When a footy player makes the headlines for the wrong reasons, a little voice inside my head says, “oh no, not again.”
After looking at the clubs that defected to Super League and those that remained loyal to the ARL, this time, I want to review the fates and fortunes of the representative teams as well as Super League’s World Club Championship.
City versus Country
Having recently been moved out of Sydney and changed from a regional to an Origin concept, the fixture was becoming more popular and competitive prior to the Super League war. However, one of the first reactions of the ARL fraternity to the defection of players was to ban them from representative football, with the unofficial NSW selection trial the first fixture affected.
Newcastle, fearing crowds insufficient to cover costs, withdrew from hosting the clash, which was moved to Steelers Stadium. City won in 1995, but lost the next two clashes before the fixture was scrapped in the peace deal.
Fun fact: City’s four-point tally in 1997 was their lowest ever. Not much of a fun fact, but this is City versus Country we’re talking about.
State of Origin
The ineligibility of Super League players decimated the talent pools for both New South Wales and Queensland, with the Maroons picking a spine of players out of position and debutants, including Papua New Guinean Adrian Lam, given special dispensation to represent his adopted state. Give an inch, take a mile…
Starting with a defensive masterclass culminating in a 2-0 victory, new coach Paul Vautin masterminded a series whitewash, using a record low 18 players in the process. That squad number was bettered the following year by the Blues, earning their own clean sweep with an unchanged line-up across all three fixtures. Both sides included Super League players in 1996, but Queensland struggled to unite their factions. The 1997 split competition again saw compromised line-ups, with the Blues winning 2-1 despite scoring fewer points across a very tight series.
Fun fact: Largely thanks to their back row of Trevor Gillmeister, Gary Larson and Billy Moore, Queensland’s 1995 line-up actually had more Origin experience than their opponents.
The board of every rugby league nation aside from Australia signed up to Super League, which effectively ended the Kangaroos’ genuine international opportunities.
The 1995 season saw a three-Test series with New Zealand and World Cup participation go ahead, winning both with only ARL-aligned players. A united side was initially chosen to play the Kiwis again in 1996, only for it to be cancelled and a match hastily arranged against a rebel side from the domestic Fijian competition without the presence of Super League players. They, like a Papua New Guinea side formed under the same circumstances for a post-season Test, were uncompetitive.
The only opponent to be found in 1997 was a Rest of the World 17, including such household names as Chris Nahi and Willie McLean. It was at Suncorp and drew a crowd of less than 15,000.
Fun fact: Andrew Walker is the first player to represent Australia as a Kangaroo before becoming a Wallaby. However, his 1996 appearance against PNG is not recognised as a Test by the board of any other nation.
The only other international presence the ARL could manage was in the pre-season, as its clubs competed against dubious international outfits. Manly, Newcastle, and Parramatta won the last three tournaments before it was cut from the schedule in the peace agreement.
Fun fact: The 1997 USA team, coached by Warren Ryan, included a winger named Greg Smith. With the speedster armed with a resume including a brief NFL stint as a running back, Ryan acted on his desire to field an American in the NRL, giving Smith a debut three games into his coaching stint for Newcastle in 1999. With parallels to Southampton’s Ali Dia in the English Premier League, Smith was truly inept, revealed to have blatantly lied about his supposed NFL career, and never played first grade again. The Bulldogs won 28-26.
Super League’s first competition, the modified sevens format was exclusively made up of international teams. Held in February of 1996 and 1997 in Suva and Townsville respectively, New Zealand won both tournaments, with Australia twice eliminated in the semi-finals.
Fun fact: Gorden Tallis made his Australian debut in the 1997 edition, despite having sat out the entirety of the 1996 season owing to a contract dispute.
A spin on the Origin concept, including New Zealand along with NSW and Queensland, the teams played each other once in Sydney, Auckland, and Canberra before the final in Brisbane. The Blues and Maroons’ round-robin meeting was effectively a selection trial, held before the Australia versus New Zealand Test. Those two sides met again in the final, with the Blues’ 23-22 golden-point victory not only the first game to be decided by that method, but the longest game in Australian first grade and representative history.
Fun fact: While in camp for NSW, field goal match-winner Noel Goldthorpe was replaced at halfback for his Hunter Mariners club side by Brett Kimmorley. Goldthorpe only managed one more game in the starting line-up, while Kimmorley represented Australia in the post-season.
Super League Tests
The rebel competition controlled the international game, running an Oceania Cup during the Tri Series in 1997, and providing the Australian team a two-game and three-game series against New Zealand and Great Britain respectively. The decision to promote the first NZ Test as the Anzac Test, at the time a brand new fixture, was controversial, but the time slot proved sufficiently popular with supporters. They would split the series, meaning that New Zealand had more success against the national side than they did against the individual states, before Australia won 2-1 in England. These Tests, like the other Super League competitions, are not counted in NRL records.
Fun fact: Official or not, the results for the green and gold (and blue, strangely enough) marked the first time since 1978 that Australia lost two matches in a calendar year, and it took until 2005 to happen again.
World Club Championship
Before looking at the format and results of the competition, we should try to find the moment that best encapsulates the shortcomings of the tournament. Was it the Hunter Mariners, undefeated but needing to win to make the finals, not even drawing 2000 fans to their final pool game on a weekend when the Newcastle Knights brought in over 25,000? Not quite. Brisbane 76, Halifax 0? Nope. A final with barely 10,000 spectators? Disappointing, but no. North Queensland playing their Round 1 home match at 10.30am, presumably for English viewers? Not even close.
