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International Rugby League History

International Rugby League History

Australian Rugby League

Rugby league began in Australia with the formation of club competitions in Sydney (1908), Brisbane (1909) and Newcastle (1910), and within barely a handful of seasons had become the dominant football code in NSW and Queensland. Australian players also began taking up contract offers from English rugby league clubs from 1909 onwards.

Dally Messenger

Rugby league was first played in Victoria (1910 in Melbourne) and in South Australia (1914 in Adelaide), but the momentum towards establishing a firm footing nationally stalled upon the outbreak of World War One.

The Australian rugby league team made its debut in May 1908, losing a Test match to New Zealand 11-10 in Sydney. Though a cross-Tasman rivalry between the two nations was born via further Tests in Australia in 1909, it would not be until after World War Two that the Kiwis again played Tests on Australian soil.

Series since have been dominated by the Kangaroos, though battles between the two neighbours can sometimes produce some particularly fierce contests.

In 2005 the Kiwis defeated Australia 24-0 in the Tri-Nations Final in England; for the Kangaroos it was their first loss in a series in almost three decades of international rugby league. New Zealand also beat Australia in the 2008 World Cup Final.

For the most part of the 20th Century, the predominant focus for Australians has been the traditional rugby league Ashes Series against England (aka Great Britain). Following along the lines of cricket’s custom, the Kangaroos and Lions exchanged tours on a regular basis (usually every two years). The first tour was made by Australia to England in 1908, and their most recent visit was in 2003.

Both countries have had long periods of domination over each other. England were practically unassailable from the initial series in 1908 until the 1950s. The next two decades saw both nations share the spoils of victory. From 1973 to the most recent tour in 2003, the Kangaroos have won every series. The introduction of end of season international tournaments and the decision of Super League in England to play in summer, has led to the Ashes series being a less frequent occurrence.

Commencing in 1937, Kangaroo tours to England have been extended to include France, where Test series and provincial matches have been played. In the 1950s Australia v. France matches provided tremendous thrills for fans in both countries. In that decade the French won three consecutive series against the Kangaroos. However, the most part, Australia has dominated matches between the nations.

The Kangaroos have also played Tests, internationals and World Cup matches against Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Wales, USA and South Africa. The Kangaroos have also proven to be particularly formidable in World Cups, winning nine of the 13 tournaments played.

After initially turning out wearing maroon and sky blue jerseys (taken from the Queensland and NSW state colours), the Kangaroos adopted the national green and gold colours in 1928 – becoming the first Australian national sporting team to wear a green and gold playing strip. The green being taken from the colour of the leaf of the gum tree, and the gold that of the flower of the wattle tree.

The use of a kangaroo as the team’s badge and nickname in 1908 was reflective of the most recognisably Australian animal. The Australian rugby league team that toured Britain in 1908/09 wore a distinctive badge that featured a single kangaroo standing within an outlined map of Australia. The kangaroo would go on to become the most prominent national symbol, and four years after that initial Kangaroo tour, a kangaroo/map design was used for the Commonwealth’s first ever national postage stamp.

Also adopted by the 1908 touring team was a pre-match Aboriginal war cry. With words and movements provided by the Stradbroke Island (Queensland) indigenous community, the Kangaroos performed their war cry before every overseas match, until the tradition lapsed following the 1967 Ashes tour.

English Rugby League

England is the birthplace of rugby league – formed in 1895 as the “Northern Union” by disaffected rugby clubs and their players, breaking away from amateur rugby union. In 1906 the code introduced its now signature features of 13-a-side and the play-the-ball.

James Lomas

The first England team, including the famous centre James Lomas, took to the field in 1904 in a match against a side dubbed as “Other Nationalities” (formed from the numerous Welsh and Scottish footballers drawn to the professional rugby code).

Since that time England has appeared in well over 100 games against Wales, France and “Other Nationalities” in European tournaments and other international matches since.

However, over the past century the terms “England” and “Great Britain” have also to a large extent become an inter-changeable name, particularly in regard to Tests, Lions tours and in most World Cups, with the side chosen from British players in the English rugby league competitions.

England played its first Test series in early 1908 against the visiting New Zealand team (losing 2-1). Despite the first up series defeat, the history of more than 100 matches between the Lions and Kiwis is firmly in the favour of the English.

Australia and England met for the first time in a Test at London in December 1908. The match ended in a 22-all draw, establishing a rivalry that continues a century later to still be close on the overall tally. For the majority of the 20th Century, the teams met in Ashes series (held along the lines of regular tours following the Ashes tradition in cricket).

