 2008 the Team of the Century was announced, being:

For the second year in a row, the Grand Final was played between the Melbourne Storm and the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, in the NRL's first ever twilight decider. The Manly club took out the premiership game 40–0, setting the record for the highest winning margin in a Grand Final (although the club formerly known as St. George Dragons were beaten 38–0 in 1975 and using the modern point scale of 4-point tries, this would amount to 46–0.) Furthermore, it was the first time a team had been kept scoreless in a Grand Final since 1978.

The 2009 season marked the beginning of the second century of rugby league in Australia. The Grand Final that year was played between the Parramatta Eels and once again Melbourne Storm. Melbourne defeated Parramatta 23 – 16 to win the premiership to make it two premierships out of the last four grand finals for the Melbourne side.

In 2010 the Inaugural All Stars Match was held on 13 February, in conjunction with the Sorry Day reconciliation anniversary to promote rugby league's long association and involvement with the Aboriginal community. The first match saw the Indigenous All Stars beat the NRL All Stars 16–12. The success of this event has seen it become a recurring fixture on the rugby league calendar with Queensland awarded the hosting rights for the next three years.

The 29th State of Origin series was also played featuring the world's first live free-to-air 3D TV broadcast. Queensland later made further history by winning an unprecedented fifth series in a row, and winning the 2010 series by a scoreline of 3–0, their first Origin whitewash since 1995.

In 2010 the NRL set a record total season average attendance of 17,367 per game and a record total season aggregate attendance of 3,490,778.

During the 2010 finals series, the second qualifying match between the Wests Tigers and Sydney Roosters became the first McIntyre System final to go into extra time, with the One Hundred Minute Epic described in media circles as one of the greatest of the modern era.

The 2010 Grand Final was played between the St. George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters. St. George Illawarra won 32–8. This was the first premiership won by the club in its eleven-year existence and the first time in 31 years for the St. George part of the joint venture.

2010–present: Establishment of the ARLC

After several years of preparation and build up, on 14 December 2010 the Australian Rugby League and News Corporation agreed upon a constitutional framework paving the way for the establishment of a new and independent commission to govern the sport in Australia. The negotiations of such a framework became drawn out over establishing details, primarily of sponsorship, media rights, funding of state bodies, funding of the Melbourne Storm, debate over News Ltd private ownership of clubs, and also of individual appointments to the new body. The 2011 Grand Final was contested between the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the New Zealand Warriors. This was the second grand final involving the New Zealand Warriors. Manly recorded a 24–10 win claiming their second premiership under head coach Des Hasler.

On 10 February 2012, the independent commission, known as the Australian Rugby League Commission assumed control of all levels of the game, replacing former state based boards and assuming full control of the NRL from the NRL partnership (comprising the previous ARL board and News Limited). The current Chairman is Peter V'landys AM. The 2012 Grand Final involved the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and the Melbourne Storm, this was the first time since 2008 that the first and second placed teams contested the Grand Final. The Melbourne Storm recorded a 14–4 victory thus achieving their second premiership and claiming some vengeance for the stripped premierships.

The 2013 season saw the resurgence of foundation clubs the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs with both clubs finishing first and second place respectively. The NRL was also left with a black eye after the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks were caught using performance-enhancing substances by ASADA dating back to 2011. The 2013 Grand Final was played between the Sydney Roosters and the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles with the Roosters recording a 26–18 victory.

The 2014 season started with the introduction of the Auckland Nines and was marred by the handing down of a million dollar fine to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks for their role in the ASADA scandal while head coach Shane Flanagan was suspended for the entirety of the 2014 season. The 2014 Grand Final was contested by the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. This was South Sydney's first grand final appearance since 1971. South Sydney would break their 43-year premiership drought with a 30–6 victory.

The 2015 season saw the return of the Queensland juggernauts, The North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos who would finish inside the top four and contest the 2015 Grand Final. The 2015 Grand Final is considered by many to be the greatest grand final of all time as a high intensity match ended in dramatic circumstances when North Queensland scored as the full-time siren sounded. Johnathan Thurston would miss the conversion from the sideline as the ball hit the post thus sending the match into golden point, the first golden point grand final. Ben Hunt would drop the ball on the kick-off and hand the North Queensland side the chance to win which was converted as Johnathan Thurston successfully kicked a field goal to win the match 17–16.

The 2016 season saw the Melbourne Storm return to the minor premiership position while the Canberra Raiders returned to the top four for the first time since the 2003. The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and reigning premiers North Queensland would fill out the top four. The season continued a trend of the minor premiership not being decided to the final round, the fourth consecutive year. The 2016 Grand Final was contested between the Melbourne Storm and the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, it was the Cronulla's fourth grand final appearance while it was the seventh for the Melbourne club. The match was a tight affair and was not settled until after the siren had sounded. The Cronulla-Sutherland claimed their first premiership ending a famous 49-year drought by a score of 14–12.

Following the success generated by the 2017 Women's Rugby League World Cup, a national women's league was established, and the first season commenced in September 2018 comprising four clubs aligned to existing NRL clubs.

Coronavirus impact

On 22 March 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NRL became one of the last major sports in the world to continue playing games. The other major Australian football code, the Australian Football League (AFL), announced suspension of their season on that day. AFL's decision came as the Australian federal government announced a ban on "non essential" travel and closing of pubs, clubs and other venues. AFL leaders commented "As a community and as a code we all need to take the unprecedented and required actions to get through this together." However, the NRL announced it would be moving forward with their season. The decision prompted a wave of condemnation online, including from Australian personalities and sport people. The following day after Queensland closed its borders, the NRL announced that the season would have to be suspended indefinitely. It has been said that some teams may not survive this period without income, as many have described it as a financial catastrophe.

On 9 April 2020, ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce announced the NRL would return on May 28. The announcement came under heavy criticism from the Government of New South Wales and health officials, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying she had not approved a return. However, the NRL released documents signed by NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, showing approval for the NRL to continue without crowds. The competition ended up kicking off on that date, with the Parramatta Eels defeating the Brisbane Broncos 34–6 at Suncorp Stadium behind closed doors. The match drew the highest TV ratings for a regular season game since 2014.

Expansion in 2023

In October 2021, after months of speculation, the NRL and the ARLC announced that the competition would expand to 17 teams, with the admission of The Dolphins for the 2023 season. The Dolphins are based in the far northern-suburb of Redcliffe, near Brisbane.