Due to COVID-19, the 25th anniversary of the last great disruption to the game – the Super League war – has passed with little comment.
Over a few articles, I’d like to discuss the impacts on all the stakeholders and then consider the what-if situations.
So who adapted and who suffered? First, we’ll look at the teams, starting with those affiliated with Super League.
Essentially founded because Super League were unable to poach enough teams for a ten-team competition, the Rams were handed a couple of players from the other teams’ rosters at the last minute just to field a side, and were the only team in either competition in 1997 not to field a reserve-grade side.
Somehow, they never collected a wooden spoon thanks to a solid squad including Kerrod Walters, Kevin Campion, Luke Williamson and Tony Iro. As the NRL looked to whittle down the teams to 14, Adelaide were axed at the end of 1998, a day after their 1999 season launch.
Fun fact: the Rams were the only team in the era of television never to be shown on free-to-air.
The best equipped and most coveted of the 1995 expansion teams, they were bound to defect after their players and the NZRL signed en masse with Super League.
Given a special exception from the full criteria to be considered for the 14-team season of 2000 as long as they could prove solvency – an exemption only offered to them, Brisbane and Newcastle, the two 1997 premiers – they actually went broke at the end of the 2000 season. But under new ownership, they were rebadged as the New Zealand Warriors and then simply the Warriors, and continue underachieving in the NRL to this day.
Fun fact: the Warriors would have been the first expansion club to make the finals in their first season had they not had the points from their first ever win taken away. They interpreted the free interchange for a blood bin, as were the rules at the time, to mean they could use an additional interchange player.
Due to dissatisfaction with the governance of the NSWRL, the Broncos were the original drivers of the Super League concept. With an elite squad, which was one of the few to stay mostly stable, Brisbane stayed successful before, during and after the war.
Support and sponsorship were unaffected, and the conflict took away the Crushers and the Chargers, the two clubs that threatened their regional monopoly. In war, there are no winners. Apparently, no one told that to the Broncos.
Fun fact: their 1997 title and World Club Championship grand final wins were the only deciders held outside of Sydney and Australia or England respectively.
Super League marked the decline of the Green Machine as a premiership powerhouse as other teams were better able to achieve salary parity and star players were harder to retain. This may have been inevitable anyway, but the war seemed too much of a distraction, including players taking the ARL to court due to being blacklisted for internationals. They won, but still weren’t selected.
Fun fact: in the split competition, the Raiders fielded a winger named Royston Lightning. Not only was he fast, he was also only momentarily sighted.
Already trying to modernise by badging themselves as the Sydney Bulldogs in 1995 and relocating to Parramatta Stadium, their defection to Super League was acrimonious to the extent that four of their best players sued the club in the midst of the ’95 campaign to be able to rejoin the ARL.
Somehow, after finishing the regular season in sixth, they ended that year as premiers. They missed the finals the following year, and despite making the finals, their defensive steel was gone in 1997. The topsy-turvy results continued with another grand final appearance, this time after finishing in ninth, in 1998.
Whispers of a joint venture with Western Suburbs went nowhere as it was clear that the Bulldogs would easily survive the 14-team rationalisation at the end of 1999, which they did.
Fun fact: the Bulldogs are the only southern hemisphere side to ever lose to the same northern hemisphere side twice in the same year, falling to Wigan home and away in the World Club Championship.
Along with Canberra and Canterbury, the Sharks were threatened with expulsion from the 1995 season for being the first sides to join Super League. Surprisingly, Brisbane didn’t actually sign up in the first few days as there was a greater focus on signing less guaranteed parties.
They survived that and went on to have the most consistently strong run in their history. Although they didn’t boast the kind of squad boasted by the likes of Brisbane and Manly, and the porch light stayed on. But a stable, well-balanced squad made Shark Park a Saturday night fortress.
Fun fact: in 1995, the Sharks played the Western Reds in Round 3 and Round 4. Despite the embarrassment that this bad scheduling caused, it happened again in 1996.
The original yellow-and-blue Mariners team hated by the Newcastle sporting community, their very existence summed up the destructive nature of the war.
After the Knights belatedly stuck with the ARL, Super League decided they still wanted a team in Newcastle, a market clearly not big enough to sustain two teams. And a club created by the Super League whose success relied on being at the expense of the Knights was never going to win the PR battle.
Things got ugly. Death-threat ugly. Current Knights owners Wests Leagues Club looked to buy into the club but withdrew after outrage from members. In the end, they put together a solid squad that behaved admirably on and off the field, and only missed the finals by one position in 1997, their one and only season.
They even made the final of the ill-fated World Club Championship, falling to Brisbane in their last ever match. When the NRL peace deal was made, however, they were the obvious side for Super League to relinquish.
Fun fact: the Mariners’ cheerleaders were nicknamed the Ship Shapes. I wouldn’t have thought that those women would be happy about being described as the shape of a ship.
Although the Storm first took the field in the unified NRL competition of 1998, they were still essentially a Super League side, created as a replacement for the Reds at the end of 1997 in preparation for another two-competition season.
With a squad mainly made up of the two Super League clubs to fall – leading to the nickname ‘Perth Mariners’ – along with the likes of Glenn Lazarus and Tawera Nikau, they were successful from the outset and have arguably been the strongest side ever since.
Fun fact: in their first ever premiership match, Glenn Lazarus captained the Storm from the interchange bench. Take that, Kurt Gidley!
The Cowboys’ gratitude to being included in the expanded Winfield Cup lasted all of four rounds, being an early convert to the rebel competition.
They took the wooden spoon that year, and in the Super League season, and the first year of the 14-team edition of the NRL. That was the retirement-lounge era of Cowboys recruitment, which really only changed with the signing of Johnathan Thurston.
Fun fact: North Queensland had a player, Adrian Vowles, sent off in their first ever match, the only side to ever manage that honour.
The Western Reds were effectively forced to move to Super League. The 1995 expansion club, as a condition of entry, were forced to pay the travel costs of their opponents, a stipulation not placed on the Warriors or Cowboys.
Their budget was already stretched when they found out that travel cost would also include reserve-grade squads, and when the war started, the ARL couldn’t guarantee their survival. A solid squad missed the finals in season one by only two points, but results declined thereafter. The end of the war also meant the end of any hopes of a financial rescue package, which led to the Storm effectively taking their place (and some of their playing squad).
Fun fact: a 1996 victory over Manly was the first ever instance of 20th beating first on the ladder, a feat unlikely to be replicated for generations to come.
Expected to remain loyal to the ARL until a potential player exodus forced their hand, the Panthers were the last existing club to join Super League.
It was a fairly positive move, with a 1997 finals appearance being their first since they won it in ’91. But their lack of subsequent winning results, coupled with below-average crowds and sponsorships, put them in peril of missing the cut-off for the 2000 season. Eventually they were ranked 14th, taking the final place at the expense of the Rabbitohs.
Fun fact: South Sydney fans, look away now. The subjective criteria used to determine the 14-team competition differentiated sponsorship from grants, with only sponsorship being considered for inclusion. Money from Panthers Leagues Clubs, owned by and for the benefit of the Penrith Panthers, was considered sponsorship. Meanwhile, money from Souths Juniors, an affiliated but separate entity to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, was considered a grant. If the Penrith money was considered a grant, and the Souths money was considered a sponsorship – a determination more logical than what actually occurred – that last golden ticket would’ve been redistributed to Redfern.
In the next edition, I’ll look at the ARL clubs.