England were practically unbeatable from the initial series in 1908 until just after WW2. Through the 1950s and until the early 1970s, both nations regularly swapped possession of the Ashes mantle. However, from 1973 through to the most recent tour in 2003, the Kangaroos have won every series.

The Lions made their final Ashes tour to Australia to date in 1992, with the introduction of end-of-season international tournaments and the decision of Super League in England to play in summer, making Ashes tours “down under” less practical.

England played its first match against France at Paris in 1934, winning 32-21 in an entertaining affair. The two nations have met on a semi-frequent basis ever since, dependent upon the ebbing standard of French rugby league.

In the first six World Cup tournaments the team entered as Great Britain, winning in 1957 (defeating France), 1960 (non-Final) and in 1972 (against Australia). Since the 1975 World Cup, England has stood independent of the other Home nations, apart from the 1988 and 1992 non-tournament series.

England traditionally wear the red and white colours of the national flag, depicting the Cross of St George. The flag was introduced to England in 1194 by King Richard – known as “Richard the Lionheart” for his courage and prowess. The first English/British rugby league team to tour Australia in 1910 were bestowed the (rather obvious) nickname of Lions by the Sydney press.

French Rugby League

Though earlier attempts had been made, the first successful foray on the path towards establishing rugby league in France came in 1933 when the touring Australian Kangaroos played against England at Stade Pershing in Paris. Australia easily won the contest 63-13, and the free-flowing football found much appeal with the French.

Jean Galia

In March 1934, former French rugby union star Jean Galia brought together France’s first rugby league team, making a tour of England with matches against clubs. Upon the team’s return home, the first French rugby league clubs were formed, and the game was up and running.

Quickly embracing the opportunity, an international match between England and France was arranged and played at the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris.

With 20,000 Parisians cheering them on, an entertaining game won by England 32-21 gave great enthusiasm for the pioneers of the code in France. The Leeds club from Yorkshire made a tour of France, and then later in 1934 the French Rugby League Federation was formed.

In 1935 France secured a 15-all draw against England, and were granted entry to the International Championship tournament. It was a rapid rise, continued by the first Test matches against Australia in 1937.

With a clear intent on pushing ever upwards, the French began lobbying for the introduction of a Rugby League World Cup tournament. In February 1939 the French rugby league team became the first sporting team from France to defeat England on their opponent’s soil (winning 12-9 at St Helens). Popularity in the code saw it begin to outrival rugby union as the nation’s preferred brand of rugby, with over 220 rugby league clubs formed in just five years.

Developments though were soon brought to a halt with the outbreak of WW2. In December 1941 the wartime Vichy government then took the astonishing decision to issue an order abolishing rugby league. It seized the FRL’s assests and financial reserves, and decreed it unlawful to play the game.

A 2002 government inquiry into the ban found: “When Vichy’s department of sport was set up, influential officials of the French Rugby federation endeavoured to eliminate this competitor, which they claimed was a dangerous deviant form of rugby union.”

At the end of the war, General de Gaulle lifted the ban, but the FRL never had its assests restored, and the code was dealt a near fatal blow. Until 1990 it could not even call itself rugby – instead going by the tag of “Jeu à 13” (play with 13).

In the 1950s, with more than a few former French resistance fighters in their ranks, France was still able to muster a formidable international team. With more than a dash of creative flair and almost indifference to the tenents of the game, French teams threw convention out the window.

Their first tour of Australia in 1951 has been acclaimed as the most entertaining visitors of the century. In their wake, they were dubbed by the Sydney press as producers of “champange rugby”, with the team’s goal kicking fullback Puig Aubert a particular crowd favourite. Through the 1950s France won three consecutive series against the Kangaroos in a golden era for the game.

Despite the flourish of success in the 1950s, the underlying loss of clubs and development brought about the WW2 ban, took its toll. Rugby league in France also had to contend with FRU and its clubs having little concern for the IRB’s governing rules of amateurism.

In the decades that followed, lingering discrimination against rugby league continued, and in many respects it is remarkable that the code has endured in France.

“Le Championnat de France de Rugby à XIII” has been the major rugby league tournament in France since the 1930s. The championship is presently divided into several divisions, with the top league being an 11-team “Elite One Championship”. Each year four French teams also take part in England’s Challenge Cup.

In 2006 the Perpignan based club formerly known as UTC (Union Treiziste Catalan – which can trace its lineage back to the first French club of 1935) entered the European Super League as the Catalans Dragons, reaching the semi-finals in 2009. In 2007 the Dragons became the first non-English based team to reach the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in London (losing to St Helens).

