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The rugby league club graveyard: A merger doomed to failure (part 8)

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Roar Guru
17th January, 2022
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This the eighth article in the series where we’ll have a look at the 17 rugby league clubs that have come and gone in the last 113 years.

Who were they, what happened to them, who were their best players, what legacy did they leave behind, and what did they achieve?

With so many defunct teams to get through, we’ll work through them in the chronological order in which they departed the competition. In parts 1 to 7 we looked at the thirteen clubs that disappeared from view up to 1998.

Today we’ll look at the North Sydney club, the first side to go in 1999, and the Northern Eagles, the merger club that put an end to the Bears, and the last club to disappear.

The North Sydney Bears
North Sydney entered the competition in 1908 and departed at the end of 1999.

Bears fans will always want to paint a different picture, but the fact is that North Sydney were rugby league’s greatest underachievers. They spent 92 years in the competition for just two premierships and nine wooden spoons.

It all began for North Sydney in 1908 as one of the nine foundation clubs, and they finished a creditable fourth that year before being eliminated in the semi-final by Eastern Suburbs. Originally known as the “Shoremen” due to the fact that they were the only team from Sydney’s pre-Harbour Bridge north shore, they struggled for numbers at times and were nearly dropped from the competition for that reason during the first world war.

1908 turned out to be a highpoint for Norths in those early years, as they picked up three wooden spoons over the next decade, and never finished any higher than fifth, in what was then an eight-team competition. The roaring twenties were to tell a different story though, as North Sydney entered what turned out to be their brief golden age, where they won the club’s only premierships in 1921 and 1922 under coach Chris McKivat.

McKivat was a dual union and league international, and had captained both the Wallabies and the Kangaroos, and North Sydney’s fortunes changed for the better when he joined the club as coach in 1920. Firstly, he got them off the bottom of the table, finishing in fifth place in 1920.

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Then, he guided an undefeated North Sydney team all the way to the premiership in 1921, which was decided on a first past the post basis, in what was a shortened season due to 1921-22 Kangaroo Tour. In an indication of the dominance of North Sydney that year, five of their players were selected for the tour in Duncan Thompson, Cec Blinkhorn, Harold Horder, Clarrie Ives and Herman Peters.

1922 saw North Sydney in great form once again, and they won 12 of their 16 games to finish on equal first with Glebe, who were led by Frank Burge.

A final was played to decide the issue and North Sydney ran away with the game, defeating Glebe by 35 points to 3, with the North Sydney three-quarter line running in seven tries between them, and Harold Horder notching up 20 points for the match.

Norths drifted for the next twenty years, picking up wooden spoons in both 1932 and 1941. And generally hovering somewhere in the middle of the pack without ever really threatening to challenge for another premiership. They made the semis in 1928, 1935 and 1936, but in each case were eliminated without progressing to the grand-final.

All that changed for the Shoremen in 1943, when captain/coach Frank Hyde led them to third place on the table and then into the premiership decider, only to go down by 34 points to 7 to Bumper Farrell and his Newtown side.

Sadly, that’s as close as Norths ever got to another title. They became known as the North Sydney Bears during the 1950s as a result of a sponsorship deal, made the finals a number of times without ever really being in contention for another premiership, including in their penultimate season in 1998, and won four more wooden spoons along the way in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1979.

Billy Moore and Jason Taylor

Billy Moore of the Bears (Photo by Getty Images)

Despite their lack of success, the Bears did produce some champions, with none better than the try scoring record holder in winger Ken Irvine, who was a phenomenal talent.

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Other notable players to wear the red and black jersey in more recent times were Greg Florimo, Gary Larson, Tim Pickup, Ross Warner, Billy Moore, David Fairleigh, George Ambrum, Don McKinnon and Les Kiss.

A lot of competing interests were in play following the end of the Super League split, and North Sydney found themselves in financial strife at the end of the 1999 season, and under the control of an administrator, and accordingly the NRL announced that the Bears would not be part of their plans for the 2000 season.

The North Sydney club, via its administrator, took the option to merge with rivals

Manly to form the Northern Eagles in a merger ultimately doomed to failure, and the Bears were done and dusted as far as the NRL was concerned. Happily though, they still continue to compete in the lower tier competitions. I wonder if the Bears will ever return?

Some North Sydney Bears fun facts
• Greg Florimo holds the record for most games for the club with 285.
• Ken Irvine holds the try scoring record with 171 tries from 176 games.
• Jason Taylor holds the record for most points for the club with 1,274 points.
• Their record home game crowd at North Sydney Oval was 23,089 against Manly in 1994.

The Northern Eagles
The Northern Eagles entered the competition in 2000 and departed at the end of 2002.

It’s hard to find much positive to say about the Northern Eagles joint venture other than it didn’t last long, and that at least Manly survived the experience. North Sydney weren’t so fortunate though.

North Sydney’s reasons for entering into the merger were fairly obvious, as they found themselves between a rock and a hard place at the end of the 1999 season. Less clear though were the reasons that Manly took the plunge, as they were travelling quite nicely apart from the financial issues common to many clubs.

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Perhaps they saw it as a way of eliminating their only rivals north of the bridge, perhaps they were motivated by financial reasons, or perhaps they and the NRL just made a mistake?

Northern Eagles

The Northern Eagles were a short-lived and ill-fated experiment. (Photo credit: Nick Laham/ALLSPORT via Getty Images)

Salary cap restrictions meant that some top line players from each club were lost in the merger. Norths players of the calibre of Ben Ikin, David Fairleigh, Gary Larson, Glen Morrison and Matt Seers didn’t survive the marriage, while Manly players like Craig Field, John Hopoate and Terry Hill also had to find a new home.

This reflected in their on-filled performances which were average at best. They finished 12th, in a 14 team competition in 2000, tenth in 2001 and ninth in 2002. They played their games at either Brookvale Oval or at Grahame Park in Gosford, and this certainly helped to alienate the North Sydney fans who didn’t support the new club.

The merger quickly began to peter out on the back of both poor performances and continuing off-field disharmony, with neither party happy with their lot.

The licence actually reverted to Manly during the 2002 season, although they continued to play as the Northern Eagles, and then the club disappeared for good at the end of that year and Manly were back in business.

Some Northern Eagles fun facts
• Steve Menzies played most games for the club with 69.
• Fullback Brendon Reeves scored most tries for the club with 30, just one ahead of Steve Menzies.
• Ben Walker scored most points for the club with 279, all scored in the 2001 season.
• Geoff Toovey played 48 games for the club without scoring a point.

Next, we’ll have a look at the casualties of the final NRL merger.

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