Since 1908 the Sydney premiership, and the National Rugby League competition it has developed into, has always been the elite level of rugby league in Australia. However, it should not be forgotten that the playing standard of the Brisbane club competition was on occassion a formidable rival.
The Sydney club competition attracted players from all over NSW and Queensland to participate. Others from England, Wales, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga – even the USA – have tried to prove their ability in what has arguably been for the most part of its history, the greatest rugby league challenge in the world.
Various methods have been used over the years to determine the winner of the premiership title each year – from first past the post, four team semi-finals, the popular top five play-off system, to the 8-team finals of today.
For many seasons the minor premiers (the team on top after the home and away club rounds) had a “right of challenge” if they were beaten in a semi-final or final.
Whatever the system used, the clubs, players and fans alike all praise the winner each year and quickly forgot the rest. No matter how tragic a story the runners up have to tell, it rarely matters – there are no prizes for second place in the NRL.
1908 – 1920
The first era saw Souths dominate the early seasons, before Easts took three titles in a row (1911-13) under the leadership of Dally Messenger. However, by the end of the decade the most powerful club was Balmain who, apart from 1918, won every premiership from 1915 to 1920. Cumberland and Newcastle clubs were gone by 1910, the year that Annandale started. However, while 1920 saw the arrival of Sydney University, by seasons end “The ‘Dales” were defunct.
1921 – 1930
The decade began with North Sydney’s only golden era that saw them win back to back titles in 1921-22. The opening season also saw the arrival of one of the game’s greatest ever clubs – St. George. However, it would be South Sydney who would produce the most successful premiership run yet seen. After finishing as equal first in 1923 and 1924 the Rabbitohs lost both Finals to finish as runners-up (to Easts and Balmain respectively), before they unleashed an avalanche of titles winning every season from 1925 to 1929. Before the next season foundation club Glebe was expelled. At the close of 1930 Wests had secured their first title.
1931 – 1940
Souths regained top spot in 1931 and 32, making it seven titles out of the last eight for the Rabbitohs. Newtown and Wests took their second titles in 1933 and 1934 respectively, however in both seasons a rising Easts side looked to be improving rapidly. The Tri-colours took four of the next six titles on offer – they were arguably one of the best club sides of the century. Amidst Easts domination a newly arrived Canterbury (1935) were smashed 87-7. Yet only four seasons later (1938) the Berries defeated Easts to win their first title. University withdrew from the scene in the same season. In 1939 Balmain grabbed another premiership to improve to seven titles. Fittingly perhaps, the great Easts side of the 1930s closed the decade with a final title.
1941 – 1950
The seasons during WW2 produced large crowds and entertaining football – the first half of the decade saw five different clubs take the premiership. St.George achieved their first two titles (1941 & 49), while Norths made their only ever Grand Final appearance in 1943 before losing to Newtown. Balmain made the most of the 1940s by appearing in five consecutive premiership-deciders, winning three of them. Manly and Parramatta entered the League in 1947 to boost the club numbers to ten, although both struggled early. Wests took their third title in 1948, before the end of decade saw South Sydney on the rise again. The Rabbitohs finished as runners-up in 1949, then went one better in 1950 by defeating Wests in the Final.
1951 – 1960
Apart from Wests in 1952, honours for the decade were shared solely between magnificent South Sydney and St.George sides. The Rabbitohs had an astounding run from 1949 to 1955, making all seven deciders and winning five of them. Newtown finished as minor premiers in 1954 and 1955, but fell to Souths both times. Meanwhile Manly made three Grand Finals, but their inexperience told. Come 1956, no one forsaw what was to eventuate as St.George rose from being a regular Top 3 club into an unbeatable machine. In a title-run that would eventually span 11 seasons, St.George took every premiership of the decade from 1956 onwards. Many clubs rose to challenge them, but when the results mattered the Saints produced the goods.
