History of rugby league

From Academic Kids

The history of rugby league began with the schism of 1895 in the sport of rugby football. There are now two forms of "rugby": rugby league and rugby union, which although similar, have different laws and governing bodies. The disagreement that lead to the split was over the issue of professionalism, and first came to a head in northern England in the late nineteenth century.

This article mainly covers the history of the sport of rugby league from this schism. For information on the history and evolution of rugby football prior to this split see also football and the history of rugby union.


Before the schism

Although many forms of football had been played across the world, it was only during the second half of the nineteenth century that these games began to be codified. It was in 1871 that English clubs playing the version of football associated with Rugby School (which involved much more handling of the ball than Association Football), met to form the Rugby Football Union. Many new clubs were formed, and it was in the northern English counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire that the game really took hold. Here rugby was largely a working man’s game, whilst the southern clubs were largely middle-class.

Rugby also spread to Australia and New Zealand, especially the cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland. Here too there was a clear divide between the working- and middle-class players.

Missing image
A cartoon lampooning the divide in rugby. The caricatures are of Rev. Frank Marshall, an arch-opponent of broken-time payments, and James Miller, a long-time opponent of Marshall. The caption underneath reads:
Marshall: "Oh, fie, go away naughty boy, I don't play with boys who can’t afford to take a holiday for football any day they like!"
Miller: "Yes, that’s just you to a T; you’d make it so that no lad whose father wasn’t a millionaire could play at all in a really good team. For my part I see no reason why the men who make the money shouldn’t have a share in the spending of it."

The strength of support for the rugby grew over the following years, and large paying crowds were attracted to major matches, particular in Yorkshire, where matches in the Yorkshire Cup (T’owd Tin Pot) soon became major events. England teams of the era were dominated by Yorkshire and Lancashire players. However these players were forbidden to earn any of the spoils of this newly-rich game. Predominantly working-class teams found it difficult to play to their full potential because in many cases player recreational time was limited by the need to earn a wage. Even if they could take time off to play regularly, training time was often curtailed. A further limit on the playing ability of working class-teams was the fact that rugby is a contact sport, hence working-class players had to be careful how hard they played. If injured, they had to pay their own medical bills and possibly take time off work, which for a man earning a weekly wage could easily lead to financial hardship.

The schism in Great Britain

In 1892, charges of professionalism were laid against clubs in Bradford and Leeds, both in Yorkshire, after they compensated players for missing work. This was despite the fact that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was allowing other players to be paid, such as the 1888 England team that toured Australia, or the account of Harry Hamill of his payments to represent New South Wales (NSW) against England in 1904.

In 1893, Yorkshire clubs complained that southern clubs were over-represented on the RFU committee and that committee meeting were held in London at times which made it difficult for northern members to attend. By implication they were arguing that this effected the RFU's decisions on the issue of "broken time" payments to the detriment of northern clubs who made up the majority of English rugby clubs. Payment for broken time was a proposal put forward by Yorkshire clubs that would allow players to be receive up to six shillings when they missed work due to match commitments. The idea was voted down by the RFU, and widespread suspensions of northern clubs and players began.

On August 29, 1895 representatives of the northern clubs met in the George Hotel, Huddersfield to form the "Northern Rugby Football Union" (usually termed Northern Union or NU), a professional body. The separate Lancashire and Yorkshire competitions of the NRFU merged in 1901, forming the Northern Rugby League, the first time the name rugby league was used officially. The NRFU became the Rugby Football League in 1922.

It is noteworthy that the professional Football League was formed in 1888, comprising 12 soccer clubs from northern England. This may have inspired the northern rugby officials to form their own professional league.

The rugby union authorities took drastic action, issuing sanctions against clubs and players and officials involved in the new organisation. This extended even to amateurs who played with or against Northern Union sides. Consequentially, northern clubs that existed purely for social and recreational rugby began to affiliate to the Northern Union, whilst retaining amateur status. By 1904 the new body had more clubs affiliated to it than the RFU.

The early years

Missing image
The first ever Challenge Cup Final, 1897: Batley(l) vs St Helens(r)

Initially the Northern Union continued to play under rugby union laws. The first minor change (awarding a penalty for a deliberate knock-on) was introduced during the first season of the game. Other new laws were gradually introduced until, by the arrival of the All Golds in 1907, the major differences between the games had been introduced. Summarised, these major difference were:

  • Thirteen players per team (as opposed to fifteen in union, the two "missing" are the flankers)
  • The "play the ball" (heeling the ball back after a tackle) rather than rucking and mauling
  • The elimination of the line out
  • A slightly different scoring

See: Rugby league for more on the current game.

