Frame capture of the 1970 grand final between Manly and South Sydney

Rugby League highlights

80 years of rugby league history
 Adam Blackshaw

'Anyone who does not watch rugby league is not a real person.'

So said Australian entrepreneur John Singleton. From its first season in Australia in 1908 to now, rugby has traditionally been seen as a working-class game for hard men. Look no further than this clip from the infamous opening minutes of the 1970 grand final, when Manly forward John Bucknall broke South Sydney captain John Sattler's jaw in three places.

1970 Rugby League Grand Final (excerpt). Courtesy Cinesound Movietone Productions. NFSA title 740089


Born from a schism with rugby union, the earliest league footage still shows the hallmarks of union but over the decades league forged its own identity with numerous rule changes, legendary players, memorable grand finals, heroes and villains.

Four matches were played on league's Foundation Day, 20 April 1908. At Wentworth Park in Sydney's Glebe, Easts beat Newtown and Glebe triumphed over Newcastle; while at Birchgrove Oval in Balmain, South Sydney beat North Sydney and Balmain beat Wests. The South Sydney Rabbitohs won the inaugural premiership against Easts in front of a modest crowd of 4,000 spectators.

It wasn't long before the Australian national team was playing international teams. The 1910 tour of Australia and New Zealand was the first international tour of Great Britain's Lions national team. The tour was a huge success for the Lions who won all their test matches and started  a regular test match series between Britain and Australia. For many years this rivalry was the pinnacle of rugby interest for Australians.
NSW defeats Queensland (frame capture). 1937

In a league of its own

With the Australian Kangaroos dominating the World Cup since the 1950s, the greatest interest in the game has turned to the domestic competition and in particular the annual State of Origin three-game series between NSW and Queensland.

While Queensland's Maroons have won every series, bar one, since 2006, our earliest footage of an interstate game dates from a time when NSW's Blues could make a clean sweep of the competition.

Rugby league in Australia has had many controversial moments, with the 1990s Super League war and the merging of teams causing anxiety amongst diehard supporters. The changing of some rules has been equally disappointing - the scrum was once a glorious show of brute force. Nevertheless, through all its tribulations, league continues to excite our interest every year.

With the 2017 grand final upon us we hope you enjoy looking back over almost a century of rugby league highlights and history in our curated collection.