The tournament’s nadir was, in fact, in the very last pool match. A 32-26 home victory to the Panthers meant that they missed the finals on for-and-against, while the defeated St Helens kept the margin tight enough to qualify for a playoff for the last quarter-final position. Penrith won all of their pool games, St Helens went winless. But how was that farce even possible?
The concept behind the World Club Championship was reasonable, exploiting the international presence of Super League, adding extra games to the schedule by pitting the two new professional competitions against one another to see who would reign supreme. Predictably, the Australian sides, plus Auckland, were superior. The real issue was the degree of their dominance. Of the northern hemisphere teams, only Wigan won more than one match, and blowouts were routine. Already sceptical fans stayed away in droves.
Structurally, the competition would make even a Super Rugby enthusiast wince. Teams were divided into four pools, two for Australasia, and two for Europe, which were determined by domestic results from the previous season. This meant Europe’s Pool A contained their best six teams against Australasia’s best six, and Europe’s Pool B contained their remaining six teams against the bottom two Australasian teams from 1996, plus the debutant Rams and Mariners. This meant that Pool B was six teams versus four, meaning that those northern hemisphere sides had two less matches than everybody else.
Having six matches meant six opponents, right? No, that would have been too logical. Instead, there were groupings within each pool, where three teams from the north would play three teams from the south home and away, presumably to remove any notions of unfairness regarding who plays at which venue. However, it meant teams from the same pool were vying for the same quarter-final spots despite playing completely different opponents to one another. It also meant that a dud fixture in the first three rounds was going to be repeated, just in front of a different set of near empty stands.
And how were the quarter-finalists determined? Australasia Pool A received three spots and Australasia Pool B, with only four clubs and weaker opponents, received one spot. Europe Pool A received three automatic spots, with the fourth-placed club entering a playoff with the highest finisher from Europe Pool B. In other words, the six clubs in Europe Pool B were fighting to earn a single spot in the equivalent of a round-of-16 knockout match in a competition with only 22 teams. FIFA would be proud. It also meant that regardless of comparative performance, Australasian and European sides would have the same amount of quarter-finalists, and the same amount of home games for those fixtures.
The logistics of the competition created further problems. Half of the teams left their respective continents to play their away fixtures in the first three rounds and hosted their home fixtures in the next three rounds, with the other sides on the reverse schedule. This meant round-the-world return flights for 22 playing squads and their staff, along with hotel and associated bookings for up to three weeks, even without finals fixtures factored in. To fit the fixtures into the calendar, the respective Super League competitions were twice put on hold to accommodate the three-round blocks. Upon resumption of the domestic leagues, teams suffering from the effects of acclimatising to a different season and jet lag would be immediately thrown into fixtures with opponents who had not had to leave their home ground for weeks. The finals were played after the domestic finals, meaning that some sides were rested but rusty playing against sides that had just played in similar matches.
All of these shortcomings could have been glossed over, however, if the matches themselves were competitive. Instead, most fixtures had a Harlem Globetrotter vibe. Australasia’s Pool A saw a perfect record by Brisbane, Auckland, Cronulla and Penrith. With only three spots available, the mountain men missed out on for-and-against. Canberra, despite scoring an average of over 50 points per game, also missed out, having slipped up against London in their first overseas fixture. For London, that lone victory was enough to secure second place and a home quarter-final in their group.
Meanwhile, Canterbury played the role of the Auckland Blues, ending with a winning record but finishing last in a ridiculously dominant conference. Their two losses to Wigan gifted the northerners top spot in their pool. St Helens, as mentioned earlier, earned fourth spot and a playoff against the Pool B winner, despite losing all of their matches. Even more embarrassingly, Bradford, also winless, took third without even having to endure a playoff. The English Pool A teams lost 33 of their 36 matches, with an average score of 43-15.
Although the Australian sides still dominated the Pool B clashes, the fixtures were less than a fait accompli. All bar one of the European sides managed a victory, with their reduced fixture list likely an advantage. Paris St Germain, the only side to concede less than 100 points, took the Europe Pool B playoff position. The Australian pool was more clear-cut, with the undefeated Mariners making the quarter-finals ahead of 5-1 North Queensland, and 4-2 Adelaide and Perth.
It gets worse. That Paris playoff was easily overcome by the previously winless St Helens, and then Brisbane put 66 points on them. The other English teams also bowed out in the quarters. Hunter Mariners won their first ever away game in Australia against Cronulla, while Brisbane eliminated Auckland to qualify for a final to be held in Auckland.
Although the semi-finals were pre-arranged with the expectation of the Australasian top two in one game and the European top two in the other, surely the eventual line-up could have been tweaked to have Auckland play Cronulla or Hunter and stand a greater chance of going through for a home-ground final. It may have undermined the integrity of the competition, but that ship had long sailed.
Typically, David and Goliath scenarios attract support for the underdog. But when that underdog was the Hunter Mariners, who could not even draw a crowd above 3500 in the group stages, the result was apathy. Brisbane coasted through the final, an anticlimactic ending to a disastrous competition. Of all the missteps by both sides of the war, this tournament had to be the worst.
Fun fact: The Mariners, by making it through to the final in Auckland, were the only side to play in all four countries to host the tournament.
Bonus fun fact: Penrith are the only first-grade team to win every one of their matches in a competition without walking away with a trophy.
Even though the NRL is restarting, this series will still continue. The next installment will look at players and other individuals affected by the war.