Enjoy a selection of memorable rugby league moments from the NFSA collection, dating from 1922 to 1999.
You can see the earliest footage in our collection of a local match, from 1922; an international game, from 1932; the 1939 grand final between South Sydney and Balmain; and a 1937 match between NSW and Queensland, a forerunner to the hugely popular State of Origin series.
We also take a look at some vital elements of the game - such as training and coaching, as well as injuries, violence and drugs.
Other scenes include a match played during a Canberra snowstorm, a documentary about an Indigenous Australian and multicultural team that started in the 1930s, Americans playing the game in Australia in 1953 and highlights from several 1970s grand finals.
Photo credit (main image): Detail from 'State of Origin II, 24 June 2009'. Published under Creative Commons 3.0. Photographer: Pierre Roudier.
This clip is from Bicentennial Minutes, a series of 60-second snapshots of Australian history produced in 1988 to mark 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet of British convict ships at Sydney in 1788. In this episode, Peter Luck narrates the story of how rugby league started in Australia in the early 1900s.
Luck identifies the lack of compensation for a rugby union player who was injured as the catalyst for the development of a separate professional football code to be called Rugby League. He neglects to mention that the schism between the two codes had already taken place in England in 1895. He also doesn't mention the key moment in Australia was a meeting of leading rugby union players and supporters at Bateman’s Hotel, Sydney on 8 August 1907 which resulted in the creation of the New South Wales Rugby Football League. Player insurance was certainly a factor, but the move towards a fully professional rugby code was more significant.
Luck does, however, highlight a curious moment in sporting history that is not so well known, when the newly created national rugby league team, the Kangaroos, played the national rugby union team, the Wallabies. The match was played in 1909 when rugby league was still in its infancy and the rules were still very similar to union, so the rules did not have had to be modified to any great degree. The Wallabies won with the final score 15-6 in front of around 25,000 spectators. Legendary player Herbert 'Dally' Messenger had recently 'defected' from Union to League and kicked three goals for the Kangaroos.The idea of a hybrid annual competition between the two national teams on Australia Day has periodically been suggested.
Despite some important omissions it is remarkable that in under 60 seconds Luck manages to squeeze in enough facts and key moments in the history of rugby league to give us an overall account of the code's development. The clip effectively incorporates historic images but unfortunately not footage, which would have been very interesting and informative. It's disappointing that we are not actually shown any rugby being played at all!
The segment opens with footage of a violent clash between players from the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs. While opening the segment with violence may grab the viewer's attention, in many people's view violence tarnishes the game rather than celebrates it. While no one would dispute that league is a tough sport, apart from major games such as the finals and the State of Origin series, the 'biff' (as altercations are commonly called) has pretty much left the game as players and team management have become increasingly more professional.
This footage is believed to be the oldest existing footage of rugby league in Australia.
It shows part of a game between the NZ Maori and NSW Seconds teams, played at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 5 June 1922. The Metropolis (Sydney) team had defeated the New Zealanders 77-13 two days beforehand. Organisers feared another landslide victory so decided to play the Seconds instead. Nevertheless, NSW won the game 23-14. New Zealand fared better the following weekend, beating Queensland 23-22 in a thrilling match.
Three legendary South Sydney players can be seen standing next to each other in this footage. First is winger Benny Wearing, with the pale shorts and sash around his waist (these were worn by some players to help stop the opposition grabbing them by the belt); on his right is centre and goal kicker, Oscar Quinlivan, and next to him, towering over everyone, is Alf 'Itchy' O'Connor. There is another Souths player, captain of the side Alf 'Smacker' Blair, holding the football, but the camera stops panning before it gets to him.
Visible in this footage is the early rule about how the ball is played after a tackle. At this time, a loose ruck is formed when a player is tackled, but with the players not really binding as they do in rugby union. Four years later, in 1926, the two-marker play-the-ball rule was introduced.
