A Brief Look at the Rise and Fall of NRL Sevens and Nines Through Time

Monday February 6 is the 35th anniversary of the first NSWRL World Sevens, with South Sydney beating Canberra in the Final. While other sports – cricket (T20/T10/The Hundred), rugby union (World Sevens), and basketball (3×3) – have embraced their shorter formats, rugby league has yet to do so, with the last NRL Nines tournament in 2020. Nothing But League looks back at the history of the Sevens and Nines tournaments from 1988 to now.

NSWRL/ARL/NRL WORLD SEVENS (1988-2004)

As one of the dominant Sydney teams in the ’90s, it was no surprise that Manly Warringah dominated the Sevens as well.

The Sea Eagles won three titles (1990, 1994, 1995), followed by Newcastle (1991, 1996) and Parramatta (1997, 2003) with two each. Technically, Balmain won two as well: the first was as a stand-alone club in 1989 and the second in 2004 as the Wests Tigers. Though Balmain fans would surely swap the 1989 Sevens title with the 1989 Winfield Cup title.

Despite the huge International contingent appearing every year, Wigan were the only overseas side to win a Sevens title, beating Brisbane in 1992. It continued Wigan and Brisbane’s ’90s rivalry, playing each other in the 1992 and 1994 World Club Challenges. And Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium (Lang Park) hosted the opening night of the 1995 tournament, the only time the Sevens was taken outside of Sydney.

The 1996 and 1997 versions were ARL-only, with Super League holding their own World Nines (see below). The Gold Coast Gladiators’ Plate Trophy title in 1996 was the first trophy for the various Gold Coast franchises.

The Sevens went on hiatus from 1998 as rugby league recovered from the Super League War. It returned in 2003 and 2004, with the ’04 version played under a four-tackle rule. But fading interest from Channel Nine killed the format.

YearCompetitionVenueWinnerRunner Up
1988Super SevensParramattaSouth Sydney RabbitohsCanberra Raiders
1989SevensParramattaBalmain TigersEastern Suburbs Roosters
1990SevensParramattaManly-Warringah Sea EaglesParramatta Eels
1991SevensParramattaNewcastle KnightsSt George Dragons
1992World SevensSFSWiganBrisbane Broncos
1993World SevensSFSEastern Suburbs RoostersManly-Warringah Sea Eagles
1994World SevensSFSManly-Warringah Sea EaglesSt George Dragons
1995World SevensBrisbane/SFSManly-Warringah Sea EaglesFiji Bati
1996World SevensParramatta/SFSNewcastle KnightsNorth Sydney Bears
1997World SevensSFSParramatta EelsNorth Sydney Bears
2003World SevensSFSParramatta EelsEngland
2004World SevensSFSWests TigersParramatta Eels
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SUPER LEAGUE WORLD NINES (1996-1997)

Super League tried their own short-form tournament in 1996 and 1997. It was quite ambitious, with 16 teams in the 1996 Suva competition, and 12 in the 1997 Townsville version.

It was the first time that a video referee was used for either rugby code.

New Zealand won both titles, beating Papua New Guinea and Western Samoa. It was the first steps towards the Pacific Nations becoming a force in International rugby league.

And it was a MUCH better idea than the farcical 1997 World Club Challenge…

YearCompetitionVenueWinnerRunner Up
1996World NinesSuvaNew ZealandPapua New Guinea
1997World NinesTownsvilleNew ZealandWestern Samoa
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NRL NINES/WORLD NINES (2014-2020)

After a 10-year break from elite short-form footy, the NRL Nines pre-season competition (featuring the 16 NRL teams) began in 2014. Auckland hosted it from 2014-2017 and Perth in 2020, with a break in 2018-19. And a World Cup Nines was held in October 2019 at Parramatta’s Bankwest Stadium. Australia beat New Zealand in a controversial final.

The format had fresh rules: two nine-minute halves with a two-minute half time period; nine players a side; no video referee; five-minute Golden Try period; tap restart takes place after a 40/20; five points for a try scored in the Bonus Zone under the posts, with two-point drop kick conversion attempts; scoring team has a drop-kick kick-off to restart play.

Unfortunately, some coaches refused to take the Nines seriously, which hurt its credibility. Though a few past champions (Ken Nagas, Jason Croker, Brad Fittler, Steve Menzies etc) made cameo appearances.

North Queensland won two titles (2014, 2020), with South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters one each. Parramatta’s 2016 title was stripped after their salary cap dramas.

There was also a women’s version: Australia and New Zealand played a three-game series from 2015 to 2017 (the Kiwi Ferns winning two series’ to one), with St George Illawarra winning the NRLW version in 2020.

YearCompetitionVenueWinnerRunner Up
2014Auckland NinesEden ParkNorth Queensland CowboysBrisbane Broncos
2015Auckland NinesEden ParkSouth Sydney RabbitohsCronulla-Sutherland Sharks
2016Auckland NinesEden ParkParramatta Eels*New Zealand Warriors
2017Auckland NinesEden ParkSydney RoostersPenrith Panthers
2020NRL NinesPerthNorth Queensland CowboysSt George-Illawarra Dragons
* title revoked due to salary cap breaches
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THE FUTURE OF SHORT-FORM RUGBY LEAGUE

While the domestic NRL Nines seems to have run its course, there’s still room for an International version. Taking cues from cricket’s T20 World Cups, an end-of-season Nines World Cup could be played in-between the Rugby League World Cups (ideally every two years). And like the T20 version, the World Cup Nines should feature as many countries as possible, also be played around the world (with a big chance to expose the game to non-traditional areas, like America or Asia).

Like Rugby Union’s successful World Sevens, there’s no reason why the Nines can’t branch out on its own.

A separate NRL Nines could be played in-line with the Telstra Premiership, with all 17 teams represented (and maybe chuck in Perth for an even 18?) and six two-day “legs” (one weekend each month). There will be a rolling table, with each tournament winner earning 10 points, eight for the runner up, six for the semi-finalists, and four for the quarter-finalists. At the end of the six legs, the top eight sides will play a special knockout tournament as a curtain raiser to the NRL Grand Final.

The teams would be made of up of fringe squad members or players from the respective NSW/QLD Cup feeder sides. Who knows, maybe someone will impress enough in the Nines and graduate to the NRL?

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