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The exhibition

Charles 'Chook' Fraser with his representative caps.
Champion player Charles 'Chook' Fraser with his representative caps. Courtesy James Fraser.

League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League in Australia was on show in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Townsville and Melbourne in 2008–2009.

by senior curator Guy Hansen

The League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League in Australia exhibition celebrates the history of this great game.

Starting as a breakaway football competition established in defiance of the New South Wales Rugby Union, league has grown to become one of the most popular of Australian sports, a skilful fast-moving game that has the passionate support of its fans.

From the local under-sevens to the elite teams of the National Rugby League, its popularity has seen it become a major sports business providing entertainment to millions of Australians.

And yet, for a game that occupies such a central place in Australian sporting life, its early history is surprisingly unknown to its legion of fans.

Revealing the forgotten reminders

In this centenary year of rugby league, how should we remember and celebrate the game's history?

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.

An assortment of early rugby league caps.
An assortment of early rugby league caps. Photo: George Serras.

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 brings to light these sometimes forgotten trophy cabinets and the treasures held within.

The objects on show are 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.

Guy Hansen with the Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield.
National Museum curator Guy Hansen with the Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

National signficance

The National Museum of Australia'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 Winfield Cup
The Winfield Cup. Courtesy New South Wales Rugby League. Photo: Lannon Harley

The trophy cabinet

Among the many objects on show are 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.
A pair of leather football boots.
1940s football boots. Courtesy Australian and New South Wales Rugby League.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

More treasures of the game

League of Legends features many historic images and treasures linked to the great moments and personalities of the past 100 years.

The exhibition includes early posters, programs and beer advertising signs; representative caps and jerseys; and medallions.

Also on show is memorabilia from various clubs and grounds; gear used by leading broadcasters; and mascot costumes.

These objects, usually held in clubs and homes across the country, are reminders of rugby league's rich history.

Sometimes forgotten in the current season, they are a link to the past.

Football with small commemmorative plaque on side.
Football presented to Frank Burge after he scored four tries for Australasia during a tour match against Wakefield Trinity, 22 October 1921. Courtesy Australian and New South Wales Rugby League. Photo: Lannon Harley.
Australian captain Darren Lockyer holds a trophy aloft.
Australian captain Darren Lockyer after Australia's 50–12 victory over New Zealand in the 2006 ANZAC Test. Photo: Colin Whelan Action Photographics.

A time to celebrate

From a difficult birth at the beginning of the twentieth century, rugby league has grown to assume a central place in Australian life at the start of the twenty-first century.

As the celebrations marking the centenary of rugby league unfold throughout 2008, fans will have a great opportunity to review the history of Australian rugby league and witness some of its treasures.

Arrayed together, these trophies and treasures reflect changing styles and tastes, from the classic first decades of the century to the more modern designs of recent decades.

But all represent the pinnacle of achievement in their various competitions; they are symbols of the passion, skill and athleticism that have been at the heart of rugby league since its inception in 1908.

The past 100 years reveal a great drive for adaptation and change, reflected in changing rules, the move from an amateur to a professional code, and the development of the game as a form of mass sports entertainment.

While it has changed significantly, rugby league has remained, at its base, a 'grass roots' game.

For me, the lesson to be learned from the game's history is that rugby league provides a field on which our most elemental emotions find expression. There is pride in community, ecstasy in victory and despair at defeat. There is aggression and ambition as well as sacrifice and courage.

Next time you visit a leagues club and hear the sound of distant poker machines amid the interruptions of the restaurant public address system – 'number ten, your schnitzel is ready' – pause for a moment and take a look at the trophy cabinet. There is history there.

This is an edited extract of Guy Hansen's 'The trophy cabinet', from the League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League in Australia catalogue.

pdfRead the full text from the League of Legends catalogue (PDF file size 851kb)

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