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Super League revisited: The ARL clubs

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Roar Rookie
6th May, 2020
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Following Part 1, which focused on the clubs aligned to the Super League, I’m now going to look back on the ARL and their clubs, including the joint ventures that followed the Super League war.

Balmain
Having never truly recovered from the most heartbreaking moment in their history – appointing Alan Jones as coach – the Sydney Tigers, as they were temporarily known after an unsuccessful rebrand, were struggling throughout the ’90s both on and off field, with the smallest roster expenditure of the NRL era. They may as well have put an ad in the classifieds section, so keen were they to find someone to partner with.

Adelaide talks went nowhere, nor did the Gold Coast and Brisbane Easts grouping. Parramatta’s interest amounted to a takeover bid by the Eels, and eventually a joint venture with the Magpies was seen as the most palatable option. Incidentally, Balmain finished 13th on the criteria rankings and thus would’ve been able to play in 2000 as a standalone club, but financial limitations would’ve left them floundering.

Fun fact: Second-rower Mark Stimson played in a modified boot having lost multiple toes in an industrial accident in the middle of 1998. The fact that he had a full-time job in the NRL era showed that the Super League salary explosion was not felt across the board.

Gold Coast
The Super League war brought on three sets of owners, three nicknames, two home grounds, two sets of colours, and a fleeting glimmer of on-field success. When the Seagulls folded at the end of 1995, local businessman Jeff Muller bought in and rebranded them as the Gladiators. That name didn’t last due to legal action from the TV show bearing the same name, and neither did Muller.

As the Chargers, they made the finals for the only time in the pre-Titans era, but more importantly, introduced the world to Captain Charger. Even he, however, could not prevent the club’s perennial inability to retain its junior talent. The decisions to reject mergers with the Crushers and Mariners at the end of 1997 were understandable but ultimately catastrophic. With the NRL intending to stagger the culling of clubs, the ARL offered up the struggling Chargers for sacrifice at the end of 1998. The club had an odd post-script, loaning $2 million to the Knights in the early 2000s despite seemingly not operating in any capacity.

Fun fact: Jeff Muller, who was much more hands-on than players and coaches would tolerate, had his wife create the Gladiators uniform design and colours that were kept by the Chargers, which explains the use of purple and turquoise.

Illawarra
Much like the Gold Coast, the Steelers’ on-field success was stalled by having their talented local juniors poached by bigger clubs, and sponsorship and crowds being enthusiastic but from too small of a base. Just like the Chargers, they had only won one finals match in their history, and were being left with little hope of change. Merging with St George – historically a favoured club of the Wollongong region – ensured their survival that could have gone either way.

Three ARL clubs so far, and none of them made it to 2000. I’m sensing a pattern here.

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Illawarra’s Rod Wishart brought down by Manly’s Mark Carroll.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Fun fact: Shaun Timmins missed a full-time conversion next to the posts at North Sydney Oval in 1997, which meant that the Steelers drew with the Bears, just as they had in the two lower grade games. This had never happened before, or since.

Manly
Aside from fielding Terry Hill and John Hopoate, having a former player as the ARL boss and being perceived as getting favourable treatment from the league, sledging and patting opponents on the head after mistakes, fielding Terry Hill and John Hopoate, aiming to take out kickers’ legs, fielding Terry Hill and John Hopoate, a recruitment policy seemingly focused on decimating poorer clubs (the Magpies and Rabbitohs alone lost Hill, David Gillespie, Mark Carroll, Ian Roberts, Craig Field and Jim Sedaris), and fielding Terry Hill and John Hopoate, Manly were a loveable bunch.

They dominated during the Super League war, making three consecutive grand finals. During and after the war, however, Roberts, Carroll, Gillespie, Solomon Haumono, Billy Weepu and Owen Cunningham – all front-row options – moved on and instead of bothering to sign replacements, Bob Fulton tried to play the likes of Sedaris and Steve Menzies at prop to cover. Fulton applied this same wisdom for several NSW Origin teams in the 2000s, with similar outcomes.

Limping through the end of the ’90s, the Sea Eagles would have survived as an independent team, but entered a sham wedding with the Bears, as detailed further below. They eventually returned in 2003, in time for Terry Hill and John Hopoate to finish their careers there.

Fun fact: Down the blind, Andrew Johns. Inside for Albert… Albert! Yes! Newcastle have won the grand final!

Newcastle 
A club with a strong following and junior base, the Knights were always hamstrung by a lack of corporate muscle and no leagues club to generate revenue. So when Super League came knocking, the board was enthusiastic, as were a third of the playing squad. However, fan and member opposition put paid to switching camps.

This had a number of consequences. On the plus side, the Knights had a shocking record playing interstate, which was hardly an issue in the 1997 ARL season. This also reduced travel costs. More importantly, it allowed players exposure to representative teams that would have otherwise been years away, had it occurred at all. However, they still lacked money for operations and infrastructure, with the presence of the Hunter Mariners a new and unwanted challenge.

