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Controversy corner

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.

Five men at media conference, with yellow, green and white Super League signs as a backdrop.
A Super League press conference with, from left, New Zealand Rugby League chairman Grahame Carden, News Limited's Lachlan Murdoch and Ken Cowley, Super League's John Ribot, and former player Mal Meninga.
Photo: Newspix/News Limited.
Rugby league players wearing their 1997 Super League jumpers.
Players wearing their 1997 Super League jumpers at the competition launch.
Photo: Newspix/News Limited.

Super League

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.

John Quayle and Ken Arthurson surrounded by media scrum.
Australian Rugby League chief executive John Quayle, left, and chairman Ken Arthurson arrive at the Federal Court in 1996. Photo: Newspix/Michael Amendolia.

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.

Bill Harrigan sends Gorden Tallis off the field.
Referee Bill Harrigan sends Queensland player Gorden Tallis, far right, off during a 2000 State of Origin match. Photo: Newspix, Gregg Porteous.

Keeping control

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
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