A Look Back at 25 Incredible Years of the NRL

In late 1997, rugby league in Australia was reunited after the ugly Super League War and rebranded as the National Rugby League (NRL) from 1998. The NRL celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2023, so let’s look at some of the highlights.

1998 – 2007: the Early Years

The first decade of the NRL was bookended by the interstate powerhouses Brisbane and Melbourne.

The first year of the NRL had 20 teams (the Perth Reds, Hunter Mariners, and South Queensland Crushers had already been cut), which meant hard decisions were needed to get the desired 12-to-14 team comp.

There were three joint-venture sides: St George Illawarra (St George Dragons/Illawarra Steelers), Wests Tigers (Western Suburbs Magpies/Balmain Tigers), and Northern Eagles (Manly Warringah/North Sydney).

The Eagles was an unhappy marriage that killed off the Bears, with Manly returning as a stand-alone club in 2003. Souths were kicked out in 1999, returning in 2002. Adelaide and the Gold Coast Chargers also got the chop in ’99.

By 2000, the NRL had been cut to 14 teams, but returned to 16 with Souths and the Gold Coast Titans (in 2007).

Brisbane won three premierships (1998, 2000, 2006), Melbourne two (1999, 2007), and they played each other in the first non-Sydney grand final in Australian Rugby League history. Despite the hand wringing from the Sydney-centric doomsdayers, a crowd of 79,609 watched Brisbane win their sixth premiership.

Newcastle played in the first night grand final in 2001, beating Parramatta. The Eels were arguably the most dominant side NOT to win a premiership, winning 20 out of 26 games, scoring 839 regular season points, and winning the minor premiership by five competition points.

Infront of over 90,000 fans, the Knights ran to a 24-0 halftime lead. While the Eels charged back, Newcastle hung on to win 30-24.

The night grand finals would run until 2007, with twilight grand finals played from 2008, then a return to night games in 2013.

The Sydney Roosters (formerly the Eastern Suburbs/Sydney City Roosters) were the dominant ‘traditional’ side, playing in four grand finals for one premiership (beating the New Zealand Warriors in 2002).

The Dragons and Tigers made grand finals – in 1999 and 2005 respectively – with the Tigers beating the North Queensland Cowboys in a game immortalised by THAT Benji flick pass.

Penrith won one of the greatest grand finals in 2003, beating the Roosters 18-6. And Canterbury-Bankstown recovered from their 2002 salary cap drama to beat the Roosters in the 2004 decider.

The Dogs were cruising towards the 2002 minor premiership (finishing with a 20-1-3 record) but were stripped 37 points and finished with the wooden spoon. The Warriors benefitted from the Bulldogs’ mistake, winning the minor premiership.

There were a few rule changes that carried over from the Super League War, including no striking at the play-the-ball, banning the forward play-the-ball, Zero Tackle, and the video referee (the original video referee screens were delightfully primitive compared to the glorified KFC billboards we have today).

Golden Point arrived in 2003, with some conspiracy theorists saying it was because Queensland retained the Origin shield after the drawn 2002 series (though the same thing happened to the Maroons after the 1999 series was drawn and there was no dramas). Seven of the 15 teams had draws in 2002 (including three for the Dragons), so maybe that was a bigger factor?

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2008 – 2017: the Storm’s Domination, Downfall, and Recovery

This decade will be remember for Melbourne’s salary cap scandal.

The Storm had just finished a run of four straight grand finals – beating Manly in 2007, losing to Manly in 2008 (a record-breaking 40-0 margin and the perfect farewell for Steve Menzies), and beating Parramatta in 2009 (who came from eighth to make the decider).

The Storm lost the ’07 and ’09 premierships and played for literately nothing in 2010. While the Storm could have given up and used 2010 as a rebuilding year, they still won 14 games – enough to make the finals.

While this scandal would have destroyed weaker clubs, Melbourne rebounded immediately: they won the 2011 minor premiership and made the preliminary final, and beat Canterbury in the 2012 Grand Final. While it was a dour game, Storm fans didn’t care, with many crowing on social media that “the NRL can’t take this one off us!”

There were a few firsts too – the Dragons became the second joint-venture club to win a title, beating the Roosters in 2010 (the Roosters had happier days in 2013, beating Manly in the grand final); Souths won in 2014, their first title since readmission to the NRL; while Cronulla-Sutherland finally turned the porch light off in 2016 (beating Melbourne). Manly won their second NRL title in 2011, beating the Warriors.

The second non-Sydney decider was between Brisbane and North Queensland in 2015. In arguably the greatest grand final (unless you’re a Raiders fan who believes that 1989 is still the greatest), Brisbane led 16-12 in the final minute before Kyle Feldt scored an amazing try, with Johnathan Thurston’s missed conversion sending the game into Golden Point. Thurston got another shot after Ben Hunt’s famous drop, nailing the field goal to give the Cowboys a 17-16 win. Again, a massive crowd (82,758) proved the absence of a Sydney team didn’t matter.

The Storm won again in 2017 (avenging their 2016 loss) and ended the Cowboys’ fairytale run from eighth place. It continued a period of domination for the Storm and Roosters: from 2012 to 2020, the Storm and/or Roosters played in seven grand finals.

Parramatta had salary cap dramas in 2016, with a 12-point penalty, a $1m fine, and losing their 2016 Auckland Nines title. The points penalty meant the Eels finished 14th despite winning 13 games (enough to sneak into to eight).

Canberra’s 2016 preliminary final appearance meant that every NRL side had made a prelim.

