Fifteen Years Of The NRL

By STEVE MASCORD

HAS it really been that long? If you haven’t read or heard anything about this being the 15th year of the NRL, don’t be too surprised.

When the National Rugby League was formed out of the ashes of the Super League War at the end of 1997, officials didn’t want it to seem like anything new. Quite the opposite – they wanted to focus on the old, on buying back the farm.

From early 1995 to the dual grand finals of 1997, rugby league was no longer a sport. It was a soap opera. Sports editors had no interest in the results of matches, attendance figures were routinely fudged, reserve graders earned astronomical wages and bitterness reigned.

In mid-1997, the ARL invited just half a dozen journos to Philip Street and outlined a company structure for a united competition, which they would invite News Limited to be part of. I was lucky enough to be one of those hacks – although as a football nut I was enjoying the flood of games provided by two leagues!

Everyone else, of course, hated it.

Under CEO Neil Whittaker, the NRL’s first aim was to win back those disaffected by the war. The historic vote to form the league was taken at the Sydney Football Stadium on December 19, 1997, with 36 delegates to four in favour. Perth, Hunter and South Queensland never made the starting line the following year.

But Super League had given us an oversupply of the shiny and new; the NRL, with the national colours of Australia and New Zealand in the emblem, was supposed to be familiar, comfortable – even old fashioned. To this day, the NRL pins its birth to 1908, not to 1998.

But here at Rugby League Week, we’ve not forgotten – that’s why we’re bringing you this week our 15 Years Of The NRL Celebration. The administration may be shy about its heritage but as we head into round three of the 2012 season, it is indeed in rude health.

The editor wanted this to be a summation of how much rugby league at the top level has changed since 1998. How much space do we have? When the competitions came together, Super League was considered to be faster, bubblegum football while the more physical ARL had given us a classic ’97 grand final between Newcastle and Manly.

Yet the Super League premiers, Brisbane, reigned supreme in a reunited competition. They beat North Queensland 58-4 and North Sydney 60-6 on the way to a 38-12 grand final win over Canterbury.

Since then we’ve seen wrestling take a hold – and arguably put the sport to sleep. There are signs its influence is now waning, chin straps aside. Golden Point extra time has come in, rule interpretations regarding the likes of the shoulder charge, shepherd and play-the-ball have changed, changed back and changed again. We’ve had stints of boring, one-out football, exhuberant ball movement but mostly the sport has occupied an entertaining space somewhere in between.

And we’ve seen what in 1998 would have been considered unthinkable – premierships stripped for salary cap cheating. The Storm’s punishment was undoubtedly the game’s biggest story since the Great Schism.

The first year of the NRL was the last for Illawarra and St George as standalone clubs. Think about this: the Steelers have now been gone for only four fewer years than they were ever around! North Sydney’s merger with Manly came in time for the second year of the NRL and lasted just three years, the Bears still waiting impatiently at the premiership gate.

Adelaide flogged Balmain at Hindmarsh Stadium in 1998 yet the latter survived a couple of years before merging with Western Suburbs while the former is now considered worthy of hosting just one exhibition game a year – which is back where we started in the early nineties. In fact, seven of the 20 teams we had that first year no longer exist in the same form, with Gold Coast thankfully back with us under a new nickname.

Jerseys have got tighter, stadium have got more comfortable, Monday Night Football has returned, players are better behaved but more suspicious of journalists. We’ve had Sonny Bill Williams defecting, John Hopoate bum-poking, players return from rugby union, many fewer drugs positives than most of us would have thought and – just recently – a serious betting scandal.

Despite predictions that the grand final would go on the road after the 1997 experiment in Brisbane, it’s stayed put in Sydney. The World Club Challenge has been revived, City-Country has survived, pre-season comps haven’t . Origin is as popular as it ever was. Half the teams in the league make the finals. We’ve got from Chumbawamba to Bon Jovi – a fair progression in the estimation of most people.

Having clawed ourselves back from oblivion, we now stand overlooking an endless horizon of possibility. It’s been an interesting decade and a half; never dull.

Do you now wish you still had mementos from that first season – an old jersey, yearbook or set of footy cards?

Then don’t go tossing away this magazine when you’re finished reading it. We reckon there’ll be even more to cover when we do it again in 2027.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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