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Over the past 100 years rugby league teams have been united by a common goal: the desire to bring home the trophy. Awards including the Winfield Cup inspire players and fans, capturing the competitive spirit of the game.

These trophies, along with treasured caps, footballs and other memorabilia on show in the original League of Legends exhibition were a link to the great moments and personalities of the game.

Reminders of the past

If you visit rugby league clubs around Australia you will invariably find reminders of the game’s past. In a corner of the foyer there will be a display case filled with photographs, trophies and mementos of former greats.

Studio photo of a man dressed in a football uniform. He stands beside a small table with various football caps on it. - click to view larger image
Charles 'Chook' Fraser with his representative caps

Often ignored in the contest of the current season, these cabinets provide a tangible link with the players and officials of the past. The League of Legends exhibition brought to light these sometimes forgotten trophy cabinets and the treasures held within.

The objects on show were material evidence of the code’s history and bear testament not only to the changing fortunes of the game, but also to the changing nature of Australia.

Messenger shield

The National Museum’s active involvement in the history of rugby league began when it purchased the Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield in 2004.

This trophy, a beautiful black mahogany shield embossed with silver, was the first premiership shield of the New South Wales Rugby League. It was awarded from 1908 to 1913.

After winning the competition in 1913, Eastern Suburbs presented the shield to their star captain, Herbert ‘Dally’ Messenger.

The shield’s association with the genesis of rugby league in Australia, and its connection to the game’s first great superstar, make it one of the most important rugby league objects held in a public collection in Australia.

The trophy cabinet

Among the many objects on show in the exhibition were some of the great trophies of Australian rugby league, from international to regional competitions:

  • The Winfield Cup, inspired by the classic photograph of the post-match embrace of muddied footballers Arthur Summons and Norm Provan.
  • The first State of Origin Shield, awarded to the winner of the annual clash between Queensland and New South Wales.
  • The Courtney Goodwill Trophy, at stake when Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and France, did battle from 1936.
  • The Maher Cup, known as the ‘old tin pot’, and for many years one of the most contested regional prizes when neighbouring towns in southern New South Wales challenged each other from 1921 to 1971.
  • The Super League Cup and Optus Cup, reminders of how close rugby league came to self-destructing, with two rival competitions running in 1997.

The trophy cabinet

Download curator Guy Hansen's League of Legends catalogue extract for more on treasures of the game.

In our collection

Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield presented to Herbert 'Dally' Messenger by the Eastern Suburbs District Rugby Foot...The Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield and a hanging chain. The shield has an almost-oval mahogany backboard is painted with black enamel paint and it has three decorative semi-circular recesses in the top and bottom edges. An irregularly-shaped Sterling silver plate forms its centrepiece, and it bears the maker's mark ...
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