1961 – 1970
St.George opened the decade facing its most difficult opponent in Western Suburbs. The Magpies had more Test players, yet in close battles in 1961, 1962 and 1963 St. George conjured victories to utterly frustrate Wests. The Saints dismissed Balmain’s 1964 challenge before in 1965, a crowd of over 78,000 packed the SCG to see a young Rabbitohs side push St.George to the limit, yet the Dragons held on. Balmain came again, unsuccessfully, in 1966 as St.George made it 11 titles straight. Penrith and Cronulla entered the fray in 1967 as Canterbury ended the Dragons run in the Final, but fell themselves to Souths in the decider. For Souths, it was the first of five straight Grand Finals. They beat Manly in ’68 & ’70, however were upset by Balmain in 1969.
1971 – 1980
Souths took their twentieth title over perrenial runners-up Manly in 1971. However, by the end of the decade the Sea Eagles would have four premierships to their name (1972, 1973, 1976 & 1978). A great Easts side appeared in 1974 and 1975 to take back to back titles, including a white-wash of St.George. The Dragons though came back again with a young side to take the 1977 and 1979 Grand Finals, to raise their tally to fifteen titles. While the young Cronulla club made an impression by making two Grand Finals, the second half of the decade saw the rise of Parramatta and Canterbury (the latter taking the 1980 premiership). The 1977 and 1978 seasons were also memorable as they both featured drawn Grand Finals and the need for replays.
1981 – 1990
Parramatta swept all before them as they won their initial titles in 1981, 1982 & 1983. By the end of that run, their 1981 opponents Newtown were out of the League, while Illawarra and Canberra expanded the competition outside of Sydney. Canterbury won back to back titles in 1984 & 1985 before the power clubs of the decade met each other in the 1986 Grand Final where the Eels won a tryless tussle. Manly took the 1987 title over an unexpected opponent in Canberra. Brisbane, Newcastle and the Gold Coast joined for 1988 as foundation club Balmain fell to Canterbury. Balmain were defeated again in 1989 by Canberra in extra-time. After winning their maiden premiership the Raiders returned in 1990 to defeat first time Grand Finalists Penrith.
1991 – 2000
Penrith secured their maiden title in 1991, before Brisbane began with a double (92/93). Turmoil though ensued as clubs came and went. 1995 saw the arrival of Nth Qld, Sth Qld, Auckland and Perth, before the Super League arrived in 1997 with the Hunter and Adelaide sides. The formation of the NRL saw the entry of Melbourne and end of the Mariners, Perth, Rams, Crushers and Gold Coast. Joint-ventures, finances and exclusions then brought about the end of Norths, Wests, Balmain, Illawarra, St.George and seemingly Souths and Manly. In their place were St.George-Illawarra, Wests Tigers and Northern Eagles. On the field the Brisbane club dominated the period with a powerful side.
2001 – 2009
Parramatta dominated all-comers in 2001 but fell in the Grand Final to an Andrew Johns led Newcastle side. The Northern Eagles venture came and went, while South Sydney were reinstated. The 2002 premiership marked the long awaited rise of the New Zealand Warriors as they won the Minor Premiership and reached the Grand Final, where they were beaten by the Sydney (Easts) Roosters. In 2003 the Penrith Panthers, wooden-spooners two seasons earlier, stunned almost everyone by reaching and winning the Grand Final. Canterbury secured a place in the 2004 Grand Final against the Roosters. Despite the experience of having played in three of the last four deciders, the Sydney Roosters could not stop the Bulldogs. Wests Tigers defeated the North Queensland Cowboys in 2005, while the premiership crown remained outside of NSW in 2006 after Brisbane held off the Melbourne Storm in the first ever “non-Sydney” decider. The Gold Coast Titans entered the competition in 2007. The 2007 and 2008 Grand Finals were both between the Storm and the Manly Sea Eagles. Melbourne won in 2007, and Manly returned serve with victory in the 2008 Grand Final. In 2009 the Storm played their fourth Grand Final in succession, defeating a Parramatta team that had snared 8th place, then surged its way to the premiership decider.