The National Rugby League (NRL) is Australia’s top-level domestic professional rugby competition. While mostly dominant in the northern states of NSW and Queensland, NRL extends itself into Australasia, with cities in New Zealand also fielding sides.
Rugby League began to come to prominence in Australia at the turn of the century after it sprang to life in the North of England in 1895 as clubs broke away from Rugby Union to form their own league. Its introduction into NSW in the first decade of the 1900s effectively shut down the state to the encroachment of VFL (later AFL) – at least until 80 years later when the Sydney Swans set up shop in Sydney – NSW became a rugby fortress.
Originally called the NSWRL, the league’s foundation clubs hailed from right across suburban Sydney – Easts (Roosters), Souths (Rabbitohs), Balmain (Tigers), Wests (Magpies), Newtown (Jets), Newcastle (Rebels), Norths (Bears), Glebe (Dirty Reds) and Cumberland. Over the next 100 years, the modern league took shape, with the game evolving into the NRL in the 1990s, officially taking on the title in 1998. Sixteen teams in take part in today’s competition – Brisbane Broncos, Canterbury Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys, St George Illawara Dragons, Parramatta Eels, Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Canberra Raiders, Sydney Roosters, Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast Titans and New Zealand Warriors.
The dominant winter sport on the eastern seaboard, due to the working class origins of NRL and the big-bodied, aggressive tackling nature of the game, despite it originally being designed to be more aesthetically pleasing than rugby union, some have called NRL a ‘bogan’ sport – although try and tell that to Sydney’s north shore Sea Eagle fans!
Despite this, what can’t be denied is that the sport, like its southern-bred cousin the AFL, is much loved by its fans, although interestingly the NRL has become something of a TV pursuit. While only attracting average crowds at matches at best, in terms of TV the NRL reigns supreme, with massive viewing stats and high ratings. Some say this is due to the stop-start nature of the game or more generally NRL’s tactical nature whereby having the vantage point of many camera’s makes TV viewing more exciting; others believe the timeslots suit TV viewing better than actual match attendance; and some again believe, at least in recent times, that it’s because the big six teams in the league have gradually begun to lose their dominance, leading to a wider more general sporting audience as opposed to a purely NRL fan audience hungry to go to actual matches.
This same ‘TV factor’ led to major trouble back in the 90’s for rugby when News Limited formed its own Super League in an attempt to grab the TV rights. Several years of conflict between the two branches of the same code transpired, with each poaching players, fans and corporate sponsorship from the other. Ultimately, however, this tug of war led to a stronger Rugby Phoenix rising from the ashes and the official formation of the NRL in 1998. The merger provided the opportunity for the NRL to consolidate its hold on the eastern states and become a truly professional and national sporting code.
The NRL regular season is divided up into 26 rounds of play. The 16 teams are divided into two pools of equal strength based on their previous season’s performance. The eight teams from each pool play all eight teams in the opposing pool twice and six of the seven teams in their own pool once. The remaining team in their pool is played twice for a total of 24 rounds of play, with the remaining two rounds being byes. Teams get two points for each win, two points for each bye week, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss. Similar to its southern counterpart, the top eight teams at the end of the season advance to the finals where they play off for the Premiership trophy, recently renamed the Provans-Summons trophy after two legends of the game, Norm Provans and Arthur Summons.
Also similar to AFL, the NRL offers plenty of opportunity for NRL betting in many forms across the season. Not only can punters bet on the weekly fixtures and ultimately the side they feel can snag the Premiership, NRL betting markets also focus on the J.J. Giltinan Shield for the minor premiership (the team at the top prior to Finals), the Clive Church Medal (for most outstanding player in a final) and the Dally M Medal, which is the highest individual honour a player can attain in the NRL. Unlike the AFL which gave up on such sometime ago, the NRL also still holds a hotly-contested (and highly bet upon) State of Origin contest.
Souths hold the most titles to date, with St George and the Roosters the next best. The Roosters also have won the most successive games with 19 in 1975 and the greatest winning margin to date was a slaughtering by St George over Canterbury in 1935 – a whopping 86 points (91-60)!
Thanks to dominant periods of play by interstate sides like the Melbourne Storm, NRL is firmly rooted in the more general Australian sporting psyche well-beyond the eastern seaboard, loved for its freakish forwards, fairy-tale endings, big-hits, upsets, mascots and cheerleaders, thrilling finishes and, of course, its passionate fans.