Rugby League in Melbourne – A Brief History

Rugby league is the newcomer of the football codes in Australia when it comes to the city of Melbourne. It has had the most difficult job of any code in disrupting established sporting hierarchies given the fact that preferences for certain types of football in Victoria, largely soccer and Australian Rules, were well set by the time rugby league arrived in Australia in 1907/1908.

Despite this, rugby league has encouraged a presence in Victoria – and particularly Melbourne – for most of the twentieth century. While this development has been piecemeal and marked by periods of inactivity, a timeline of rugby league in Victoria can be fairly easily ascertained.

The first consideration given to taking a major rugby league match to Victoria involved the 1914 British Lions rugby league tourists. The Lions drew massive crowds in Sydney, including 50,257 versus Metropolis and 55,000 for the second test (the first played at the Sydney Cricket Ground after rugby union had blocked access to the ground for a number of years), despite the fact the test series itself was controversially conducted over a period of only eight days. The original plan (and the only plan known to the British up to the late change of dates/venues) had been to play the third test in Melbourne after the Lions returned from their tour of New Zealand but Australian authorities instead forced the third test on the British only five days after the second had been played. This famous third (and deciding) test, known as “The Rorke’s Drift Test”, saw Britain triumph 14 – 6 in acutely difficult circumstances (finishing the game with 10 men to 13, though briefly down to nine at one stage) which were roundly celebrated in England and elsewhere throughout the rugby league world.

It seemed in those circumstances that the proposed Victorian game would never eventuate but in the end it was played after the Lions tour returned to Australia from the New Zealand leg of the tour. So belatedly, on 15 August 1914, rugby league’s first official game was played in Victoria with 13,000 spectators witnessing the match between England v NSW at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It is noteworthy that the VFL Grand Final of that same year, despite being a well established event, drew 30,494 spectators to the same venue.

The unfortunate timing of the First World War (1914 – 1918) largely stopped rugby league progress after the successful British game of 1914 until normality returned post-war in the early 1920s. Then a burst of activity occurred – the Victorian Rugby League (VRL) was created in 1923, local club competition commenced (with games played in Middle Park, Kiwis defeating University to be crowned first premiers) and the State’s inaugural representative game was played against Sydney University on 22 September 1923 in Sydney (lost 0 – 14).

A further major step forward occurred with the appointment of the famously hard working Harry Sunderland as VRL President in 1924. Sutherland immediately set about properly organising the local club competition and representative challenge matches against the likes of Queensland (at the time a world power). A six team competition comprising sides representing St Kilda, Melbourne, Kiwis, Melbourne University, Air Force and Navy commenced. Grounds at Melbourne University and Middle Park were among those used. In acknowledgement of this work, Britain opened its 1924 tour of Australia with a match against Victoria at Fitzroy, defeating the locals 45 – 13 before another strong crowd of 12,000 spectators.

Sutherland’s departure was to have a significant impact on rugby league in Victoria for in 1926 the entire rugby league club competition changed codes to rugby union – a fact that was to see rugby league essentially abandon the state of Victoria for a number of decades.

Little record of rugby league in the Melbourne area then occurs until the re-start of the VRL in the 1950s.

Indeed, the 1930s seems to reflect more than anything a period of isolation for rugby league and Australian Rules football, although both expressed a desire to explore the possibility of a merged game. This resulted in extensive talks between the heads of each code to try and find a shared set of rules which could then form a truly “national” football code. The inevitable issues over such fundamental concepts as off-side and even the type of goalposts to be used resulted in little progress, despite it remaining on both codes’ agendas throughout this decade.

World War Two (1939 – 1945) saw most sporting contact in Australia markedly reduced, with the major sports such as Australian Rules football and rugby league retracting into their respective heartlands under war-time conditions.

During the 1950s, rugby league competition was restarted in Victoria, with the re-establishment of the VRL on 13 June 1951. The club competition comprised teams from both within and outside the Melbourne metropolitan area with Richmond, Laverton, Ballarat, Preston, Moorabbin, Essendon, Bendigo and Camberwell all competing. The difficulty in establishing the game in an overtly hostile environment was well demonstrated at the Essendon club, where the rugby league goal posts were chopped down with an axe by persons unknown under cover of darkness one evening in 1953,

Despite this, rugby league touring teams continued to visit Victoria such as the 1951 and 1955 French tourists, who played at Melbourne Showground and Richmond Football Ground respectively. A lack of regular representative competition for Victoria again proved problematic, but the lack of continued support from Sydney proved fatal as the local competition again wound down over time during the 1950s. Sydney power-broker Jersey Flegg’s refusal to meet with members of the VRL in 1954 seemed sadly symptomatic of the lack of support for the game in Victoria generally, despite growing interest among school students.

Disappointingly, rugby league again tended to ignore Victoria during the 1960s and 1970s, much to the chagrin of supporters south of the Murray. Television coverage was essentially non-existent and the sporadic boost previously provided by touring teams was also tragically allowed to lapse over time. It was not until the late 1970s that rugby league would again be featured in the southern capital at the so-called “Festival of Football”, with three codes playing on the same day at Fitzroy’s Junction Oval in 1978. In regrettable scenes for the game, the rugby league encounter between Manly and Wests (officially a third place play-off in the Craven Mild Cup) officially started the notorious “Fibro v Silvertails” War, which was to tarnish the game’s image over the next few years. Perhaps embarrassed by the affair, rugby league figures again confined Melbourne to the “too hard” basket for the duration of the 1980s.

