The chase to be the club with the most premierships was a lively battle well into the 1980s.
In the premiership’s first four or so decades the residential rule kept powerful teams together.
Later teams would be built by shrewd buying from cashed-up club secretaries.
The expansion of the competition beyond Sydney, club mergers and expulsion, as well as a strictly enforced salary cap, has made it practically impossible for any club to make any dent upon the race to head the overall tally of premierships.
South Sydney, who hold 20 premierships, wear the crown of supremacy – they are 5 ahead of St George (now in a joint-venture with Illawarra) and 8 ahead of the Sydney Roosters. It is difficult to envisage the Rabbitohs being caught.
Souths won the first two premierships in 1908 and 1909, and it took a last-minute goal from Newtown in 1910 for the Rabbitohs to be denied three straight. Eastern Suburbs (now Sydney Roosters) had the tremendous advantage of Dally Messenger over the ensuing three seasons (1911-13), and won the lot.
As the 1920s arrived though it was neither Souths nor Easts that held the ascendancy at the top of the premiership tally race. Despite the Rabbitohs winning two more titles (1914 and 1918) to edge to 4, they were behind a magnificent Balmain team that won five premierships in six seasons from 1915-1920.
North Sydney sprang from the also-rans into a premiership power, winning the 1921 and 1922 seasons, but could not keep their team together and fell away.
South Sydney soon built a side that would earn the club the tag “The Pride of the League”, as they set about winning seven competitions in eight years (1925-1932). Included in that fabulous run were five premierships in a row.
As the clubs readied for 1933, Souths had racked up 11 titles, Balmain 6, and Easts 4.
The Roosters mounted a challenge to the Rabbitohs crown through the 1930s, and by the end of 1940 had raced up to 8 premierships, leaving them just three adrift. Balmain moved to 7, having claimed another win in 1939.
Easts reached the 1941 premiership decider, against St George, and were rated as favourites to win, and thus move to within 2 wins of Souths. However, the Roosters were overrun by the Dragons (taking their first premiership title).
Balmain joined Easts on 8 wins with victory in 1944. The two clubs then met in the 1945 Grand Final, with the winner having a clear shot at running down the seemingly stalled Rabbitohs.
In a close battle that went down to the final whistle, the Roosters claimed the victory, and edged to just 2 premierships behind Souths. (Rabbitohs 11, Roosters 9, Tigers 8).
Balmain were not done with though, winning consecutive premierships (1946 and 1947). The Tigers then made the 1948 Grand Final against Wests, setting up one of the most significant games of the century. A triumph would see the Tigers join South Sydney as the most successful clubs over the competition’s 40 year history.
The Grand Final proved to be a particularly tight affair, with the Magpies thwarting the Balmain challenge with a 8-5 win. Wests victory coming via what many thought was a dubious try from what appeared to be a double-movement.
It was as close as any club would come to usurping South Sydney. The Rabbitohs made a resurgence, and, after running second in 1949, won the 1950 premiership to kick clear again.
In the SCG dressing-room after that win, Souths’ president Jack Glasheen made a bold speech to the players and the onlookers: “This is a Red Letter day for Souths – it is a reincarnation of our glorious days of the 1920s and early ‘30s when we won seven premierships in eight years.”
“We are out to emulate those deeds. And we will!”
Glasheen’s forecast proved correct, as Souths went on to win four premierships in the next five years, pushing their tally up to 16.
The Rabbitohs effort of the 1920s and ‘30s though had not only inspired the club itself in the 1950s, but also across town at St George. After taking over as St George secretary in 1956, Frank Facer left no one in doubt as to his intentions.
After a training night during the 1956 season, Facer told a gathering of club officials at the rear of the Kogarah Oval grandstand: “Look at the record book and you’ll see South Sydney won five competitions in a row and seven in eight years.”
“That will be on the books for all time,” said Facer. “Even if people saw it in 100 years time they would say ‘That must have been a great team to do that’. We want St George to make a similar mark in the record book!”
The Dragons achieved the unprecedented – winning 11 premierships in a row between 1956 and 1966. Added to two earlier titles, St George’s tally was up to 13, just 3 behind Souths.
The Rabbitohs though responded, winning another 4 Grand Finals between 1967 and 1971, raising their record to 20 titles.
Balmain upset Souths in the 1969 decider (moving the Tigers to 11), Easts won twice in the 1970s (placing them on 11), as did the Dragons (reaching 15). No other club has yet reached double digits.
(as at end of 2009)
20 – South Sydney
15 – St George
12 – Sydney Roosters
11 – Balmain
8 – Canterbury
7 – Manly
6 – Brisbane
4 – Wests & Parramatta
3 – Newtown, Canberra & Melbourne
2 – North Sydney, Newcastle & Penrith
1 – Wests Tigers