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A maiden preliminary final in 1995 was followed by missing the finals in 1996. And then it started raining. The split competition was already damaging to attendance numbers, but atrocious weather (for example, players showed symptoms of hypothermia against Norths, and their Souths game had to be postponed, only for the conditions on the rescheduled date to be barely an improvement) led to record low crowds.

Only their grand final victory, with its associated prize money and merchandising opportunities, led to the club avoiding insolvency. The ARL may have offered a rescue package, given Newcastle’s strategic importance, but the money wasn’t there for the Crushers and may not have been available for the Knights.

Fun fact: Newcastle took until 1995 to win their first Friday night game, and until 1996 to win their first away game against an interstate team.

North Sydney
Going from the strongest period of their existence to losing their top-flight status, the Bears were the biggest losers of the Super League war. The ’90s saw seven finals appearances, including four preliminary finals, plus solid crowds and corporate support.

(Photo by Getty Images)

In light of the NRL rationalisation for the 2000 season, the Bears made the decision to relocate to Gosford for the 1999 season, while planning to play against Manly at North Sydney Oval each year. This was partially so they would not be counted as a Sydney club, of which the NRL had set a maximum limit, but also because there was a new stadium set to be built to accommodate them.

And then it started raining. The Grahame Park site was beset by delays and in the interim, presumably out of displeasure due to their departure, North Sydney Oval was not made available to the Bears by the local council. The Bears were forced to host games at Stadium Australia and Suncorp Stadium until an agreement was made, sending their crowds plummeting.

On-field performances suffered, with the finals missed for the first time since 1992. Sponsorship was also an issue, with their major sponsor BBX (Business Barter Exchange) providing credit for goods and services rather than cash. This meant that that sponsorship counted for zero in the rationalisation criteria, and meant that they couldn’t pay their creditors. In the end, having never played a game on the Central Coast, the Bears went broke and weren’t even given a ranking for the 14-team criteria. The Northern Eagles era followed, and it doesn’t get any prettier.

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Fun fact: 1995 was the first season that used for-and-against to split teams finishing on equal points, rather than playoffs. The Bears finished the regular season on 24 points, equal with the Roosters and Warriors, but took eighth place without enduring a midweek fixture.

Northern Eagles
Any sides that entered into a merger or joint venture were given a bonus $8 million by the NRL as an incentive, in the hopes of not having to cull as many teams. The 14-team data had already been finalised, and Manly had qualified, but were given a special dispensation to still receive the money if they teamed up with the Bears, which they did. With all of the leverage, Manly provided the coach, the captain, much of the board, and the majority of the playing squad, as well as essentially retaining their mascot and colours. Matches were split between Gosford and Brookvale, with North Sydney Oval excluded.

The 2002 season was the last for the Northern Eagles, though they were still the joint venture in name only, having already transferred all of their games to Brookvale after Central Coast crowds plummeted. Manly board members took back the licence, leaving the Bears languishing in the NSW Cup, the Central Coast relying on teams partnering with the Wyong Roos to play NSW Cup, and teams (including Manly, audaciously) bringing one-off home games to Gosford. The $8 million did not need to be returned.

Fun fact: Only Annandale played more games than the Eagles without ever making the finals.

Parramatta
Super League came at a good time for the Eels, who had previously been struggling to attract players due to their poor results. An unprecedented spending spree for the 1996 season – which included Jim Dymock, Jarrod McCracken, Dean Pay, Jason Smith, Gary Freeman, Aaron Raper, Adam Ritson, Nathan Barnes and Stuart Kelly – failed to pay off, but when Ron Hilditch was replaced as coach by Brian Smith, they became a September participant once more. They looked at forming joint ventures, but ultimately survived on their own.

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Fun fact: Ian Herron was successfully brought out of reserve grade to help win a 1998 semi-final in Brisbane. He was dropped for the first of Parramatta’s three consecutive preliminary finals. Meanwhile, Paul Carige kept his spot. Whoops!

St George
Despite regular finals appearances in the 1990s, including three grand finals, the Dragons were watching the vultures circle throughout. As early as 1995, a merger with the Roosters was on the cards. Brian Smith departed as coach, believing he would lose out to Phil Gould. Rod Reddy was lined up as a replacement but defected to Adelaide, with David Waite eventually appointed for 1996. Meanwhile, Gorden Tallis sat out that season having had his move to Brisbane blocked by the initial court ban on Super League. They unexpectedly made the grand final, but could not maintain the momentum. Forming a joint venture with the Steelers at the end of 1998 ensured their mutual survival.

Anthony Mundine of the Dragons

(Photo by Nick Wilson/Getty Images)

Fun fact: The ubiquitous Great St George Team (GST) banner was first unfurled in 1997. Back then, it had a degree of context. Back in 1997, 23 years ago.

