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Since it was first played in the early 20th century, rugby league has grown to become one of Australia’s most popular sports. In New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory it has a particularly strong following, with the sport often drawing bigger crowds and higher television audiences than AFL. 

So how did rugby league go from humble beginnings one of the most watched football codes in the country? In this article, we’ll delve into the history of the sport and its rise to prominence. 

As the 2023 season gears up, start planning a trip to watch the National Rugby League teams in action in either Australia or New Zealand. Online, you can easily find suitable rental properties in Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland, providing you with a comfortable place to rest your head after the game. 

Rugby league’s early years in Australia

When rugby league was first played in Australia, it was an act of rebellion against the dominant code of the time, rugby union. During the late 19th century, the latter was played throughout New South Wales and Queensland, with colonial competitions attracting thousands of fans. 

But with players getting injured frequently (resulting in unpaid time away from work), discontent was on the rise. In response, a group got together at the Bateman’s Hotel in Sydney to discuss creating a new league in which the players would be paid for their efforts. 

They were inspired following the visit of a professional New Zealand team, the “All Golds”, who were on their way to play England’s Northern Union teams. In 1895, the Northern Rugby Football Union was established, breaking away from the Rugby Football Union to create what would become rugby league and rugby union, respectively. 

Australia’s first season of rugby league was played in 1908, with clubs from across Sydney among the nine initial teams. By the following year, the game’s popularity had spread north and the Queensland Rugby Association kicked off games in 1909. 

One of the main figures attributing to the success of rugby league during its initial years was Dally Messenger. He had begun his football career at the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Union Club in 1905 and was selected for the New South Wales squad the following year. By 1907, he was playing for the Wallabies and enjoyed a huge following. 

Later that same year, he made the switch to rugby league after being approached by two of the code’s earliest proponents, Sydney businessman James Giltinan and cricketing legend Victor Trumper. Messenger went on to win three premierships with the Eastern Suburbs and played several tests with the national side, the Kangaroos. 

Another boost to the code came in 1909 when the Wallabies played the Kangaroos in a “clash of the codes”. While the series ended with two wins each, rugby league ultimately came out on top as many of the Wallabies players abandoned rugby union to pursue a career in rugby league. 


A century of growth

In 1910, the Newcastle Rugby League was established, followed by the Illawarra Rugby League in 1911. At the end of the decade, the Great Britain Lions toured Down Under and attendance records were broken at the Sydney Cricket Ground as crowds poured in to watch Australia win the Ashes. A year later and 30,000 people turned out to watch a women’s rugby league match, proving the code’s popularity across the gender divide. 

In 1957, Australia hosted the Rugby League World Cup and 10 years later, rugby league was the first of the country’s football codes to be televised live. As it was streamed into homes across the country, the popularity of rugby league was only cemented. In 2009 and again in 2010, the code had the highest TV ratings of any sport in Australia and a report revealed that rugby league was only second in popularity to cricket. 

To this day, rugby league regularly topples AFL in television ratings and continues to be the most popular code across New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. While it’s played in other states at an amateur level, most don’t have professional teams (aside from the Melbourne Storm). 

Australia’s greatest sporting rivalry continues to be the State of Origin series, with the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons battling it out each year during three matches. In 2022, the decider attracted 2.585 million viewers on TV and became the most-watched live-streaming event in Australian history. It’s statistics like these that confirm rugby league’s immense popularity and the intense thrill of the game. 

Rugby league players who have helped popularise the game

Over its more than 100 year history in Australia, rugby league has produced some exceptional players who contribute to the popularity of the sport. The athleticism, skill and passion of these players is what draws fans back again and again, whether it’s watching their local team or the national squad in action. 

Reg Gasnier was one of the earliest stars of the game and played his entire career with the St. George Dragons. He captained the national side during the 1960s and made his way into the Team of the Century when it was named in 2007. 

Brisbane Broncos full-back Darren Lockyer is considered one of the greats of the game and was awarded the Golden Boot (the world’s best player award) twice during his career. Andrew Johns is another name that comes to most fans’ lips if you ask them their favourite player of all time and holds the record for the most points scored in a test match. 

More recently, Cameron Smith has been wowing stadiums as a hooker for the Melbourne Storm and has made more appearances in the NRL than any other player (430 to be exact). He’s also the highest points scorer in the league and has received the Order of Australia for his efforts.