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A forfeit, challengers and Bears premierships: How the rugby league grand final came to be

Roar Guru
4th December, 2021
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Roar Guru
4th December, 2021
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Roar contributor Tony has written – any may still be writing – an excellent series about grand finals and outstanding grand finalists.

The grand final was not something that was born with rugby league in 1908, and the early years of premiership deciders were a fascinating mess.

The first official grand final didn’t happen until 1930 and a grand final was not mandatory until 1954.

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Did you know that, despite winning two premierships in the 1920s, the North Sydney Bears have never won a grand final. They only ever played in one and it’s a truly tragic tale. Sorry, Bears fans.


Rugby league’s early years were understandably tumultuous. It was a fledgling code in a fledgling federation. There was the Great War and its aftermath, the Spanish flu and a looming depression.

Life was hard and rugby league was complicated.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Between 1908 and 1930, there were five different methods of determining the premiers, and the minor premier was usually rewarded significantly for their achievement.

On ten occasions there wasn’t, strictly speaking, a minor premier because the team that finished top of the league were automatically awarded the premiership. The other 13 seasons during this period saw multiple experiments.

In 1908 and 1909, semi-finals were played between the top four teams for a place in the final. But it’s possible a final would have been unnecessary in this system. Teams carried points accrued during the regular season into the playoffs and further points were earned by winning the semi-final and the final.

It’s not clear what would have happened in 1908 if, for example, Norths had beaten Easts in their playoff and qualified for the final against the eventual premiers, Souths. A final would have been pointless because even if Norths had won, Souths would have been premiers.

The 1909 season was set to end in a final between the two top teams, Souths and Balmain, but ended in acrimony and farce when Balmain refused to play.


The Tigers withdrew in a fit of pique due to the final being scheduled as a curtain raiser to a game between the Kangaroos and Wallabies. Souths won their second premiership through Balmain’s forfeit.

The flawed rationale underpinning rugby league’s early finals system did lead to an interesting outcome two years later.

There were no playoffs in 1911. The great Glebe team of Frank Burge and Chris McKivat won the minor premiership and automatically qualified for the final alongside second-placed Easts.

Easts upset Glebe 22-9 in the final but were deemed to have only drawn level on points with the Dirty Reds. A second final – the first grand final in all but name – was played a week later and won 11-8 by Dally Messenger’s Tricolours.

Dally Messenger

Dally Messenger. (Image: Public domain)

This system was ditched after 1911 but wasn’t lost entirely. Ten of the next 14 premierships were automatically awarded to the first-placed team.

Balmain’s five-premiership dynasty of 1915-20 involved only one final victory, in 1916. Three further finals between the top two teams were played from 1922 to ‘24.

By 1926, the league had grown weary of premierships determined through league position alone, as the outcome was often a foregone conclusion well before season’s end.


A four-team playoff system was re-introduced. There would be two semi-finals – usually first against third and second against fourth – to determine the finalists.

However, if the minor premier was beaten in either the semi-final or final, they retained the right to challenge the winner of the final in a grand final.

Wests were the first to take advantage of the challenger rule. The 1930 final was played between Wests and St George – two teams seeking their first premiership – and won 14-6 by the Dragons.

A week later, having invoked their right to challenge, Wests convincingly won the first grand final 27-2.

This system remained largely in place until 1954, when the challenger rule was replaced by the second chance for the team that lost the major semi-final. This principle remains in place today.


If the same system applied in 2021, Melbourne could have challenged Penrith for the premiership in a super grand final.

(Photo by Handout/NRL Photos via Getty Images )

I promise I’ll stop torturing Norths supporters shortly, but the finals of 1943 deserve a mention.

Frank Hyde’s Norths finished third overall and were drawn to play minor premiers Newtown in a semi-final at the SCG.

Norths beat Newtown 21-16 to qualify for the final, which they won 25-19 over St George.

Newtown retained their challenge and a fresh Bluebags outfit trounced Norths 34-7 to take the grand final and premiership. Poor Norths.