The Debut Season: A History of New NRL Franchises Since 1982

This time next week, the Dolphins will make their NRL debut as the newest franchise. NothingButLeague looks back at the debut seasons of every new team (including merged sides – but not South Sydney’s re-entry into the NRL) from 1982 to 2007.

All stats from Rugby League Project

Illawarra Steelers (1982)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1982620013/14159, John DorahyAllan Fitzgibbon

The Steelers – part of the NSWRL’s initial expansion from suburban Sydney – had a rough start, finishing second last with six wins. Their maiden win came in Round Three against South Sydney. They also had their biggest wins and biggest losses in their history in that first year: a 45-0 win against Canberra and 51-0 loss to Newtown.

THE FIRST GAME: The Steelers’ first game was a 17-7 home loss to Penrith. A decent crowd turned up to the ‘Gong (9,652) and got to see Greg Cook score the Steelers’ first try (back when it was still three-point tries), with captain John Dorahy kicking two goals from two.

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Canberra Raiders (1982)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1982422014/1441, Peter McGrathDon Furner, Bill Sullivan

Canberra collected their first – and only – wooden spoon in 1982. They lost their first seven games before a breakthrough 12–11 win over Newtown at Seiffert Oval. Their other three wins were separated by losing streaks of six, four, three, and three.

THE FIRST GAME: Captained by David Grant, the Raiders lost 37-7 to Souths at Redfern. They failed to win an away game in their first season, with all four wins at Seiffert.

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Brisbane Broncos (1988)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
198814807/16150, Terry MattersonWayne Bennett

Boasting an enviable line-up of Queensland Origin starts, the Broncos made an immediate impact, winning their first five games. While Brisbane missed the Final Five, they still won a respectable 14 games. Not surprisingly, the Broncos fell away during Origin, losing four games out of six from Rounds 10 to 15. Though Queensland won Origin 3-0, which would have made most Broncos fans happy.

THE FIRST GAME: the Broncos’ first game against Manly-Warringah is the stuff of footy legend. Over 17,000 turned up to the old Lang Park (not the multi-purpose behemoth it is now) as the Emperor of Lang Park led the Broncos to a 44-10 defeat of the defending premiers, with Lewis scoring two himself. Terry Matterson kicked eight from nine.

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Gold Coast-Tweed Giants (1988)/Gold Coast Seagulls (1990)/Gold Coast Chargers (1996)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1988416215/1679, Mike EdenBob McCarthy

Where to start with the Gold Coast? The Giants and Seagulls both finished 15th (out of 16), and the Chargers finished 18th out of 20. The Chargers replaced the defunct Gladiators, who at least won the Plate Final in the 1996 ARL World Sevens.

THE FIRST GAMES: the Giants (captained by Billy Johnstone) lost their debut game 21-10 to Canterbury-Bankstown. Ron Gibbs led the Seagulls to a 32-2 loss against Cronulla-Sutherland in 1990, while Dave Watson captained the Chargers to a high-scoring loss (42-26) in 1996, against North Sydney.

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Newcastle Knights (1988)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1988516114/1650, Jeff DoyleAllan McMahon

The second Newcastle team to play in the NSWRFL/NSWRL (after the Rebels in 1908-09), the Knights had a rough introduction, with just five wins (and a draw) and a 14th-place finish. They started promisingly at 2-2 but lost 14 games from there. The loyal Novocastrians didn’t care, as they averaged over 20,000 at home, had five home attendances of 20,000+, and over 30,000 for their game against Brisbane.

THE FIRST GAME: a massive home crowd of over 26,000 turned up to watch Newcastle (captained by Sam Stewart) lose their debut game 28-4 to Parramatta. The Knights went try-less, with two goals to Robbie Tew.

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Auckland Warriors (1995)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1995139010/2084, Gene NgamuJohn Monie

One of four expansion teams in 1995, the Warriors had a decent first year, with enough wins to finish in the eight. Unfortunately, they lost the two points from their 46-12 win over Western Suburbs in Round Three after they used five interchange players instead of the allowed four. That penalty cost them a finals spot. The Warriors won six straight from Rounds 13 to 18, but then lost three from their last four. The Warriors averaged over 26,000 for home games.