The footage also shows the NZ team performing a traditional haka before the match, which is now a feature of both international rugby league and rugby union competition. The Australian team by contrast look on somewhat bemused. New Zealand rugby league teams performed pre-match hakas as early as 1884 when a team visiting NSW gave what a Sydney newspaper described as a ‘Maori war cry’. According to the paper, ‘The NSW men declared it was hardly fair of the visitors to frighten them out of their wits before the game began’. By the 1922 and 1923 tours, however, the haka was an expected part of the proceedings.
The haka (‘ha’ meaning breath and ‘ka’ meaning fire) is a traditional Maori dance accompanied by a chant and in rugby league games, as seen here, it is used by NZ teams to motivate both players and supporters and to intimidate the opposition. The haka is a complex dance that uses the hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue and eyes, with each action conveying a meaning. There are different types of hakas, ranging from a welcome to a war dance.
In 1999, the Melbourne Storm were competing in the NRL for only their second season. They started well, winning 8 of their first 11 games and finished third on the ladder, but were beaten convincingly by the St George-Illawarra Dragons 34–0 in the quarter finals. They managed to scrape through to the grand final after narrow victories over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (24–22) and the Parramatta Eels (18–16). Nevertheless, St George were red hot favourites to take the title.
The score at half-time was 14–0 to the Dragons and they understandably seemed to have the premiership in the bag. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Storm but early in the second half the momentum swung their way following a fumble over the try line by Dragons player Anthony Mundine. The Storm piled on 14 points, keeping their hopes alive.
With the score 18–14 to the Dragons and only minutes left in the game, one of the most dramatic moments in any grand final occurred. Ten metres out from the Dragons' try line, Storm halfback Brett Kimmorley kicked high to the opposite corner. Storm winger Craig Smith raced through and caught the ball on the full over the try line. He only had to place the ball on the ground to score the winning try. But as he did so, Dragons centre Jamie Ainscough took Smith in a head high tackle, causing Smith to fumble the ball. Referee Harrigan had little choice but to refer the incident to the video ref. After reviewing the footage, Harrigan heard the video ref through his earpiece say, 'This is going to be the call of the millennium'. The Storm were awarded a penalty try and, effectively, the premiership.
The snow storm that hit Canberra on 28 May 2000 will live on forever in the minds of Canberra Raiders and West Tigers rugby league supporters. No NRL (National Rugby League) game had ever been played in the snow before. It’s possible some players had never even seen snow. While no one wanted to be out there in the freezing conditions, players took to the field in their shorts and short-sleeved jerseys. Just over 7,000 dedicated fans watched as the Raiders narrowly defeated the Tigers 24-22. Not surprisingly this made for a curious segment on the news that evening.
Sports news reporter John Bell provides the voice-over in this footage. The clip opens with an amusing shot of the West Tigers mascot striding out of the tunnel, leading his team onto the field. It’s a comical piece of editing that effectively highlights the paradox of this game being played in driving snow. A quick cutaway to the crowd enduring the adverse conditions is a good choice as it shows how everyone, players and fans alike, were toughing this out together.
We then get to see play-action. Rather than just showing the inevitable errors under these conditions, the coverage could almost be considered respectful of the players’ skills. It is ultimately a fairly normal summary of a rugby game despite the weather; the errors that are shown are only in the context of scoring opportunities. If you removed the snow references in this footage, this segment would be a typically concise and informative piece of sports reporting.
The 1975 Grand Final became infamous for St George captain, coach and star-player, Graeme 'Changa' Langlands and his white football boots.
Langlands entered the final carrying a season's worth of of injuries. He was given a painkilling injection before the match, but rather than merely deadening the pain it made his whole leg numb. This was a disaster for St George, whose strategy was to rely on Langlands' long-range kicking skills to keep Easts pinned in their own half. But without their kicker, St George could not contain Easts. To make matters worse, Langlands had signed a contract with Adidas to wear bright, white boots. Since players at the time all wore dark boots, every mistake Langlands made was magnified and he stood out like a beacon on the field in what has since been called 'The White Boots Affair'.
