Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.
The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.
Unlike the Storm and Cowboys, who shed their previous owners in 2007 and 2013 respectively, the Broncos are the only team majority owned by News Corp (68.87%). While this has resulted in endlessly favourable local media coverage, including rehabilitating the image of apolitical terrorist Matt Lodge, this makes the Rupert Murdoch-owned Broncos roughly as evil as the News of the World. The remainder (31.13%) is publicly listed on the share market which, at the time of writing, values the Brisbane Broncos Limited organisation at approximately $45 million.
They are the only team that reliably turns a profit and are named for the Denver Broncos.
Canberra’s last success came in the early-to-mid 1990s when a team built on household names like Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Gary Belcher, future Senator Glenn Lazarus and Mal Meninga (whose own career in politics lasted all of twelve seconds) dominated the league. They carried three premierships in 1989, 1990 and 1994.
The Raiders have literally achieved nothing in the NRL, not even a wooden spoon or a grand final appearance, but they have co-opted the Viking Clap from Iceland, so that’s a thing.
Canterbury is located in the same part of Sydney that some Muslims live in, which makes the team the perfect target for media race baiting. And there’s this guy:
Other than that, and despite some forgettable recent seasons, Canterbury still have a winning record, only one of six in the NRL. The Bulldogs won the 2004 premiership after having all their competition points stripped in 2002 for salary cap breaches, back in a simpler time when cheating was restricted to a single season.
In 2013, the Sharks were the only team stupid enough to get caught doping. Obviously, no one in management had read Lance Armstrong’s books.
The year after, the club ‘won’ the 2014 wooden spoon which begs questions about the effectiveness of the performance enhancing drugs that they were using.
Gold Coast Titans
The most recent expansion team entered the competition in 2007 and after years of mismanagement on the Gold Coast, the Titans were taken over by the NRL in 2015. The Titans were recently sold off. The potential bidders were:
- North Sydney Bears (see below), who promised to ‘end the cycle of failure’ on the Coast and turn the Titans into the Gold Coast Bears. In defence of the Gold Coast, just because the Titans have only made the finals three times and the Suns never have, doesn’t mean there’s a cycle of failure.
- Brisbane Bombers who, after failing to get a NRL licence for a new team in Brisbane, promised not to tank the Titans so badly that they are forced to relocate and rebrand as the Greater Southern Brisbane Ibises.
- The former chairwoman and a former boardmember who will presumably keep the Titans where they are at the bottom of the ladder.
Almost unbelievably, the last one was given the keys to the club.
Bonus: North Sydney Bears
The North Sydney Bears merged with Manly in 2000. The joint venture promptly fell apart in 2002 and the Bears exited top flight footy. Considering they only had two premierships to their name, the most recent in 1922, it was about time.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
If you need a clear signal as to the judgement of the team’s supporters, the good people of Warringah have elected Tony Abbott to represent them in parliament at every federal election since 1994.
He has promised his constituents to federally fund upgrades at Brookvale Oval. The money has not been forthcoming.
The Storm have been the undeniably dominant team of the last ten years. Becoming a Storm fan is roughly equivalent to becoming a fan of:
- 1990s Manchester United
- 2000s Los Angeles Lakers
- 2010s New England Patriots
Much like the Patriots, the Storm have a checkered past with two premierships (from five won) stripped for salary cap breaches. Even if you ignore the stripped titles, Melbourne are still the most successful NRL team.
Over the last three years, the Knights have claimed the wooden spoon for finishing last in the NRL. In 2016, the team won a single game and drew another over twenty-four games, the worst performance of a premiership team since the 1993 Gold Coast Seagulls won only one game in twenty-two outings.
The Knights did win a premiership in 2001 but it was so long ago no one remembers. Oh, for the old days!
New Zealand Warriors
The New Zealand Warriors are the only team based outside of Australia in the National Rugby League. They call Auckland, New Zealand home and only manage to survive thanks to rugby union not yet having swallowed up every talented New Zealand athlete.
An important thing for the rest of the world to understand: the All Blacks play rugby union and the Kiwis and Warriors play rugby league. Don’t confuse the two. Despite their similar names, similar rules and actually being the same thing until 1895, they are completely different sports.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cowboys are based in Townsville, the smallest city in Australia to have a professional male sports team. With the league’s third highest attendance behind Brisbane and Melbourne, sitting around the 16,000 mark, approximately 8% of Townsville’s population turns up to each Cowboys game. The equivalent in Sydney would be having half a million people turn up to ANZ every weekend.
This is a little disingenuous because people from other parts of regional Queensland will often drive for hours to attend games. North Queensland prefer to have games on Saturday so remote fans can drive in, spend the night and head home the next day.
The Eels won four premierships in the 1980s under Jack Gibson, whose major insight was to go to the States, meet Vince Lombardi and copy what he was doing. Their fans haven’t shut up about it since. Famously, and in one of the NRL’s greatest chokes, the Eels lost the 2001 grand final to the Knights after being the top team all year. They closest they’ve come since then was the 2009 grand final, losing to salary-cap-breached Storm.
Ironically, Parramatta would miss out on their next potential finals appearance in 2016 for the same crime.
Penrith love to raise a player from the fertile rugby league soils of Western Sydney, only to turf them when they become professionals.
That’s not a bad team for a bunch of rejects.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs are owned by Russell Crowe and they have won the most number of premierships of any team. It took forty-three years to land the last one, which was in 2014.
Souths were booted from the league in 2000 for being crap. The Bunnies worked their way back in thanks to a lengthy court battle, only for them to be crap again on their return in 2002 and continuing right through the 2000s.
St George Illawarra Dragons
St George’s claim to fame was eleven straight premierships from 1956 to 1966. Illawarra’s claim to fame was that they existed (technically) outside of Sydney in the NSWRL. The Steelers’ best year was 1992, finishing second and wiped out of contention by the Dragons in the preliminary final. The two teams would merge in 1999 to form the St George Illawarra Dragons.
The Steelers promptly disappeared from view after the merger, drowned by the red and white Saints.
Supposedly the richest club in rugby league’s biggest city, the Roosters have precisely zero fans. This is despite being one of the best teams of the last twenty years and having a history that stretches back to 1908.
This is evident at Roosters’ home games which have an average attendance of no one. They went missing during a leaner period around 2011.
The Tigers have one premiership to their name, surprisingly pulled out of a hat in 2005, only four years after the merger of Balmain and Western Suburbs.
But I don’t care about any of that. I’m here to tell you that the Tigers have the best colour scheme in the NRL. Orange, black and white is mint.