Preface by Swiss Servator: Only because this is so well written do I not intrude into this column to proclaim the obvious superiority of Rugby Union. I will get my chance in future, after we have done a couple more of these – stand by for an Aussie Rules “explainer” in our next thrilling installment).
A Brief History of the National Rugby League
The National Rugby League (NRL) is a club-based competition in Australia and New Zealand, generally considered the best such competition in the world.
Rugby League vs. Rugby Union
Before embarking on a history of the NRL it may be helpful to explain the origin of rugby league and how it differs from rugby union. Many cultures have a history of games involving the movement of a spherical or ovoid objection. However, the specific origin of rugby comes out of England sometime in the mid-nineteenth century (sadly, the story of William Webb Ellis, the boy who “who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it” at Rugby School is apocryphal). The Rugby Football Union (RFU) emerged in 1871 following a number of clubs in England refusing to adopt the rules laid out by the new Football Association. Rugby League broke from the RFU after a schism which resulted from disagreements over payments to players (won’t bore you with the details). Today, in England, rugby league’s heartland is in the Midlands and the north of the country. Because of the popularity of soccer and rugby union in England, in 1996, rugby league in Britain switched to a summer season.
Rugby spread to Australia (& other parts of the world) mainly through the agency of British imperialism. In Australia, there was a split in rugby in the early twentieth century, again over professionalism. Both sports faced competition in other parts of Australia. In large part, this stemmed from the country’s colonial past: each state was originally a colony with its own imperial government and with the main population centers far apart. Rugby League is the most popular football code in Queensland and New South Wales, but lags far behind Australian Football in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania.
To the uninitiated, Rugby League & Rugby Union appear similar and they certainly bear much closer resemblance to one another than they do to soccer or Australian football. There are three main differences: rugby union teams have 15 players, league teams 13; when the ball goes out of play in union, it leads to a lineout, in league, it usually leads to a scrum; in union, at each tackle, both teams can enter the ensuing ruck; in league, the team with the ball retains it uncontested through a maximum of 6 tackles.
The National Rugby League Competition
(A completely unbiased account).
Beginning in 1908, the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL), based in Sydney, organized a club competition. This was followed by multiple regional and city competitions. By the 1940s, there were two dominant club competitions. One was the NSWRL, an evil empire operated by very bad men and whose clubs raised money using corrupt instruments known as poker machines. The other competition was based in Brisbane and known as the Brisbane Rugby League (BRL). This competition was one of pureness and light promoting the highest levels of decency and eschewing the use of the evil poker machines.
Unfortunately, from time to time, some of the good men who played in the BRL fell upon hard financial times and in order to support their families (and for no other reason) accepted transfers to clubs in the NSWRL (for more on this, look up State of Origin series for the story of how good won a partial victory over evil). Over the decades, the NSWRL began to expand, first accepting new clubs from western Sydney, then from Newcastle and Canberra. In order to keep up with the growth of Australian Football, in 1998 the NSWRL eventually accepted a club from Brisbane. This led to the demise of the BRL although the governing body in Queensland established a successor state-wide competition known as the Queensland Cup.
The Sydney-based competition went through several names changes until adopting National Rugby League in 1998. Teams have left the NRL, gone defunct, and new teams have been added. Some of the current teams are mergers of teams from the old NSWRL days. Today the competition consists of sixteen clubs: eight in Sydney and the surrounding area and one each in Brisbane, Townsville, the Gold Coast, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, Wollongong, and Auckland, New Zealand. Most clubs are run by corporate boards although some of the older Sydney clubs still have a local league club which has some say over the running of the club. All clubs sell memberships to individuals.
Since 1998, 12 different teams have won the championship. During the season each teams plays 24 games (along with 2 bye weeks) with the top 8 teams making the finals (think playoffs). Teams are awarded 2 points for a win, 2 points for a bye, 1 point for a draw, 0 for a loss. During the regular season, “golden point” is used if scores are level at the end of regulation. Teams play a maximum of extra 10 minutes, 5 in each direction. However, any score ends the game. A team losing in “golden point” receives no competition points.
The finals series is more complicated than the straight single-game process in the NFL. Teams placed 5-8 are eliminated by one loss, teams 1-4 would need to lose twice to go out. The last two teams standing meet in the Grand Final, played on the first Sunday in October. The 2016 Grand Final was watched by 3.7 million Australians (total population: 24.5 million). The extra time scenario is a little more complicated for the finals series.
Scoring: teams are awarded 4 points for a try (think NFL touchdown except the ball must be grounded rather than just being moved across the goal line), 2 points for conversion (think PAT but the kick must be taken on a line drawn perpendicular to the goal line), 2 points for a penalty goal (think field goal but only taken after a penalty has been awarded), and 1 point for a dropped (or field) goal.
The 2017 Season To Date & Round 16
The season started March 2. Among the favorites were: Melbourne, Canberra, Cronulla, Penrith, and North Queensland. On June 12, at the end of Round 15, the top 4 were: Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters, Cronulla Sharks, Brisbane Broncos. Position 5-8: Manly, St. George, North Queensland, Penrith.
Round 16 was played June 23-25 with 14teams in action (byes: South Sydney and Parramatta).
- The highlight of the round was the Roosters (2) vs. Storm (1) game which was actually played in Adelaide, South Australia – another of the NRL’s almost certainly futile attempts to break into an Australian Football stronghold. In something of a repeat of the previous week’s close run against North Queensland, Melbourne took an early lead before blowing the game, giving up 13 points in the last 10 minutes. This time, Melbourne were unable to find a late game-winner. The Roosters’ win sees them close to within 2 points of the Storm.
- The other highly anticipated game of the round was the match up between 3rd placed Cronulla and 5th placed Manly. However, the games turned out to be one-sided as Manly easily overcame last season’s premiers 35-18.
- Seventh-placed North Queensland came into its crucial clash with #8 Penrith on the heels of the news that its superstar Johnathan Thurston (think Bart Starr levels of greatness) was out for the season. Trailing most of the game, the Cowboys scored a score-levelling try with 3 minutes left when winger Kyle Feldt caught a chip kick and managed to get the ball down. Ethan Lowe kicked the game-winning conversion.
- The number 4 Brisbane Broncos travelled to Canberra to take on the Raiders who were just outside the top 8. After trailing 14-12 at half-time, the Broncos outscored the Raiders 18-6 in the second half for a 30-20 win.
- Second from bottom Newcastle started strong against St. George-Illawarra building a 28-10 half time lead. However, form asserted itself in the second half with the Dragons scoring 22 unanswered points to win 32-28. The loss was Newcastle’s 22nd straight road loss setting a new record.
- The 11th New Zealand Warriors took a big lead then held on to beat the 12th placed Bulldogs 21-14. The result led NZ media to declare the Warriors “within striking distance” of the top 8. While true (the win leaves the Warriors 2 points outside the playoff spots), it’s likely they will fade by season’s end.
- In a near bottom-of-the-table clash, the 14th placed Gold Coast Titans—led by former NFL wannabe Jarryd Hayne—defanged the last-placed Tigers, 26-14. The Tigers have no chance of making the playoffs while the Titans win will serve to give their fans false hope for a few more weeks.
So, at the end of Round 16, Melbourne retain top spot but are now only two points ahead of Sydney. The Brisbane Broncos move to 3rd with Manly jumping to 4th ahead of Cronulla on points differential. Positions 5 thru 8: Cronulla, St. George, North Queensland, Parramatta. Position 3 through 7 are separated by only two points. A further 5 teams are only 4 points outside the Top 8.