During this period the Northern Union began to develop the British game's major tournaments. The league championship, after initially being played as one competition, was split into two sections, the Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, with only a limited number of inter-county games. This necessitated a play-off structure to determine the overall champions. A nationwide cup, the Challenge Cup was introduced, and soon became the biggest draw in the sport. Finally, in 1905, the Yorkshire and Lancashire Cups were introduced, thus completing a structure that was to last until the sixties. There were therefore four trophies on offer to any one club, and the "Holy Grail" was to win "All Four Cups".

As it became obvious that two codes of rugby were going to co-exist for the foreseeable future, those interested in the game needed to be able to distinguish between them. It became customary to describe those teams affiliated to the NU as 'playing in the league' hence "rugby league" while those which remained affiliated to the RFU (who did not play in a league) as playing "rugby union".


New Zealand

In 1905, as New Zealand's rugby union team (the All Blacks), toured Britain, they witnessed first-hand the growing popularity of the Northern Union games. In 1906, All Black George William Smith, while on his way home, met an Australian entrepreneur, James J. Giltinan to discuss the potential of professional rugby in Australasia.

In the meantime, a less-well known New Zealand rugby union player, Albert Henry Baskerville (or Baskiville), was already about to recruit players for a group of players for a professional tour of Great Britain. It is believed that Baskerville first became aware of the profits to be made from such a venture while he was working at the Wellington Post Office in 1906: a colleague had a coughing fit and dropped a British newspaper. Baskerville picked it up and noticed a report about a Northern Union match that over 40,000 people had attended. Baskerville wrote to the NRFU asking if they would host a New Zealand touring party. George Smith learned of Baskerville's activities and they joined forces to recruit a team.

Professional rugby begins in Australia

In Australia, especially in the rugby stronghold of Sydney, issues of class and professionalism were beginnning to cause friction. Rumours and claims of "shamateurism" in rugby union were circulating. The growing tension was exacerbated by an incident in 1907, when a working class player, Alick Burdon, broke his arm while playing for the New South Wales team, and received no compensation for his time off work.

George Smith cabled a friend in Sydney to enquire whether there might be any support for a tour by his New Zealand professional team. Word reached Giltinan, who took great interest. A meeting was held at Bateman's Crystal Hotel in Sydney on August 8, 1907, to organise professional rugby in Australia. Giltinan, Burdon and the great test cricketer Victor Trumper were among those who attended. The meeting resolved that a "New South Wales Rugby League" (NSWRL) should be formed, to play the Northern Union rules. This was the first time that the name "rugby league" was used by an organising body. Giltinan announced that he had invited Baskerville's team to play three matches in Sydney. Players were soon recruited for the new game; despite the threat of immediate and lifetime expulsion from the rugby union. The NSWRL managed to recruit Herbert "Dally" Messenger, the most famous rugby player in Sydney at the time. The Australian press responded by dubbing the travelling New Zealand team "All Golds", a sardonic play on the nickname of the New Zealand rugby union team, and the supposedly "mercenary" nature of the new code.

The All Golds tour

When the All Golds stopped off in Australia, three games were played at the Sydney Showground, against the newly formed NSWRL team. These games were played under rugby union laws, as no copies of the Northern Union laws were available. Baskerville was greatly impressed by Dally Messenger, and persuaded him to join the touring party. For this reason, the All Golds are sometimes known as Australasia, rather than New Zealand.

The All Golds arrived in Britain late in 1907 having never even seen a match played under the new Northern Union laws. They undertook a week's intensive coaching in Leeds to bring them up to speed, and after playing a number of touring matches the first true rugby league test was played, with the team went down 8-9 to Wales in Aberdare on 1st January 1908. The All Golds gained revenge however, defeating the full Great Britain side in two of the three test matches, which were played at Leeds, Chelsea and Cheltenham; a surprising choice of venues given rugby league's northern base. The tour was a great success, and gave a much needed boost to the game in Britain, which was struggling financially against the rise of association football.


The All Gold tour also served to kick start the game in the Australian state of Queensland, the great rival of NSW in rugby union. On May 16, 1908,the returning New Zealanders played a hastily assembled Queensland team in Brisbane. Observers of the new game were shocked when Albert Baskerville fell ill in Brisbane and died of pneumonia. (Test series between Great Britain and New Zealand are played for the Baskerville Shield, named in his memory.)

