History of Rugby League in Competition

The sport itself began over disputes regarding players receiving compensation for when they missed work in order to play rugby, as described above in the history of the sport. The Northern Rugby Football Union formed on August 29th 1895 in response to this and the new sport was effectively born. Teams played as part of the League Championship which was divided into the Lancashire and Yorkshire Leagues which consisted of nine and eleven teams respectively. The various constituents of the Northern Rugby Football Union amalgamated in 1901 to form the Northern Rugby League. The league then introduced two divisions between which teams were relegated and promoted. This was short-lived however as the number of people attending the lower league games dropped, seriously damaging these club’s finances.

The Challenge Cup was set up in 1896 and was played annually except during the First World War. Batley won the first final of the knock-out tournament, which went on to being played at Wembley Stadium in 1929. The Counties Cups were introduced in 1905, consisting of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Cups. These two cups were played every year, with the exception of the Lancashire Cup during World War Two, until 1993 when the schedules of larger clubs no longer allowed for their participation. The British Amateur Rugby League Association continues to hold cup competitions for amateur clubs.

A major event that has moulded the way in which the sport has developed was the expansion abroad. In 1905 a group of businessmen from New Zealand watched some Rugby Union matches while on tour with the Nation’s Rugby Union team. They were impressed with the fast-paced, punchier version of the sport and decided to sponsor a New Zealand team to play the British clubs using the Union rules. Although this was primarily a financial venture by two entrepreneurs from Wellington, New Zealand, it led to the explosion of the sport in the Southern Hemisphere.

This success was not matched on home soil and despite great efforts to encourage the playing of the sport in Wales, an area where rugby was traditionally popular. By 1914 no Welsh team played the sport in the Northern Rugby Union, although some players did leave Wales to pursue their careers within the sport. In the wake of the First World War, there was a nationwide hunger for public entertainment, of which the people had been starved during the war. This proved beneficial to Rugby League and another important development was seen in 1922 with the first annual general meeting where it was decided the RFU was now to be called the Rugby Football League.

The popularity of the sport was reflected in the decision to play the Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium and to send a team to tour Australia, both of which attracted massive audiences and generated valuable revenue. Around the same time, the French Rugby League was seeing unrest which reflected the events that spawn Rugby League in the UK. The sport was beginning to be dominated by financial influences such as transfer fees and professional wages, resulting in a tour of the UK by a French team in 1934. Three years later the sport was recognised in France by the Federation National Des Sports only to be quashed soon after by Nazi influence in the years leading to the Second World War.

Ironically it was the French who pushed for the sport to be played internationally after the Second World War. In 1948 the Rugby League International Federation was set up and countries began to compete in the Rugby League World Cup, although this latter competition has never been the most popular world class event in the sport. The organisation of the cup did not go swimmingly and there were a number of false starts. The first competition took place in France in 1954 between the home nation, England, Australia and New Zealand. Australia went on to win easily and have held on the cup in seven of the following ten times the competition has been played.

The way the sport was played in Australia was a fairly complicated business over the next few decades. This was mostly dominated by money, where the introduction of slot-machines into stadiums generated finances for clubs to transfer players. In 1980 these financial factors were levelled by the introduction of the States of Origins Cup, where players were divided into teams according to where they first played the game. This meant that teams could no longer convert dollars to strength on the pitch. These competitions have become one of the most fiercely competed events in Australian sport and rival the Australian Super Leagues in popularity.

The mid-90s was another turbulent time in the history of the sport. In Australia, two leagues were competing. The Australian Rugby League, the governing body for the sport in Australia which ran the New South Wales Rugby League and Queensland Rugby League, came up against the media sponsored Super League. This was a professional league, supported by News Ltd, which ran for one season in 1997. The financial battle over television rights raged for two years and eventually the two leagues merged to form the National Rugby League in 1998.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Rugby League was beginning to take off elsewhere in the World, mainly in Europe and Russia. Financial influences went on to dominate the way the sport was played in Europe in the 1990s. Rupert Murdoch’s empire was in full swing, and his company BSkyB offered the Rugby Football League a lucrative contract which led to the Super League being set up in the UK which took place over the summer months.

The Super League Europe was established in 1996 in a similar way, in which it was hoped that teams would merge to from new "super clubs" that would compete at international level. This idea was not popular however and so the league competitions remained between 12 European teams. After two years the only non-British team the Catalans Dragons left the league, meaning the league was not truly European. The team rejoined in 2006, justifying the retention of the word Europe in the title.