The French national jersey is adorned with the “le coq” (Gallic rooster) motif, and comprised of the red, white and blue of the Tricolore flag. Both the “le coq” and the Tricolore came into prominent use as symbols of liberty and freedom during the French Revolution.

The team is also known as “Les Chanticleers”, a term which traces its origins to Chanticleer, a rooster appearing in medieval fables, most notably in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

New Zealand Rugby League

The first rugby league team outside of Great Britain came in 1907 with the formation by Albert Baskerville of the New Zealand “Professional All Blacks” (aka “All Golds”).

The team toured England and Wales over the northern winter of 1907/08, and the campaign included the first ever international Test series, with the Kiwis defeating England 2-1.

Albert Baskerville

New Zealand toured Australia with Tests in 1908 (winning 2-1) and 1909 (losing 2-1). Though the first rugby league clubs in New Zealand were formed in 1908, the NZRL was not founded until 1910.

In the intervening period many of the more prominent Kiwis left New Zealand to take up contracts with English clubs, and their absence inhibited growth of the code.

Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War One in 1914 the code was making strong progress, but all advantages so far gained were lost when clubs and competitions were closed for the duration of the war.

New Zealand played its first Test on home soil in 1910 at Auckland against the touring Great Britain (aka England) Lions.

On the back-end of Ashes tours to Australia, the Lions were regular visitors to New Zealand. The Kiwis made their second tour of Great Britain in 1926/27, before undertaking more frequent visits to the Northern hemisphere after WW2. For the most part though, England/Britain has dominated between the nations in the more than 100 matches played over the past century.

Australia toured New Zealand three times before WW2, and the Kiwis made their first visit across the Tasman Sea since 1909 for a two-Test series in 1948. Since that time the two nations have forged a traditional rivalry, however, Australia has won over 80% of the matches played.

In 2005 the Kiwis defeated Australia 24-0 in the Tri-Nations Final in England, inflicting upon the Kangaroos their first loss in a series in almost three decades of international rugby league. The New Zealanders took the Kangaroos into extra-time to decide the 2006 Tri-Nations Final.

The Kiwis also have a long history of matches against France, meeting over 50 times since their first contest in Paris in 1947. The New Zealanders have enjoyed good success over the French, winning 32 times to France’s 14.

The Kiwis have taken part in every World Cup tournament since the first in 1954. New Zealand were beaten by Australia 25-12 in the Final of the 1988 series, held at Auckland’s Eden Park in front of 46,000 fans. The Kangaroos also got the better of New Zealand in the 2000 World Cup Final, defeating the Kiwis 40-12 at Manchester in England. The Kiwis finally broke through by defeating Australia 34-20 in the 2008 World Cup Final in Brisbane.

New Zealand originally wore an entirely black playing strip, until adopting the now traditional white double-V to their jersey in 1937. References to the team being called “Kiwis” (after the national bird of New Zealand) extend back to their first Australian tour in 1908.

Papua New Guinea Rugby League

Papua New Guinea holds the unique distinction of being the only country to have rugby league as its national sport. While stories of the magnificent support for the Kumuls (named after the native bird of paradise) and amazing interest in Australia’s State of Origin series are legendary, the history of rugby league in PNG extends back over 65 years.

During World War Two, Australian servicemen away from the frontlines or the Kokoda Track (Trail) could often be found involved in playing rugby league matches at any opportunity.

According to reports from the time, rugby league games “in the Fuzzy-wuzzy country” were not just for the Australians, but often involved the local men and youths, who impressed “with their remarkable ball-sense” and astounded many by “how quickly those who hadn’t even seen a football learned to play the game.”

After the war, with New Guinea a territory of Australia, thousands of Aussies and Kiwis took up residency, working for banks, government authorities, security forces, in mining and with major corporations.

In the mid/late 1940s rugby league was being played amongst Australian gold miners in Wau and Bulolo (near Lae), as well as the ex-pats living in Port Moresby. Within a decade, the game had also spread to Goroka, Lae, Madang, Rabaul and Wewak. Each town had its own club competition (up to eight clubs), and inter-regional representative matches increasingly became part of the annual sporting calendar.

The PNGRFL was formed in the early 1960s, and by then indigenous footballers were being recruited by clubs in Port Moresby, Goroka, Lae and other centres. Due to the increasing popularity of the code and Australian teachers, it was introduced into primary and secondary schools.

Former Kangaroo Test players Duncan Thompson and Keith Holman also visited PNG to conduct coaching tours, principally amongst the schoolboys. Travelling far and wide, they visited many regions including Rabaul, Madang, Goroka, Lae and Port Moresby.

