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From its beginnings as a rebel breakaway code in 1907 to the Super League war of the 1990s, rugby league has travelled arm-in-arm with controversy.

Refereeing decisions, the manoeuvres of administrators, and player behaviour both on and off the field have fuelled endless media coverage and scrutiny.

Super League

Trophy with a silver football extendeding above a wooden base. - click to view larger image
Super League Cup

In the mid-1990s a mammoth battle was fought over pay television rights to rugby league. The Australian Rugby League, backed by media giant Kerry Packer, owned the rights until 2000.

In order to bypass this, Rupert Murdoch's rival media organisation, News Limited, signed individual coaches and players to compete in a rebel competition – the Super League.

The Australian Rugby League took Super League to the Federal Court and prevented the rebel league from kicking off in 1996. A later decision, however, allowed Super League to start in 1997.

A dismayed Australian Rugby League chairman Ken Arthurson said he was 'furious, hurt and bewildered'. That season, 22 teams competed in two separate competitions.

Teams aligned with the Australian Rugby League competed for the Optus Cup, while the Super League aligned teams competed for the Super League Cup.

With two separate competitions competing for sponsorship and crowds, many clubs faced financial ruin.

Peace talks in late 1997 resulted in the formation of a single competition, the National Rugby League, jointly owned by the Australian Rugby League and News Limited. But the Super League war left many fans disillusioned.

Keeping control

Photo of 1951 Test match between Australia and France. Frenchman Puig Aubert and Australia's Clive Churchill plead their cases while Referee Tom McMahon takes the linesman's report
Test players plead their cases

When the whistle blows, the referee can become either a hero or villain.

The person in charge is never too far from controversy.

Love them or hate them, the names of referees are often as well-known as those of the players.

High profile referees over the years have included:

  • Darcy Lawler
  • Greg ‘Hollywood’ Hartley
  • Barry ‘Grasshopper’ Gomersall
  • Bill Harrigan.

Controversy

Download sports historian and journalist Ian Heads' League of Legends catalogue extract for more on controversy in the game.

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