Easts won the premiership for the second successive year with a record score of 38-0. Legend has it that Langlands threw his white boots over the crossbar in England at the end of 1975.
The State of Origin is an annual rugby league series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons.
This clip focuses on the first State of Origin game, held on 8 July 1980 at Lang Park in Brisbane. The Maroons won 20-10.
Legendary Queensland players Arthur Beetson, Wally Lewis, John Lang, Kerry Boustead, Chris Close and a young Mal Meninga (then only 20 years old) played on the day.
This first Origin match was controversial, with players representing their ‘state of origin’ rather than the state where they currently played.
Many of Queensland’s best players had been lured by the higher paying New South Wales clubs, so it made for a tense match.
The voice-over accurately describes it as a ‘brutal encounter’. The game footage, covered brilliantly from several different angles, backs up that statement with plenty of aggro on the field.
The choice to include the original Seven Network commentary (‘it’s on for young and old now!’) emulates the feeling of watching this historic game live.
This 30-second segment is a fine example of the storytelling potential that good footage provides, even in a relatively short space of time.
This excerpt comes from the Seven News Brisbane special Queensland: Flashback 150 Years, broadcast on 30 May 2009. It was produced for the 150th anniversary of the state of Queensland. Queensland formally separated from New South Wales on 6 June 1859.
Notes by Beth Taylor
In September 1989 Rugby League's Winfield Cup and JJ Giltinan Shield were won by a team outside of Sydney for the first time ever.
And so began a party in Canberra and Queanbeyan that lasted well into the following day. As this clip shows, thousands of Raiders fans turned out to welcome their heroes home and cheered them on along the parade route from Queanbeyan to Canberra ending in a reception in Civic Square. Although some of the players – and the Winfield Cup – arrived a little worse for wear, John McIntyre explains why coach Tim Sheens was a no-show.
This clip is an excerpt of Ten News, Canberra from 25 September 1989. Presenter Geoff Hiscock introduces the lead story reported by Peter Chapman and Greg Robson. The bulletin celebrated the Raiders’ win by featuring a Raiders rosette on all graphics and lower-screen presenter supers. This title is part of the NFSA’s Television News collection and has been digitally preserved.
Notes by Adam Blackshaw
South Sydney captain, John Sattler demonstrates courage beyond belief during the 1970 Grand Final against Manly Warringah. Several minutes into the game Manly forward John Bucknall punched Sattler in an off-the-ball incident. Sattler recalled the moment many years later:
'I scream blue murder but my internal voice says: "Stay calm, John, stay calm". Curiosity gets the better of me and I lower my bottom lip, allowing just enough space for my index finger to probe the walls of my mouth. On the left side of my jaw I feel a hole that should not be there. A gush of blood spews onto my jumper. I prod to the right — another hole. I work back to the middle of my mouth. I feel for teeth, which are still intact. I move lower, towards the gums. I feel a split, smack bang in the middle of my lower gum-line. I’ve broken my jaw in three places.' (John Sattler, The Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2014)
Sattler refused to leave the field and even came back on after half-time! In retaliation, Bucknall was targeted by the Souths team and eventually left the field with a shoulder injury. Souths went on to win 23-12.
Rough, tough and sometimes unruly: a montage of muddy games, muffed tries, collisions and funny moments in a month of rugby league.
An RSL Club, and a raffle is taking place. Players from the La Perouse Panthers have gathered for the team’s fundraiser. Bruce 'Lapa’ Stewart, community elder and former La Perouse player, speaks into a microphone. Bruce talks to camera about his days of playing football. Photographs show the Lapa team in the 1930s as an all-Black team. Historical footage of tin huts on the beach, or the mission. Voice-over narration speaks of the common bond of poverty during the Depression. Bruce tells how the community became truly multicultural. Footage of La Perouse versus Mascot. A grade coach Chris ‘Offo’ Sait talks to his players.