THE FIRST GAME: the Warriors’ opening game also opened the 1995 ARL season. Nearly 30,000 packed Mt Smart Stadium as the Dean Bell-led Warriors put up a hell of a fight against the powerhouse Broncos (Brisbane winning 25-22). It was four tries each (Phil Blake, Sean Hoppe, Tea Ropati, Tony Tatupu), with a goal and field goal to Allan Langer the difference.

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South Queensland Crushers (1995)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1995615116/2038, Travis Norton and Tony KempBob Lindner

The Crushers were meant to provide competition – or at least an alternative – to the powerful Broncos, but the first season showed that the Crushers were doomed, with just six wins and a draw. They lost their first four games heavily before beating North Sydney 16-12 at Lang Park. They also beat Newcastle in Round 10, a week after Fatty’s unfancied Queenslanders won the opening Origin 2-0. The Crushers’ season was bookended by heavy losses to Canberra (30-6 at Lang Park and 58-4 at Bruce), but least they had decent home support, averaging over 20,000. They also beat their Queensland cousins the Cowboys and Seagulls, but lost heavily to the Broncos.

THE FIRST GAME: led by Mario ‘The Falcon’ Fenech, the Crushers’ opening game – against Canberra at Lang Park – summed up their brief existence. While Trevor Gillmeister scored the Crushers’ first try, the powerhouse Raiders won 24-6. Though, on the plus side, a decent crowd of over 21,000 turned up.

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North Queensland Cowboys (1995)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
1995220020/2043, Jonathan DaviesGrant Bell

While the Crushers struggled in their first year, the Cowboys did even worse, finishing last with only two wins. They beat Illawarra in Wollongong in Round Eight and Western Suburbs in Townsville in Round 15. While it was their only home win, they still averaged over 20,000 at Stockland Stadium in 1995. A 66-4 final round loss to eventual premiers the Canterbury-Bankstown (Sydney) Bulldogs summed up their wretched season.

THE FIRST GAME: while the Cowboys had a rough first year, over 23,000 watched Laurie Spina’s side lose 32-16 to eventual premiers the Sydney (Canterbury-Bankstown) Bulldogs at Stockland Stadium. Damian Gibson and Leigh Groves scored for the Cowboys, with three goals to Andrew Dunemann and one to Gibson.

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Western Reds (1995)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
19951111011/20136, Chris RyanPeter Mulholland

The Reds had a fine debut season. They finished just two points out of the top eight and won eight from 11 at the WACA. While they had crowds of 20,000+ for their first two home games (including over 24,000 for the famous opening round win over St George), the attendances gradually dropped to an average of 13,390 – still not bad considering Australian Rules dominates Western Australia. The Reds won six of their last nine, including three separate streaks of two straight wins, but it wasn’t enough.

THE FIRST GAME: the Reds were the only 1995 expansion side to win their first game. Nearly 25,000 turned up to the WACA (a traditional cricket/Australian Rules venue) as Brad Mackay’s Reds beat St George 28-16. The Reds scored five tries (David Boyd, Jeff Doyle, Matthew Fuller, Tim Horan, Peter Shiels).

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Hunter Mariners (1997 – Super League)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
199771106/1076, Nick ZistiGraham Murray

Facing genuine hostility from diehard Knights fans, the Mariners were doomed before a ball was kicked. They did pretty well, with seven wins from 18 games and a sixth-place finish. They did even better in the farcical World Club Championship, topping Pool B with a 6-0 record, and beating Wigan (at Central Park) and Cronulla-Sutherland to make the WCC Final. While they lost 36-12 to the invincible Broncos, it was still the highlight of their brief existence.

THE FIRST GAME: led by Noel Goldthorpe, the Mariners had a close first up loss to Canterbury-Bankstown (20-16) at Topper Stadium. The crowd of 6,579 was eclipsed by over 9,000 at Marathon Stadium as the Knights beat St George in the ARL opening round. The Mariners only scored two tries (Goldthorpe and Paul Marquet), with four goals to Nick Zisti.

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Adelaide Rams (1997 – Super League)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
199761119/1081, Kurt WrigleyRod Reddy

Like the Reds, the Rams had to battle the Australian Rules domination in their state. To make things harder, the Port Adelaide Power made their AFL debut in 1997 and the Adelaide Crows won their maiden premiership (and won again in 1998). The Rams finished second last in Super League, and missed the World Club Championship finals, despite a 4-2 record. Three of those WCC wins came at the Adelaide Oval: 50-8 against Salford City, 34–8 against Leeds, and 42–14 against Oldham.

