The Roar
The Roar


Controversy? Rugby league is built on it

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
26th July, 2018

Sack the linesman, sack the ref, blow up the Bunker, fire the CEO, disband the Commission, and even – heaven forbid – let Phil Gould run everything.

A fan might be forgiven for keeping his 2019 season ticket money in his pocket – rugby league will obviously be disbanded by then.

And it has ever been thus.

Can anyone remember a time when rugby league has not been mired in conflict, crisis and controversy? I can’t, and my memory goes back longer than I’d care to admit.

My reading of rugby league history also tells me the pattern has never changed, since the day the code was born in the north of England.

Rugby league arose out of conflict between players wanting compensation for injuries and a rugby union administration that did not care. Both in England and then in Australia, the game faced hostility from day dot.

In France, the game was driven underground during the Second World War and has fought for its existence ever since.

And yet, the players and administrators have never just been satisfied with fighting the external forces of evil. No, no, rugby league has always specialised in shooting itself in the foot, and that’s because the gun is always pointed at itself.

I recently had the pleasure of acquiring ‘Our Game – The Celebration of Brisbane rugby league 1909-1987’ by Steve Haddan. The thing that struck me most was how the Brisbane Rugby League (BRL) and the Queensland Rugby League (QRL) spent most of their energies in the early days trying to sabotage each other, including with player bans and breakaway competitions.


At one point, the QRL actively set up representative fixture programs to try to prevent the club competition from being successful.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. Two phrases automatically recall the major conflicts of our game: Super League and South Sydney. Let’s face it, we love a good stoush. It’s as though the game can’t exist without it.

Here is a too-long list of Australian rugby league conflicts and controversies, which is by no means even close to comprehensive.

New South Wales
1909 – The South Sydney Rabbitohs and Balmain Tigers had unofficially agreed to boycott the grand final in protest to the New South Wales Rugby League’s plans for a match between the Australian rugby union and rugby league teams, which would have upstaged the final. Instead, Souths turned up ready to play and were awarded the premiership as Balmain were not present.

1954 – The touring Great Britain side clashed with NSW at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Blues had selected a full-strength side, including a number of Test stars, but the Brits had other ideas and selected two front-rowers on the wings and a second-rower at fullback.

Knuckle was the order of the day, with nearly every tackle containing a punch and after 60 minutes of unrestrained thuggery, referee Aubrey Oxford decided he’d had enough. He walked off the field, leaving the brawling players behind him as the match was ruled a ‘no contest’. Oxford never refereed again.

1963 – Referee Darcy Lawler was claimed by some in the Western Suburbs camp to have placed money on St George to beat them in the grand final, and the Dragons enjoyed the best of the penalty count in their 8-3 win. Lawler denied the claims.

1994 – Controversial former rugby league player John Elias admitted he once tried to fix the match for a Western Suburbs win while he was playing for South Sydney. Elias claimed that he had four Rabbitohs players on board, but the deal fell through.


1995 to 1997 – The Super League war. Nothing else to say.

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1922 – The Brisbane rugby league is formed to run a breakaway competition from the Queensland Rugby League.

1925 – A match between Brisbane Brothers and Coorparoo is ordered replayed after the losing team protests the referee’s decision on the final siren, which cost them the game.

1929 to 1930 – The QRL and BRL run competing competitions. BRL players are banned from playing rep football and the BRL clubs even start talks to join the Queensland Rugby Union.

1932 – A referee is knocked unconscious during a brawl between Carlton and Brothers.

1937 – The BRL referees go on strike over club interference in referee appointments. Volunteers referee Round 1 before the dispute is resolved.

1941 – A referee is attacked by an angry crowd in the dressing rooms after a loss by Valleys. The referee is punched in the face by the Valleys centre, who is banned for life.


1948 – The BRL gets itself into a dispute with the media and bans all Brisbane radio stations from calling games.

1956 – The major semi-final between Wests and Brothers is abandoned. Wests refuse to play on after their two stars, captain Duncan Hall and Test centre Alex Watson, are sent from the field. Their suspensions are overturned by the QRL and as a result the referees go on strike.

1968 – Barry Muir leads his Wests team from the field in protest after being sent off. Later that season, he is banned for 12 months for spitting in the face of a referee.

1979 – A disgruntled suspended player cut down the goal posts at Lang Park before the grand final.

1987 – The NSWRL admit the Gold Coast into the Sydney rugby league competition, two weeks after the Brisbane Broncos consortium pay the QRL $500,000 for a three-year exclusive licence in the state.

The National Rugby League
2000 to 2001 – South Sydney are excluded and then re-admitted to the NRL, after numerous court battles and street marches.

2001 – John Hopoate is banned for inappropriate use of his fingers. The mind still boggles.

2002 – Cronulla Sharks sex scandal.


2004 – Canterbury sex scandal.

2010 – Ryan Tandy is convicted of spot fixing after a game between the Tigers and the Cowboys.

2011 to 2014 – The Cronulla supplements scandal. The Sharks were investigated over the legality of a supplements program during the 2011 NRL season and the preceding preseason. Relevant players and the coach receive a one-year ban, backdated to an effective six-month suspension, if they pleaded guilty to taking a banned substance.

Cronulla Sharks coach Shane Flanagan. (AAP Image/Jane Dempster)

AAP Image/Jane Dempster

What salary cap?
2002 – Canterbury are fined $500,000 and deducted all that year’s 37 premiership points after they were found to have committed serious and systematic breaches of the salary cap totalling $2.13 million over the past three years.

2005 – the New Zealand Warriors are fined $430,000 and started the 2006 season with a four-point deficit after club officials revealed that their former management had exceeded the salary cap by $1.1 million over the last two years.

2010 – After being found guilty of systematically breaching salary cap rules for five years, the Melbourne Storm are fined $1.689 million, stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships, the 2006, 2007 and 2009 minor premierships, and ordered to play for zero points, effectively sentencing them to finish the 2010 NRL season with the wooden spoon.

2016 – Parramatta are fined $1 million and stripped of their 2016 NRL Auckland Nines title after they were found to be over the salary cap by over $500,000. They were also stripped of the 12 competition points they had earned so far that season.


2018 – Manly were fined $750,000 and two of the club’s officials received 12-month bans after the NRL found that they had breached the salary cap over the previous five seasons.

After reading that list (and I have elected to leave the individual acts of idiocy involving bubblers, dogs, cocaine, mobile phones, shoes, casinos floors, bowler hats, hotel hallways and various other items to one side), it’s clear that the NSW Blues team should not be called the cockroaches. That belongs to the entire code, which regularly survives its own nuclear explosions.

So, the next time you herald the end of rugby league as you know it, remember the game has survived much, much worse.