Summary by Romaine Moreton
This newsreel footage features the voices of South Sydney and Manly team coaches (Clive Churchill and Ron Willey, respectively) re-creating what they said to their respective teams before the 1970 Grand Final.
Coaches create the conditions for players to perform at their best, for the team to be better than the sum of their parts. Before each game, and particularly before a big game, the coach needs to choose the right words to motivate the players.
The 1970s provided some of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history, and 1970 was no exception. The South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles played in front of over 52,000 spectators. Souths had lost the previous grand final to the Balmain Tigers and were desperate to win. Several minutes into the game Manly forward John Bucknall punched Souths captain John Sattler in an off-the-ball incident and broke his jaw in three places. Sattler refused to leave the field, and even came back on for the second half!
In retaliation, Bucknall was targeted by the Souths team's pack and eventually left the field with a shoulder injury. Souths led 12-6 at half-time and went on to win, 23-12 with Manly failing to score a single try. The game is also notable for Eric Simms' record of four field goals which stands as the most ever kicked in a grand final.
A spectacular try for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in the 1980 Grand Final.
This was the moment when the young, enthusiastic and free-running Bulldogs truly earned their nickname, ‘The Entertainers’. The defining moment came when Greg Brentnall, with no one to pass to, kicked the ball high from 30 metres out. Steve Gearin raced through, never taking his eyes off the ball. With three defenders converging on him he caught it on the full and scored, much to the delight of coach Ted Glossop. Bulldogs halfback Steve Mortimer maintains it was the best try he has ever seen in a grand final. Gearin had a great game, scoring this try and kicking six goals from six for an 18–4 win over the Eastern Suburbs Roosters.
This newsreel features highlights from the 1965 grand final which finished with the St George Dragons defeating the South Sydney Rabbitohs by 12 points to 8.
At the time, the crowd of 78,056 people set a new attendance record. In 1965, the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) capacity was 70,000 – a number which was reached a full two hours before kick-off.
Surrounding streets and parks were packed with an estimated 40,000 more who were still trying to get into the ground. Hundreds broke in by storming the Members' gates and climbing the grandstands onto the roofs.
Others bought tickets to the motor show next door at the Sydney Showground and gained a vantage point from there. Eventually police allowed thousands to sit on the ground itself, covering the outer ring of the oval.
This record for attendance at a rugby league match stood for 34 years, until the Sydney Olympic Stadium opened in 1999.
The set of The Rugby League Show, with Rex ‘Moose’ Mossop as the host, Mick Maher to his right and Bruce ‘Lapa’ Stewart on his left. Along with the famous ‘Controversy Corner’ segment, a feature of The Rugby League Show was the passing competition sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank. The bank’s elephant logo formed the bullseye of the target; if you managed to pass the ball successfully through the bullseye you scored 10 points and triggered the sound of an elephant trumpeting. The highest point scorer was awarded a range of gifts including a Pelaco shirt, a Meapro ham and Patra fresh orange juice.
Mossop was an Australian rugby union and rugby league player, representing Australia in both codes. He was an uncompromising forward for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles throughout the 1950s and an Australian television personality from 1964 until 1991.
Stewart was a respected Indigenous elder and mentor in the La Perouse community, Sydney, and a driving force for the La Perouse Panthers club. A flying winger, Stewart played for Eastern Suburbs Roosters in 1967 scoring 10 tries from 24 games.
Maher played in the centres and on the wing and proved to be a very capable fullback, a position he held for several seasons. He played 125 first grade games for the North Sydney Bears.
This photo is a straightforward documentation of the three individuals on set, possibly for publicity purposes, although none of them are posing for the camera. It was probably taken during the actual live broadcast of the show. This was an era in which players were less media savvy than today and you can see that in the awkwardness of their postures. The studio-made target behind them adds to the unsophisticated scene.