THE FIRST GAME: the Rams travelled to Townsville for their opening game, losing 24-16 to the Cowboys, with Brett Galea and former Bronco Kerrod Walters scoring (while his brother Steve scored a double for the Cowboys). They played their first home game in Round Three against Hunter. It may have been the novelty factor of watching “the Rugby” in an Aussie Rules state, but over 27,000 attended Adelaide Oval to see the Rams win their first game.

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Melbourne Storm (1998)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
19981761Prelim Final/20110, Craig SmithChris Anderson

Like Brisbane in 1988, Melbourne entered the league with a powerful line-up (including a handful from the defunct Mariners, Tawera Nikau, and multi-premiership winner Glenn Lazarus). They made the most of it, finishing third, even though they only averaged 12,717 at Olympic Park (setting the trend of successful Storm sides struggling to crack the Australian Rules domination in Victoria). The Storm needed the double chance in the finals, losing to Sydney City and rebounding to beat Canberra (both at home). Their season ended with a 30-6 loss to the Broncos in the preliminary final.

THE FIRST GAME: the powerful Storm got off to a perfect start. Lazarus led to the Storm to a 14-12 win over the Steelers in Wollongong, with a double to Scott Hill. The Storm would win eight of their first 10 games to cement themselves in the top four.

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St George Illawarra Dragons (1999)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
19991590Runners up/17162, Wayne BartrimDavid Waite

The first joint-venture side, the Dragons went all the way to the grand final in 1999 and were 40 minutes from winning the title. Finishing sixth, the Dragons beat Melbourne, Sydney City, and Cronulla-Sutherland to make the grand final. A crowd of over 107,000 at Homebush watched the Dragons lead 14-0 at half-time. The Storm got back to 18-14 before THAT penalty try to Craig Smith gave Melbourne their first premiership in only their second season. It was devastating for the Dragons, with the pre-merger St George also losing three grand finals in the ‘90s (1992, 1993, 1996).

THE FIRST GAME: the joint-venture club played in the blockbuster NRL double-header to open 1999. Over 104,000 packed Homebush as the Dragons – captained by Mark Coyne – lost 20-10 to Parramatta (tries to Lance Thompson and Darren Treacy). Newcastle beat Manly Warringah in the other game.

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Northern Eagles (2000)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
2000917012/1482, Jason TaylorPeter Sharp

A doomed idea from the start, the merger of Manly-Warringah and North Sydney lasted three seasons. The Northern Eagles started well in 2000, winning three of their first four, but won just six more games (and lost seven of their last nine) to finish 12th.

THE FIRST GAME: led by Geoff Toovey, the Eagles won their opening game, beating Newcastle 24-14 at Gosford, with Nigel Roy scoring a double.

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Wests Tigers (2000)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
20001113210/14224, Joel CaineWayne Pearce

Another merger between traditional Sydney rivals (Balmain and Western Suburbs), the Tigers started with plenty of promise. They drew their opening game against Brisbane and won four from their next five. They also had a second draw against Parramatta in Round Eight – a feat unheard of in the Golden Point era. The Tigers spent most of season hovering around the eight but lost their last four to finish 10th.

THE FIRST GAME: as mentioned above, the joint-venture club drew their opening game against Brisbane (24-24) at Campbelltown. Joel Caine pocketed 20 points himself, with three tries and four goals. John Skandalis scored the Tigers’ other try.

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Gold Coast Titans (2007)

Debut YearWinsLossesDrawsLadderMost PointsCoach
20071014012/1682, Mat RogersJohn Cartwright

While it’s not saying much, the Titans are easily the most successful Gold Coast side since 1988. The Titans showed their potential early, with a close Round One loss to St George Illawarra at Lang Park and a win over Cronulla-Sutherland at Robina the following weekend. On the back of a four-game winning streak, the Titans were fifth after 15 rounds, but lost eight of their last 10 to finish 10th.

THE FIRST GAME: the Scott Prince-led Titans had an encouraging start, losing 20-18 to the Dragons. Chris Walker scored two tries and kicked three goals. There was plenty of support for the Titans, with over 42,000 at Lang Park.

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