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2018 – 2022: the Roosters Make History as the Game Changes through the Pandemic

The next five years of the NRL were full of change and a few firsts.

The Roosters and Storm opened this period by playing in the 2018 grand final, with an injured Cooper Cronk almost captain-coaching the Roosters to a premiership over his former club.

In 2019, Canberra made their first grand final in the NRL era. They competed with the powerhouse Roosters for 70 minutes before THAT Six Again call arguably cost them a shot at a game-winning try. Though BJ Leilua not passing to Jordan Rapana with the line open was just as costly. While the Roosters became the first back-to-back NRL premiers, Canberra are one of three sides (along with the Warriors and Titans) not to win an NRL title.

The Penrith Panthers’ domination begun in 2020. While the Storm beat them in the 2020 grand final (in a season shortened by the Covid-19 pandemic) – leading 26-0 early in the second half before winning 26-20 – the Panthers won empathically in 2021 and 2022. From 2020 to 2022, the Panthers won 59 regular season games.

In 2022 alone, they won premierships in the NRL, SG Ball, Jersey Flegg, and NSW Cup. Due to Sydney lockdowns, the ’21 decider was played in Brisbane for the second time (after QEII Stadium hosted the 1997 Super League decider), with Suncorp Stadium (or Lang Park for traditionalists) hosting it.

A crowd just shy of 40,000 proved it was worth it. Homebush got the grand final back in 2022, with over 82,00 attending the Penrith versus Parramatta decider.

The rise of Peter ‘The Man of Feathers’ V’landys brought a lot of controversy, as he introduced a number of rule changes.

The most controversial was the Six Again rule. While exciting at first, the faster pace created a massive gulf between the top six teams and the rest. It was amended in 2022 to reintroduce “full” penalties inside the 40 metre zone of the team in possession. It was a necessary change as smart teams knew how to give away penalties with little consequence as they were fit enough to absorb a few extra tackles.

The “Super Field Goal” rule was also controversial, with teams getting two points for a field goal kicked outside the 40 metre line.

2023 and Beyond

As the NRL enters the next 25 years, we have a game that is light years away from one that was healing in the late ’90s. Melbourne has been a success (despite the state’s Aussie Rules obsession), Penrith are on the verge of a huge dynasty, the Titans have finally given the Gold Coast an identity, the game weathered Covid-19, and the (Redcliffe) Dolphins are the latest Queensland expansion side.

Who will be the 18th? Perth? Another New Zealand team? A Pacific Island team? Another Queensland team? Or will the Bears finally return?

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NRL History (1998-2022)

YearGF WinnerGF Runner UpMinor PremierWooden Spoon
1998BrisbaneCanterbury-BankstownBrisbaneWestern Suburbs
1999MelbourneSt George-IllawarraCronulla-SutherlandWestern Suburbs
2000BrisbaneSydney RoostersBrisbaneNorth Queensland
2002Sydney RoostersWarriorsWarriorsCanterbury-Bankstown
2003PenrithSydney RoostersPenrithSouth Sydney
2004Canterbury-BankstownSydney RoostersSydney RoostersSouth Sydney
2005Wests TigersNorth QueenslandParramattaNewcastle
2006BrisbaneMelbourneMelbourne*South Sydney
2009Melbourne*ParramattaSt George-IllawarraSydney Roosters
2010St George-IllawarraSydney RoostersSt George-IllawarraMelbourne
2011Manly-WarringahWarriorsMelbourneGold Coast
2013Sydney RoostersManly-WarringahSydney RoostersParramatta
2014South SydneyCanterbury-BankstownSydney RoostersCronulla-Sutherland
2015North QueenslandBrisbaneSydney RoostersNewcastle
2017MelbourneNorth QueenslandMelbourneNewcastle
2018Sydney RoostersMelbourneSydney RoostersParramatta
2019Sydney RoostersCanberraMelbourneGold Coast
2021PenrithSouth SydneyMelbourneCanterbury-Bankstown
2022PenrithParramattaPenrithWests Tigers
* revoked

Premierships in the NRL Era

4 Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm*
3 Brisbane Broncos, Penrith Panthers
2 Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
1 Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, South Sydney Rabbitohs, St George-Illawarra Dragons, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Wests Tigers, Newcastle Knights, North Queensland Cowboys

* 2 premierships revoked

Minor Premierships in the NRL Era

5 Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm*
3 Penrith Panthers
2 St George-Illawarra Dragons, Brisbane Broncos, Parramatta Eels
1 Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Warriors, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

* 3 minor premierships revoked

Wooden Spoon in the NRL Era

4 Newcastle Knights
3 South Sydney Rabbitohs, Parramatta Eels
2 Western Suburbs Magpies, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Penrith Panthers, Gold Coast Titans
1 Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, Brisbane Broncos, Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm, Wests Tigers, North Queensland Cowboys

Team Records in the NRL Era

All matches between 1998 and 2022 including finals.

Team NamePlayedWonLostDrawn
Melbourne Storm6554352146
Sydney Roosters6483742704
Brisbane Broncos64335527711
Penrith Panthers6273262956
Parramatta Eels6343223048
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs6333213066
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks6283123115
St George-Illawarra Dragons6253113077
Canberra Raiders6253033184
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles5542892632
Newcastle Knights6202833307
North Queensland Cowboys6292793464
South Sydney Rabbitohs5732643054
Wests Tigers5612343243
Gold Coast Titans4101562531
Northern Eagles7630451
North Sydney Bears5025250
Balmain Tigers4817301
Illawarra Steelers2411121
Western Suburbs Magpies487410
Adelaide Rams247170

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