The War: Legacy and Reflection a Decade On

Filed in Other by on December 5, 2010

It was a hot April morning. April Fools Day perhaps. The sun scorched down through the bright and cloudless sky, one last remnant of a summer gone by. There was a cricket final to be played and as I strode into some long burnt down Orange corner store where the Slavic owner had blown a junkie thief to the next world only months previous, adorned in whites, rugby league was far from my mind. I was there for papers and water and a sneaky sausage roll. What I got was the most explosive front page I had ever seen.

The Daily Telegraph shot out at me that a Super League had been formed. And that Canterbury Bankstown were a firmly entrenched in it. Terry Lamb had gone. So had Ando. Bullfrog as well. Other big names had signed as well. Most of the Raiders. All the Broncos. Cronulla were there too. A new rugby league was to be formed and it would sweep the world. League in China and league all the time. The best of the best, all the stars would be in the Super League.

The concept of a Super League had been bandied about for a decade but the hostility of its rise to prominence surprised everyone outside of News Limited. As a lifelong rugby league fan, there could have been no bigger story and no bigger shock. Though a Super League was first suggested as early as 1986 by none other than Ken Arthurson, talk had gone no further than the smoky and mahogany-laden rooms of the ARL and by the early nineties, News. And it had never been viewed as a potential competitor to the current power, nor had any real progress on the concept been made. Even after the Bradley Report of 1992, which dealt with the reorganization of the ARL and rugby league in this country, little had been done and there was very little noise made in the public domain.

Then, on that unforgettable April day, it all spilled out like the pancreas of a gutted pig.

A revolution had begun and there was no hope of a bloodless coup. As the stories of Super League dominated what had quickly been labeled a war, it continued to escalate significantly in scope, volatility and money. There was a mad rush for players, demands of loyalty, threats to treachery, clandestine lock-down meetings, the passing of astronomical cheques, organised propaganda blitzes, high-priced legal action, battles over intellectual property and League rights, the extinguishment of lifelong friendships and an unprecedented level of Machiavellian behaviour that would have shamed The Prince. The result was rugby league in Australia was torn apart at every level. Rome was burning and there were a hell of a lot of people caught in the flames.

The carnage was immense and the battles vicious. Players signed to Super League were banned from representative football. News signed the Great Britain and New Zealand leagues, preventing the ARL from partaking in international rugby league. A number of clubs were threatened with expulsion. Players betrayed clubs, like the treacherous quartet of Dymock, Pay, McCracken and Jason Smith who turned on the Bulldogs with vile spite and swiftness by reneging on their deals to get bigger money at Parramatta (an act of such grave treachery that a decade on Bulldogs fans have still not forgiven nor forgotten and still look back with pride on the day they burnt McCracken’s book in unison on the hill at Belmore). Round one of the 1996 season was forfeited by clubs loyal to Super League. There were two competitions in 1997. Jobs were lost, reputations tarnished and health damaged. 

Rugby league was in a bad way. So bad, rugby tossers thought they had us and the noble game of rugby league beat. They thought after a century, the death blow was landed and rugby league would be relegated to a footnote in history. Rugby would rein supreme, its arch rival buried in the rubble of civil war and the abandonment of those with the cash. But what these fools hadn’t counted on was the simple notion that rugby league is, quite plainly, a better game. It is a better spectacle, a better test of athleticism and a better sport to play. And that is why rugby league fought back from the brink to kick rugby union square in the balls and have it keeled over in pain, wretching and heaving, in less than a decade. Super League caused plenty of heartache among the fans of rugby league and left many disillusioned by the game but it sure as hell wasn’t enough to attract them long-term to the cluttered quagmire they call rugby union.

At the time, it was easy to get caught up in the wave, seeing the need to take sides. Facts weren’t important but position was crucial. Misinformation was the norm and establishing the truth was near-impossible. The era was McCarthyist in nature. You were either with us or against us and those in the middle were shot at by both.

But on reflection, once the glitz has been removed and agendas attributed and historical perspective given, it can be seen that Super League was entirely necessary and it has made rugby league the grand success it is today. The revolution was borne out of the staidness of league structures and the inertia of the game’s powerbrokers. From the relatively simple issue of pay television rights- the only thing News Limited wanted and a notion that would have benefited both News and the ARL- the game was upended and sent into a bloody war. Had Arthurson and Quayle and the ARL regime at the time, operating under an antiquated and inefficient structure and with a belief in their divine right to govern with totalitarian authority, shown any vision for the future, the whole mess could have been avoided. And this is why the legacy of Super League is positive. The shake removed the hacks and good ol’ boys from power and gave rugby league a chance to thrive. There was no more Ken Arthurson and John Quayle sorting out the Eagles and the Eels from Phillip Street. Super League removed the self imposed shackles holding rugby league back, squashing the insulated thinking and ending the old score settling.

Today, rugby league flourishes in Australia and this is directly attributable to Super League. Super League was never a success in itself but through forcing issues, caused the re-united game to prosper. By getting rugby league to pay television, the real value of rugby league was realised. In 2006, 73 of the highest rated 100 pay television broadcasts were rugby league games. Due to the high pay television value, Nine paid a fair price for rugby league coverage for the first time in history. Merchandising is at an all time high and players and referees have entered an era of true professionalism.

On the field, Super League caused plenty of positives as well. The video referee- for all the faults with it- has ensured more correct decisions to be made when awarding a try. The zero tackle rule rightfully rewards the attacking team after an error. Attacking rugby league was encouraged with the changing of scrum and tap positions. The ARL got creative during this period too, bringing in one of the finest rule changes of the last decade, the 40/20.

There is plenty wrong with the National Rugby League in 2007. There are some terrible rules, some poorly managed issues and some misplaced priorities. But there is little doubt that rugby league today under David Gallop is in a better state than it was yesterday under Ken Arthurson. And it is Super League and the visionaries who pushed and promoted it that we all have to thank for that. The Super League war was bloody and brutal and very few prisoners were taken but it was a situation that became entirely necessary and in the end, it made rugby league an even better product and an even better game.

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