A "Queensland Rugby Football Association" was founded, and in early July, informal club games were played in Brisbane. Later that month there were three representative games against NSW, and these acted as selection trials for a national team. The first game was also notable for a Queensland tackle which rendered one NSW player, Ed "Son" Fry, completely naked from the waist down — an event which did not stop him from scoring a try.

A Brisbane club championship began in 1909. By the 1920s the Queensland Rugby League had established itself as a force to rival the NSWRL.

Early setbacks for the game in New Zealand

Apart from the blow presented by the sudden and premature death of Baskerville, other difficulties would soon trouble the game in New Zealand. In some ways, the All Golds were too successful for the good of New Zealand rugby league, as many team members would soon accept lucrative contracts with British clubs. Baskerville's game would soon establish a strong following, especially in Auckland, but rugby union's strong grassroots organisation and finances in New Zealand — its "veiled professionalism" in the eyes of many observers at the time — meant that rugby league was unable to become quite as dominant there as in some regions of Australia and England.

Rugby League's "Ashes"

Also in 1908, the Australian rugby union team returned from a tour of the British Isles, for which the team had received three shillings a day, for "out-of-pocket" expenses. Thirteen of the players immediately joined rugby league teams. By the northern winter of 1908-09, an Australian touring party was headed for Great Britain, and the test series was dubbed "The Ashes" by the press, in imitation of The Ashes cricket matches, contested by Australia and England.

Later in 1909, when New Zealand toured Australia, the home team's jersey featured a kangaroo for the first time, giving them the enduring nickname of "The Kangaroos".

From 1910 to 1995

Rugby league before and during the First World War

The early years of the 20th century also saw attempts to establish the game in Wales, with several teams being formed in the principality. None of these ventures lasted long, however Wales remained a source of playing talent for rugby league. Over the years many hundreds of Welsh rugby union players "moved north" to the major English clubs, attracted by the opportunity to earn money playing rugby. (It was not until rugby union officially allowed professionalism, in the late 20th century that this supply of talent ceased.)

In Australasia, the game centred around local, regional or state-wide leagues, and there were no national competition in either country until late in the 20th century. In both Australia and New Zealand, club championships were based on one set of home and away matches leading to a play-off, rather than the multiplicity of trophies available to British clubs. Rugby league quickly took over from rugby union as the most popular form of football in New South Wales and Queensland. The rest of the country was already dominated by Australian rules football. The amateur code still held sway in New Zealand, although the emergence of rugby league meant that it was no longer unrivalled in popularity.

Sport in general suffered as a result the First World War, and rugby league was no exception. In Britain, the government discouraged all professional sports, and the major competitions were abandoned. In Australia, the situation was slightly less serious, and rugby league continued. The rugby union authorities opted to suspend play throughout the war, and this decision is often cited as one of the prime reasons for the traditional dominance of rugby league over rugby union in Australia.

Although the clubs continued to play, many of them were short of players due to the fighting. In 1917, Australia's first rugby league club, the Glebe "Dirty Reds" (founded on January 9, 1908), unleashed controversy when it fielded a player named Dan "Laddo" Davies. Local rivals Annandale protested that Davies lived within their designated recruiting area. Glebe were deducted two competition points and Davies received a lifetime ban. Many Glebe players already believed the NSWRL was biased against them and they went on strike; the league responded by suspending the first grade team until the following April. Davies returned to his native Newcastle, where his previous club, Western Suburbs — not to be confused with the Sydney club of the same name — sought to use him in the local league. They tried repeatedly to have Davies' suspension lifted, but the NSWRL refused. When Western Suburbs fielded him in a match the NSWRL disqualified most of the local officials for a year. Disgruntled Novocastrians formed a breakaway competition, which lasted until 1919. The fortunes of Glebe — both on the field and financially — did not improve greatly after the Davies affair, and it was expelled from the main NSWRL competition in 1929.

Internationally, the game had settled into a steady pattern of alternating tours, with either Australia or New Zealand visiting Britain once every two years, and Britain reciprocating in the southern hemisphere. The war had intervened, but the schedule was picked up again after hostilities ceased.

An increasing number of Australian and New Zealand players headed for the bigger pay packets on offer in England, many of them destined never to be seen again on the playing fields of their home countries.

The 1930s and early 1940s

For many years, the rugby union authorities had suspected that the French rugby union was abusing the idea of amateurism, and in the early thirties the French Rugby Union was suspended from playing against the other nations. Looking round for an alternative, many French players turned to rugby league, which soon became the dominant game in France, particularly in the south west of the country. The arrival of a French team on the international scene allowed more variety in the touring pattern, and also for the introduction of a European Championship.

