When Rugby League went to war

MARTYN SADLER reviews a book about the struggle for the soul of Australian Rugby League

The year 1997 was perhaps the most important year in Rugby League history since the formation of the Northern Union in 1895.
It was a year when a pay-television war in Australia drove the game to the brink and brutally exposed its vulnerabilities in both hemispheres.
Back then, Australian journalist Steve Mascord covered the Super League War for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Now, as we come up to the 25th anniversary of the divided season, Mascord has interviewed more than 100 individuals who lived through it and played key roles, from Ken Arthurson and John Ribot, two of the key players in Australia, to Maurice Lindsay and Nigel Wood, who both played significant roles in England.
This book therefore gives a new angle on Rugby League’s most important story. Mascord wanted to cover it while some of the participants are still around to tell the tale after they have had 25 years to reflect on what happened and how it all worked out in the end.
And he has produced a book that is certainly a compelling read.

The origins of a car crash
“The NRL is a behemoth now and I don’t think it knows how to process 1997, the year when two tribes went to war, when there were two competitions in Australasia for the only time,” writes Mascord.
“My objective in ‘Two Tribes’ is somewhat lofty. I want the game to make its peace with 1997. I want to give a human face to the sport’s lowest point since its birth 100 years before; to tell how a peculiar melange of personalities, technological advances, commercial pressures and rivalries produced a season what was bizarre, eventful, side-splittingly funny and – yeah – sometimes shambolic and tragic. This is the story of the NRL’s birth.
“What started as a dry investigation into an historical event became something of a personal journey.
“Visiting Ken and Barbara Arthurson on the Gold Coast, a battle scarred but feisty Maurice Lindsay at Lytham St Annes and having the honour of (former NRL CEO) Neil Whittaker’s first in-depth Rugby League interview in 20 years, I found myself spending as much time gossiping about things that had nothing to do with 1997 as we did recording our conversations.”
The battle was fought between two Australian media moguls – Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. And it was about who would control Pay TV rights in Australia, which, in 1996, were in their infancy.
In 1993 the NSWRL, under whose banner the club competition in Australia was then organised, agreed a seven-year deal with Channel 9 that was reportedly worth £10 million per year. Included in that package was the Pay TV rights, whose value was not fully understood at the time by the NSWRL, given that Pay TV had yet to get up and running.

The stage is set
In that regard, Optus Vision was the first on the scene in 1995, using the Optus telecommunications licence as its authority to build a cable network, which it deployed in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Its main competition, especially in the metropolitan areas, was Foxtel, a joint venture between Telstra and News Corporation. As part of that partnership, News Corporation was contractually bound to source sports coverage for Foxtel. In New South Wales and Queensland, that meant Rugby League, but it found that the rights it wanted to secure were already held by Packer, who wasn’t prepared to let them go.
The stage was set for the Super League war.
News Corporation decided that if it couldn’t break the contract of the NSWRL with Packer, then it would create its own competition.
It began to sign up clubs and players with promises of endless riches and a new Rugby League world order, pointing out to the clubs how the TV rights for Rugby League had been undervalued to that point and insisting that the Australian Rugby League had little or no actual proprietary rights over its members.

From court to court
News Corporation was hoping to begin a new competition, having poached players and clubs from the NSWRL but Inevitably the dispute headed to the courts and in February 1996 Murdoch’s organisation was halted in its tracks by a decision of Mr Justice Burchett of the Australian High Court, who ruled that it would be prevented from running a new competition because the ARL clubs had all signed loyalty agreements with the governing body.
News’s Australian chief and the force behind Super League, Ken Cowley, and his team suffered a humbling defeat, and the clubs that had signed to join Super League played out the 1996 season still under the ARL banner.
But News had appealed the decision and on 4th October 1996 the Australian Federal Court stunningly reversed the decision of Justice Burchett, finding that the loyalty agreements were illegal under the Trade Practices Act and the clubs were not bound by the ARL’s rules.
It was a shattering defeat for the ARL and it guaranteed a ruinous war for the two sides to the dispute and an inevitable split into two separate competitions in 1997.