This is the earliest footage of an interstate rugby league match in the NFSA collection. NSW Firsts defeat Queensland by 21-9 in the first of three interstate matches. NSW made a clean sweep of the series winning 31-3 in game two and 16-11 in game three.
NSW and Queensland first played each other in 1908, before Queensland had even commenced a club competition (NSW easily defeated Queensland, 43–0). From 1922 to 1925 Queensland hit a 'purple patch' of good form, defeating NSW 11 times in 12 matches. But during the 1960s and 1970s Queensland were being defeated constantly, having won only four games during those two decades. This was arguably because NSW club teams had more money to lure the best players from interstate and, until 1982, each state team drew its players from the clubs based in that state for the interstate competition. With people starting to lose interest in the interstate competition altogether, the rugby league hierarchy decided to implement a new format. State of Origin was born and the NSW vs Queensland matches are almost as popular as the annual rugby league grand final.
In 1987 Queensland had won the series series 2–1, but a fourth game was played in California to showcase the code to the American public. In front of 12,349 fans the Blues won the game 30–18, though the result did not count towards the series of that year. More recently, the Queensland side has dominated the series, losing only one State of Origin series since 2006.
This footage seems to have a sound recording of the crowd but curiously not any sport commentary.
This is a newsreel story from 1953 about the arrival of an American rugby league team in Australia.
There has always been a cautious fascination between Australian and American football codes. The 2015 media storm that followed Jarryd Hayne's attempt to break into the American game is a case in point but a number of Australians have played for American teams since the 1960s. Colin Ridgway was the first, having played three games with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. While Aussie Rules players in particular have 'defected' to the American league, often for their punting skills, Americans playing rugby league or joining Australian rugby teams have been less common.
Surprisingly, rugby has been played in America as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn't until 1953 that it got something of a curious kickstart through the efforts of Mike Dimitro, a wrestling promoter and NFL (National Football League) veteran with the Los Angeles Rams. Dimitro scraped together a group of largely college students, called them the 'American All Stars', and organised a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Not having played rugby before, these players were trained by Norman 'Latchem' Robinson. Robinson was a rugby league player, coach, selector and club administrator for the Balmain Tigers and a selector and manager for the City, State and National sides. He was also the NSW coach in 1948 and Australian coach in 1958.
The tour generated much media hype and audience interest. Coming as it did not long after the end of the Second World War, it's hard to deny there was a level of national rivalry and machismo on show.
In their first two matches the Americans wore gridiron-style uniforms before switching to the more familiar footy shorts and would at times thrill the crowd with quarterback-style passes of the ball from one side of the field to the other.
By the end of the tour the All Stars had played 26 matches in Australia and New Zealand, winning 6, drawing 2 and losing 18. The experience was enough for one player, Al Kirkland, to return to Australia in 1956 to play a season with the Parramatta Eels where he scored four tries. He then spent a year with English club Leeds. Kirkland is just one of three Americans to play first grade football in Australia.
A reporter from the Ten Network interviews Arthur 'Artie' Beetson, player-coach for the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, during a light training session for his team. Beetson became the first Aboriginal Australian to captain for Australia in any sport and is frequently mentioned as the best postwar forward in Australian rugby league history.
The clip also features 'Rocket' Rod Reddy, named as such because he hailed from Rockhampton, Queensland. Reddy played for St George for 11 years and also represented Australia in 17 matches.
The men are discussing the final of the 1978 Amco Cup, which Easts won 16-4. The Amco Cup was a mid-week competition held between 1974 and 1989. It was usually a knock-out series although other formats were tried between 1979 and 1982. Sponsorship changed over the years and it was also variously named the Tooth Cup, KB Cup, National Panasonic Cup and Panasonic Cup. Given the intensity of the regular competition and the State of Origin series, it's hard to imagine players these days also participating in a mid-week series.
A short newsreel about the opening NSW rugby league games of the 1924 season. South Sydney defeat Western Suburbs, 13-5, in the rain. Easts defeat Newtown by a single point, 14-13.