St George Illawarra
The first joint venture to be formed had, aside from sound finances and passionate supporter bases, two well balanced squads of players available for a 25-man roster. And with the NRL wanting to make the joint-venture concept work, they were allowed essentially double the salary cap of the other sides for their first season. After taking time to gel as a unit, they ended up qualifying for the grand final from sixth position. They were forced to shed much of their talent pool thereafter, but remained regular fixtures in September in subsequent years.

Fun fact: The Dragons are the only southern hemisphere side to play in front of crowds of over 100,000 twice, doing so in the 1999 double header and the 1999 grand final.

South Queensland
The club set to rival the Broncos for the support of the people of Brisbane, the Crushers were doomed as soon as the war began. It was going to take years to develop a loyal following, but the war ravaged crowds. Furthermore, their cross-town rivals were not only successful, but moving onto a rival competition with no desire to drag little brother along.

At the end of 1997, the Crushers were left with their second consecutive wooden spoon, small crowds despite resorting to offering free entry at the end of their run, and, most importantly, considerable debt. Players and staff were paid only a fraction of their wages, and only three players (Clinton Schifcofske, Mark Tookey and Scott Sattler) played in the NRL in 1998. Sadly, the most memorable moment in the club’s history was Mario Fenech being hit in the head by a football.

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Fun fact: The Crushers, uniquely, saved their best until last, notching the club’s biggest win in their last ever game.

South Sydney
Generally, a successful side keeps the amount of players used in a season to a minimum. Although good luck with injuries plays a big part, it is also achieved through a well resourced rehabilitation program, player discipline and unity, and established combinations of experienced players that are trusted to persevere with even if results aren’t initially forthcoming. In the 22-round season of 1995, the red and green used 49 players. At least they didn’t finish last. With the guillotine ever present, the Rabbitohs did not seek out mergers, determined to maintain their independent status.

When they were excluded from the 2000 competition, they refused to field a state cup team, fearing it would undermine their legal fight for reinstatement. After multiple court cases, the NRL were found to have breached the Trade Practices Act, and this resulted in Souths’ return to the fold for 2002. A hastily assembled squad only avoided the wooden spoon due to the Bulldogs losing points for salary-cap breaches, and the rebuild from their exclusion was slow and divisive.

Rabbitohs flag

(Photo: Kris Swales)

Fun fact: Although the Broncos versus Sea Eagles clash on the same night stole the headlines, the first ever NRL game was won by the Bunnies, winning 22-16 in Auckland.

Sydney City
The Roosters’ mid-table mediocrity prior to Super League was broken first by appointing Penrith coach Phil Gould for 1995, and then recruiting Brad Fittler and the most underrated player in history, Matt Sing, from the Panthers for 1996. That opened the door to more recruitment and player retention, and the Roosters became finals fixtures. They are now the only club to have played in every first-grade premiership season.

Fun fact: Despite breaking Manly’s 15-game winning streak to open the 1995 season, Phil Gould still let loose on referee David Jay at the post-match press conference, becoming the first coach to be fined for referee criticism after a win.

Western Suburbs
The Magpies’ Super League experience can be summed up through their experience with FootyTab. Season 1994 saw them as a nuisance-value club, hence South Sydney’s John Elias saw their clash with the Magpies as a plausible game to attempt to perform spot fixing. In 1996, the team was doing just well enough that they were willing to back themselves to cover the 4.5-point start in a last-round match against the Steelers, leading to Paul Langmack attempting a field goal when leading by four points in the shadows of full time.

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But by 1999, they had sunk so low that against the Sharks, they became the only team to be given a start of more than 50 points. They still have an NRL presence through their deal with Balmain, which came after failing to come to agreement on merger plans with the Bulldogs or Panthers, and finishing with two wooden spoons and a 16th-place ranking on the NRL 2000 criteria.

Fun fact: One of their forwards missed a 1999 game in Newcastle due to an infection caused by shaving his legs.

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Wests Tigers
An official launch where their 2000 jerseys were modelled by women in body paint foretold the culture of the joint-venture club in the early days. They couldn’t hold onto major sponsors for more than one year, and had similar difficulties with coaches. On-field, they had a promising start but fell away as injuries and poor discipline took their toll.

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In their last match of their debut season, John Hopoate was cited for contrary conduct based on no less than 12 incidents. The next season, his behaviour – which coach Terry Lamb had laughed about – made international headlines. On the night of Hopoate’s suspension, Craig Field and Kevin McGuinness also received enforced holidays, having tested positive to cocaine. Later, the Tigers offered Craig Bellamy his first head coaching gig. He said no.

Fun fact: Not only were the Tigers part of the only ever NRL match played in snow, they also played the only match on a beach. The Campbelltown Stadium grass had simply not grown in large areas of the field prior to their inaugural competition appearance. Instead of moving the game to Leichhardt Oval, officials decided to patch up the numerous bare areas with massive amounts of sand, which were then painted green. It worked as well as you’d expect.

Next time I’ll look at representative football, sevens and nines tournaments, and the World Club Championship.