By the mid-1960s teams were now a mix of ex-pats and indigenous footballers, and the biggest and most popular match was the annual inter-territorial contest Papua (the Port Moresby clubs) against New Guinea (selected from the eight regional areas) for the Duncan Thompson Trophy.

Through the 1960s PNG rep sides were regularly exchanging tours from Queensland and Northern Territory regional teams, and in 1966 PNG made its first visit to Sydney, playing a Second Division rep team at the SCG.

In July 1974 (the year before PNG gained its independence from Australia), the PNGRL was granted international status by the IRL.

The Kumuls first match came in the winter of 1975, when England’s World Cup team visited. The home team were defeated 40-12. Recognition that PNG were to be taken seriously as a rugby league nation came just two years later, when the Kumuls thrashed France 37-6.

In 1979 PNG made their first overseas tour, visiting England and France. On the French leg of the tour, the Kumuls played their first ever Test matches, though they were defeated by the home team in both contests (16-9 and 15-2).

The Kumuls soon put their own stamp in the code’s honours – in 1981 they secured a draw in a home Test against France, in 1986 achieved their first Test victory (24-22 over the Kiwis in Port Moresby) and added another victim with a 20-18 win against Great Britain in 1990. While a win over the Kangaroos has still been unattainable by the Kumuls, Australia’s “Prime Mininster’s XIII” (selected from NRL players) was held to a 24-all draw in 2007.

PNG made its entry in the World Cup in the 1989-1992 non-tournament, however was unable to win any of its matches and finished in last place. In the 1995 World Cup the Kumuls gained a draw against Tonga, but a much needed win still eluded them.

The Kumuls team that played in the 2000 World Cup was a far more formidable outfit, including a number of players with experience in Australian and England competitions, notably captain Adrian Lam, as well as Marcus Bai, David Buko, Stanley Gene, Bruce Mamando, Tom O’Reilly, Elias Payo and John Wilshire. In a stirring run that thrilled one and all back home in PNG, the Kumuls defeated France 23-20, South Africa 16-0 and Tonga 30-22, earning themselves a quarter-final match against Wales.

It has been estimated that half of PNG’s 2 million residents watched the 4 television screening of the quarter-final from Widnes in England. Perhaps showing a little too much free spirit for a tough modern rugby league encounter, dropped passes and defence lapses led to the Kumuls falling 22-8 to the Welsh.

Despite the loss, the PNG people were immensely proud of their footballers – being the first (and so far only) PNG sporting team to reach the finals of a World event.

When the Kumuls arrived home at Port Moresby they were greeted by 5,000 fans at the airport, and crowds of 50,000 cheered the team on a ticker-tape parade through the city, on their way to a public reception held by the PNG Prime Minister at Parliament House.

Rugby league in PNG also has tremendous support in the Highlands region, drawing huge crowds to watch games played in the villages and town competitions. The Highlands are by far the greatest provider of PNG’s present football talent.

Newspaper coverage and live television screening of State of Origin matches and the NRL Grand Final are immensely popular in PNG. Visits by Kangaroo teams, the Australian “Prime Minister’s XIII” side and other NRL players to PNG cities and towns cause scenes that are reserved for pop stars in many other countries.

PNG’s major competition is the NRL SP Brewery Cup. A semi-professional competition, the 2008 clubs were: Civpac NCDC Vipers (Port Moresby), Masta Mark Ranges (Port Moresby), Mabey Johnson Muruks (Mendi), Toyota Mioks (Waba), Bitangor Lahanis (Goroka), Bintantor Eagles (Mt.Hagen), LBC Bombers (Lae) and Agmark Gurias (Rabaul).

The SP Cup competition provides the bulk of the Kumuls team, along with PNG footballers presently playing at Australian and English clubs. In 1996-97 the Port Morseby Vipers played in the QRL’s Queensland Cup competition, providing valuable experience for many PNG players.

Since the mid-1990s numerous Papua New Guineans have been able to secure contracts with NRL, Super League and semi-professional clubs in Australia and England. Marcus Bai was a key member of the Melbourne Storm team that won the 1999 NRL Grand Final. With the UK migration controls apparently offering an easier entry path than to Australia, and encouraged by veteran Stanley Gene, by the end of 2009 there where ten PNG footballers appearing for English clubs.

The great dream of the rugby league community in PNG is to have a club team competing in the National Rugby League in Australia, becoming the second international club alongside the New Zealand Warriors. With this objective in mind, a new PNG team has been accepted into the Queensland Cup for the 2010 season.


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