During the Second World War, the British government took a more benign view of professional sports, viewing them as a vital aid to public morale. Although normal leagues were suspended, a War Emergency League was established, with clubs playing separate Yorkshire and Lancashire sections to reduce the need for travel. This period also saw a temporary relaxation of the regulations prohibiting rugby union players from contact with rugby league. In an extraordinary development a team representing rugby league met a rugby union equivalent in two matches, held to raise money for the Red Cross. Both games were held under rugby union rules; both were won by the rugby league side.

In Australia, the war years produced large crowds, and financially at least, the sport did not suffer the hardships endured during the First World War. Nonetheless, the loss of many young men in fighting undoubtedly weakened the talent pool available.

The defeat of France had serious implications for rugby league. The French rugby union authorities worked with the collaborating Vichy regime to re-establish the dominance of their sport; rugby league was banned and many players and officials of the sport were punished. All of the assets of the rugby league and its clubs were handed over to the Union.

The consequences of this action reverberate to this day; the assets were never returned, and although the ban on rugby league was lifted, it was prevented from calling itself rugby until the mid-eighties, having to use the name Jeu de Treize (Game of Thirteen, in reference to the number of player in a rugby league side).

The late 1940s and 1950s

The rules of the sport had continued to evolve, and until the forties there was no world governing body to oversee this and ensure consistency. Negotiations between the respective governing bodies were required to fix rules to be used for tours, though generally the other nations took their lead from the British authorities.

This situation endured until 1948, when at the instigation of the French, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) was formed at a meeting Bordeaux. The French were also the driving force behind the staging of the first Rugby League World Cup. This competition has been held intermittently since then, in a variety of formats. Unlike many other sports the World Cup has never really been the pinnacle of international game, that honour falling to international test series such as the Ashes.

All spectator sports in the United Kingdom experienced a surge in interest in the years following the end of World War II. Rugby league was no different, and large crowds came to be expected as the norm for a period of around 20 years. The surge in public interest in the game was demonstrated by the 1954 Challenge Cup Final Replay between Halifax and Warrington, held at Odsal Stadium, Bradford on Wednesday, 5th May , 1954. The officially recorded attendance was at 102,575, a record for a single match of rugby league that still stands. It is estimated that a further 20,000 spectators were present, as many got in free after a section of fencing collapsed. For the record, Warrington beat Halifax 8-4.

The total crowds for the British season hit a record in 1949-50, when over 6.8 million paying customers attended all matches. This period also saw growth in crowds in Australia, New Zealand and France. This was a golden age for the French, who lead by the incomparable Puig Albert, travelled to Australia and defeated their host in a three test series in 1951. On their return to France the victorious team were greeted by an estimated 100,000 fans in Marseille. They repeated the feat in France 1952-53 and again in Australia in 1955.

In 1956, the state government of New South Wales legalised the playing of poker machines ("pokies") in non-profit clubs, and this rapidly became the major source of income for NSW "leagues clubs", some of which became palatial "homes away from home" for their supporters. The pokie windfall stemmed the steady trickle of Australian players to the better-financed clubs in England, and led to increased recruiting of rugby union and overseas players by NSWRL clubs. With the space of several years, the Sydney-based league had come to dominate the code within Australia. The large profits accrued from gambling have always been controversial; many questioned the morality of such an income stream and felt that it would inevitably lead to financial turmoil and scandal.

The 1960s and 1970s

In the UK, the boom in interest had begun to subside by the early sixties, and the game's rulers looked to television to provide a new source of income. David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, made the decision to screen rugby league games from a new competition specially designed for evening televising, the BBC2 Television Floodlit Trophy. Although it was widely seen as a gimmick, it proved a success, and rugby league has featured on television ever since, to the point where (like most sports) income from selling broadcasting rights is the single greatest source of revenue for the game.

This period also saw further alterations to the rules of the sport. In 1967 the number of times a team could retain possession after a play-the-ball was limited to four tackles. It was hoped that this would encourage more attacking play, and prevent teams from simply playing to maintain possession of the ball at all costs. Although successful in this respect, it was felt that four tackles did not give sufficient time to develop an attack, with play often being characterised by pure panic. In 1971, the number of tackles allowed was increased to six, and has remained so ever since.