Bidding war
Mascord’s book takes up the story from that point as both sides tried to outbid each other for the services of the game’s leading players.
The two competitions began with twelve clubs – mainly the traditional Sydney clubs – remaining loyal to the Australian Rugby League and playing in its competition. Meanwhile ten clubs, including many of the big-city clubs with a more recent history, played in the competition organised by Murdoch’s organisation.
The ARL suffered a blow, however, when Kerry Packer hedged his bet by doing a deal with News to show Super League games as well as ARL games free to air on Channel 9, which deeply hurt the ARL Chairman Ken Arthurson, who had failed to recognise that the ARL’s interests did not fully coincide with those of Packer.
Fortunately for the ARL, the key club in the whole operation was Newcastle Knights, who had been targeted by News Corporation but remained loyal to the ARL. That was down to the club’s players, and in particular ‘The Chief’, the iconic Paul Harragon, who hired a bus and drove it himself to Sydney so the players could speak to the ARL officials before making their decision about which side of the divide to join.
They opted to stay loyal to the ARL and the Knights would go on to win the 1997 ARL Grand Final with a stunning upset last-minute win over Manly in a game that is widely regarded as showing that, despite its travails, Rugby League was still the most dramatic of any popular Australian sport.
Mascord interviews Harragon in the final chapter of the book and we learn, as if we needed to, that survival is in the DNA of Rugby League.
“We know how to fight. We know how to get down in the ditches and hang in there and that’s what people want. That’s what the players do every week,” he says.

Coming together
But with both sides haemorrhaging crowds and TV audiences, there had to be a rapprochement and eventually, after much haggling, they came back together for a combined 20-team competition in 1998, although in a real sense that was only the beginning of the agony as the agreement stipulated there would be only 14 clubs in 2000, which would ultimately lead to the exclusion of South Sydney before their reinstatement in 2002.
A less remarked upon tragedy for Rugby League in Australia is the fact that the ARL had established the Western Reds in Perth in 1995, while Super League had set up the Adelaide Rams in 1997, with both clubs drawing encouraging crowds. But both clubs were ditched as part of the resolution of the conflict and the NRL is stall absent from both cities, meaning that it is not really a national competition.
The question, of course, is whether it was all worth it, with both sides having spent many millions of dollars in what was ultimately a stalemate.
Having said that, Foxtel ultimately got its pay-per-view service up and running with Rugby League firmly driving subscriptions, while Packer retained his free-to-air rights. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t have arrived at an agreement before the Super League war started.
Meanwhile, one of the best stories in the book reveals the background to Stuart Raper, the son of the great Johnny Raper, getting the coaching job at Castleford in 1997.
“In April I got the call to go to Castleford. I think it was Greg McCallum, who was over there as refs boss, who recommended me to the club and they did some research,” Stuart Raper told Mascord.
“I couldn’t get a visa. I mentioned to (Castleford CEO) Richard Wright over there ‘my mum’s Welsh’ and he said ‘you can get what they call Right of Abode’. I said ‘righto’ and I hung up the phone and thought ‘how am I going to get this’. Dad said ‘what’s up?’ I said ‘I need this Right of Abode and it takes about six weeks to get’.
“He said ‘hang on a minute, I’ll make a phone call’ and he just gets on the phone and talks to this girl, Wendy I think her name was, and he says ‘can I speak to John please?’ Dad says ‘hello mate’ and tells him the whole story. ‘He’s got to go there? Right’. He hangs up and says ‘you’ve got to go down to Canberra tomorrow, go to the consulate’ or something, ‘see this bloke and he’ll get you the visa’. I said ‘who were you talking to’?
“It was John Howard. John Howard was the Prime Minister at the time and he was talking to him like he was one of his mates, just some bloke he knew! He gave him a number, I went down and got the visa and I was on the plane five days later.”