The progressive Ken Arthurson-John Quayle ARL administration in the pre-Super League War (SLW) period again reasserted a need for rugby league in the southern capital with the playing of important games restarting in 1990. In that year, Game 2 of Origin was played at Olympic Park before a capacity crowd of 25,800. 1991 saw Melbourne receive the first test of the New Zealand – Australia test series with Olympic Park again utilised and a further capacity crowd (26,900) encouraging the ARL to take the second test of 1992 to the larger Princess Park venue at Carlton. This match saw an excellent crowd of 31,005 attend in poor conditions and the touring British Lions surprisingly blow Australia off the park with a comprehensive 33-10 win (after racing to a 23-0 lead at one stage). The memorable atmosphere at the ground, with up to 10,000 English travelling fans singing in the rain throughout the course of the match, encouraged the ARL to take a brave and calculated step in playing Game 2 of Origin in 1994 at the biggest venue in Melbourne, the famous MCG, after an 80 year hiatus.

Rugby league was rewarded for this decisive thrust into “enemy heartland” with a then record Australian rugby league crowd of 87,161 attending the game at the iconic venue. This surprised many onlookers in Melbourne and was testament to the appeal of rugby league beyond the heartlands – a fact often much maligned but quite often shown to be surprisingly buoyant.

The two following games at the MCG were acutely affected by the SLW which ravaged the Australian game during the period 1995 – 1997 and continues to impact the game to this day. Despite reduced crowds especially for the third of the trio of games played in 1994, 1995 and 1997 (ARL only, no Super League players), the seeds for rugby league in Melbourne had been sown. The process of propagating those seeds was accelerated by the creation of two separately aligned competitions (ARL v Super League), with the immediate result being that Melbourne Storm was born as a club in 1998. Thus, the carefully planned path for growth started in 1990 had come to fruition within a decade – despite, or perhaps because of, the complications of the SLW.

Clearly, the long-term sustainability of the Storm is testament to this long-term process of establishing the game in a (largely) foreign location – albeit one with an established tradition of rugby league since 1914 – through a carefully thought out and implemented process. This should be carefully observed by those involved in rugby league development around the world.

The nearly overnight success of the Storm – winning their first premiership in only their second year of competition (1999), easily the shortest period between admission and the winning of a premiership in Australian rugby league history – remains one of rugby league’s most amazing success stories. Many life long supporters of the team were born in this period when Glenn Lazarus lifted the trophy on behalf of Melbournians before nearly 108,000 Sydneysiders. Melbourne had officially arrived as a major influencing force in rugby league in Australia.

This rather remarkable highpoint was initially only the start of a tremendous period of consolidation and success for the southern club, with creditable performances during the early 2000s culminating in the birth of a super club by 2004-2005. In a similar way to the group of players that had heralded Parramatta’s 1981 – 1983 premiership hat trick, Melbourne’s core group of truly world class players (particularly Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk ) saw them play in four grand finals in four years between 2006 – 2009, winning two premierships[1] and establishing themselves as the greatest club team since the Brisbane/Canberra teams of the early 1990s.

The sheer trauma of the salary cap scandal of 2010 would, but for this lasting and established culture of success and pride, have killed many sporting clubs. Instead, the Melbourne Storm players showed resilience born of playing a tough game such as rugby league; their tremendous character ensuring they were able to win the 2011 minor premiership and the 2012 premiership after showing great dignity to play out three-quarters of the 2010 season post their spectacular points deduction penalty by the NRL.

Following the salary cap scandal, the Storm showed special qualities to win the premiership and officially place their names again in the record books as NRL Premiers. In many ways, this reaction as a club to the disaster of 2010 saw Melbourne Storm finally accepted as part of the very sporting fabric of the city. Recognising the heavy handed nature of the penalties handed to their club (whether judged fair or otherwise is not the point here), Victorians realised that their rugby league team meant something to them. Having a traditionally negative view of Sydney decision making, they naturally found what were unprecedented penalties to be scapegoating and/or an attack on Melbourne for having the temerity to challenge the traditional way of things in a sport which was supposedly alien to them.

As we have seen, however, rugby league and Victoria have had a rather lengthy period to become accustomed to one another. While a somewhat natural suspicion remains, the two are now intertwined more than they have ever been throughout the 108 year history of rugby league in Australia. This is a credit both to the sporting public of Victoria and the great game of rugby league.

To an extent this will culminate in Game 2 of Origin 2015, when 90,000 fans are expected to adorn the MCG for the next instalment

[1]   Melbourne Storm won premiership titles in 2007 and 2009 against Manly and Parramatta respectively. In 2010, the NRL discovered salary cap irregularities relating to financial records submitted by the club. Following an investigation, Melbourne was fined $1.689 million and stripped of the 2007 and 2009 titles. For the purpose of the 2010 season, Melbourne was stripped of its existing points and was forced to play out the remaining games of the season without the capacity to earn points. Accordingly, Melbourne officially accrued no points and finished last in 2010.

by Lyle Beaton