The 1980s and early 1990s

In 1980 the first ever State of Origin match was played in Australia. This pitted teams representative of Queensland and New South Wales against each other. Although matches between the two had taken place for many years, the origin concept meant that for the first time players were selected based on where they first played the game, rather than were they were currently playing. This had an immediate effect, evening up the competition, which had come to be dominated by New South Wales due to the financial strength of the Sydney clubs. State of Origin matches are now some of the biggest and most keenly fought contests in Australian sport.

In 1983, the Australian ABC-TV current affairs programme Four Corners, aired an episode entitled "The Big League". The programme was to have repercussions throughout Australian sport, and in the wider community. Reporter Chris Masters described allegations of corruption within the NSWRL, including suggestions that officials were siphoning funds from particular clubs and international matches whilst players and spectators endured sub-standard facilities. Furthermore, it uncovered some evidence of the NSWRL administration being biased in favour of Manly. As a result of the program, a Royal Commission (the Street Royal Commission) was called. It led to New South Wales chief magistrate Murray Farquhar being jailed, the end of NSWRL president Kevin Humphreys' career and the ABC being sued for libel by NSW State Premier, Neville Wran (who eventually settled out of court). Masters, Four Corners and the commission are widely credited with widespread improvements in the administration of rugby league in Australia.

Also in Australia, the increased ease of travel between states allowed the formation of a national competition. This competition was developed by admitting "out of state" sides to the NSWRL, which had become by far the strongest league in the country.

The 1980s also saw attempts to improve rugby league's popularity outwith its traditional geographical boundaries. In Great Britain a new team from London (Fulham) was admitted to the professional ranks, whilst the sport began to develop in Russia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands.

The 1990s saw the importance of television income to the sport continue to rise, and a battle for control of television rights led to the infamous Super League war in Australia in the middle of the decade. This event affected the sport across the world, and the damage done is only now being undone.

After 1995

Missing image
Modern rugby league: Gateshead Thunder take on Limoux in the Challenge Cup.

While the Super League war was being fought in Australia, Rupert Murdoch approached the British clubs with a view to forming Super League (Europe) (SLE), primarily as a way to gain the upper hand during his battle with Kerry Packer for control of the sport in Australia. A large sum of money from News Corporation's UK subsidiary, BSkyB, helped fund the proposal. The new competition got under way in 1996. As part of the deal, rugby league switched from a winter to a summer season. The British, Australian and New Zealand seasons are now played concurrently from March to October, and major international tournaments are now largely played in November. The French, however, have continued to play a winter season.

In 1995 rugby union went professional, and those who had long derided rugby league as merely a professional version of that game were soon predicting the demise of the sport. The Super League war, the financial problems of the 2000 Rugby League World Cup and the signing of several high-profile rugby league stars by the union game gave ammunition to this claim. In reality the game proved far more resilient.

Some players such as Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell, who were originally union players, moved back to the union game. In some case, players who had never previously played union also moved across, one of the most successful being English wing-cum-full back Jason Robinson. It is generally considered that transition is easier for "backs", because of the technical skills required in forward play in union. One rare example of a forward switching codes was Brad Thorn, a New Zealander. However, he returned to play rugby league in 2005. Welshman Iestyn Harris, hailed as the saviour of Welsh rugby union, was a generally regarded as a failure in that sport, and also returned to rugby league. Henry Paul has failed to consistently make the England rugby union team, whereas Wendell Sailor played for the Wallabies. It is rare however for professional players to switch codes, and of more concern to the rugby league authorities is the 'poaching' of youth players by rugby union clubs.

Meanwhile, in Australia the Super League war came to an end, with News International and the Australian Rugby League agreeing to merge their competition to create the National Rugby League, which commenced in 1998. Several clubs were either forced to merge (e.g. St. George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers became St. George-Illawarra Dragons), or were left out altogether. The omission of South Sydney Rabbitohs, one of the founding members of the original NSWRL, led to mass protests. Although Souths did not participate in the NRL during 2000 and 2001, a Federal Court decision in July 2001 paved the way for them to return to the league in 2002.

In Britain, the ending of discrimination against rugby league resulting from professionalism in rugby union led to an increase in numbers in the amateur game, with many rugby union amateurs keen to try out the other code. In 2004 the Rugby Football League was able to report a return to profitability, a re-unified structure and a 94 per cent increase in registered players in just two years [1] (http://www.rfl.uk.com/Templates/RFLDefault.asp?modeID=News&RFLMode=ShowNews&Pkey=434&CompName=).

See also

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