The game’s original ‘wonder winger’, Harold Holder, played for Souths in the 1924 season. Holder joined Souths Juniors in 1912 and went on to become arguably the greatest attacking winger the code has seen.
At the end of the season, Balmain and Souths were on even points, having only lost one game each. Both teams had earlier met in Round 5, resulting in a 10–10 draw. The grand final was played in July with Balmain claiming their sixth premiership by a single try, 3-0. This was the lowest-scoring grand final since the NSWRFL (NSW Rugby Football League) had started in 1908 and the first in which a team had been held scoreless. It was also the first time a rugby league match was broadcast on radio.
In this Ten Network footage from the 1978 Kangaroos tour, Steve Rogers and Bob 'Bozo' Fulton receive treatment from the team's doctor.
Rugby league is a highly physical contact team sport. Unlike its American counterpart, the players do not use much protective gear. Most players seem to rely on a mouth guard and their highly developed physiques. Occasionally players will use some form of padding and head gear. Not surprisingly the majority of injuries are muscular strains or contusions (bruising) from impact.
Concussion is of greater concern and is treated very seriously. Players are tested immediately after a head knock and leave the field for a HIA (Head Injury Assessment).
This newsreel item from 1939 shows highlights from the rugby league football premiership final at the Sydney Cricket Ground between South Sydney and Balmain. This is the earliest footage we have of a rugby league grand final in the NFSA collection.
The game was watched by an estimated crowd of almost 27,000 spectators. The first half was tightly contested with the 'Balmainiacs' leading 7-2 at the break. In the second half Balmain ran away with the game, scoring six tries to a final score of 33-4 and a seventh premiership title. They had also won the minor premiership.
The zero-metre defensive line inherited from rugby union can be seen in this footage. It was was extended to three metres in the 1950s and then to five metres in the 1960s. In 1993 (mid-season), the reference point for measuring the defensive line at the play-the-ball was changed to where the ball is placed on the ground rather than the back foot of the marker, and the defensive line was extended to 10 metres. In 1997 striking at the ball in the play-the-ball was banned.
Footage of the Kangaroos Rugby League team, before their 1937 tour of England and France, captained by lock forward Wally Prigg (1908–1980). Prigg played 19 Tests for the Kangaroos between 1929 and 1938, seven as captain. He was one of the greatest forwards in the history of the game.
Australia played 35 matches during the tour: winning 22, losing 12, and drawing 1. They lost the first test against the British Lions 5-4 and the second 13 -3, but they won the third test 13-3.
The newsreel voice-over comments on the team's smart appearance, joking that they are in disguise with their new blazers and combed hair. 'Admire the flower of Australian rugby league', before 'the heavyweights of New Zealand, France and England spoil their manly beauty'!
An unidentified expert is interviewed in 1978 expressing his opinions on players' welfare. He also denies that drugs can improve the performance of players.
In recent years scandals have rocked the league world more because of recreational drug use outside of the game rather than the illicit use of performance enhancing drugs in the game. One of the highest profile incidents was the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks supplements saga, which began in 2011 and eventually saw a number of players suspended for using a banned supplement.
This is the earliest footage of an international rugby league game in the NFSA collection. England defeats Australia in the first rugby league test in Sydney.
The Great Britain Lions toured Australia and New Zealand between May and August 1932. They played 18 games in Australia including a three-test series.
The first test was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Monday 6 June 1932. There was enormous interest in the game with a crowd of over 70,000, a record for an international game that stood for the next 60 years. Police had to close the gates and several thousand more spectators watched the game from the adjacent agricultural ground and other vantage points. Legendary retired player Dally Messenger performed the ceremonial kick-off.
England scored first but the lead changed hands several times during the first half. The second half was scoreless with England eventually winning 8-6. Australia won the second test 15-6 but England wrapped up the test series in the third match, 18-13.
The footage also shows that players at the time did not have to fall back after a tackle but were permitted to crowd around the play-the-ball. They could also strike at the ball as it was being played.