You have skipped the navigation, tab for page content
This week in history: The war is coming

During this week in 1994, Rugby League Week magazine sparked speculation when it wrote of a potential breakaway competition.

Tony Durkin, RLW's Queensland editor, wrote 30 years ago on March 2: "A breakaway Rugby League competition, similar to World Series Cricket and conducted along the lines of the NBA in America, has been mooted as relations between the NSWRL and the Broncos deteriorate.

"World Series Cricket revolutionised the summer game when Kerry Packer stepped in back in 1977. Television is the financial backbone of Rugby League, and the same result is not beyond comprehension."

After a false start at the beginning of the '96 season, the breakaway competition, aptly named Super League, officially kicked off for the Sharks almost exactly three years after Durkin's article on March 3, 1997, when they took on the Canberra Raiders at the SFS before 22,683 fans. 

The Super League war was primarily a corporate dispute between the Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation-backed Super League and the Kerry Packer and Optus Vision-backed Australian Rugby League organisations over broadcasting rights for, and ultimately control of, the top-level professional rugby league football competition in Australia.

It was reported at the time that the Sharks were motivated by a dissatisfaction with the perceived favouritism of the NSWRL administration towards other clubs, and a still-risky financial situation.

In Gary Lester's The Sharks, Colour Me Black, White and Blue, he writes: "As history would subsequently show, Cronulla was one of the few clubs ripe for the picking.

"At the time the Super League blueprint was devised Cronulla's very own leagues club was no longer prepared, or could afford, to continue to provide yearly grants. Reality was the loss of promising young players such as Mat Rogers, David Peachey, Sean Ryan, Adam Ritson and Adam Dykes to bigger spending rival clubs. The Sharks were aware that Eastern Suburbs were on the verge of signing Rogers and Ryan."

After twelve months of speculation, the war reached a pivotal moment for the Sharks whilst they were in Western Australia for their round four clash against the Western Reds.

In his book A Father's Son, Mat Rogers explains how the players at the conclusion of the match were whisked away to the Sofitel Hotel to meet top News Limited executive Ken Cowley.

"Cowley talks to us about plans to create a new elite, breakaway competition, Super League, which will start the following year. The players who are chosen to play in this new league, he says will be paid more than double the money they’re on now. Matches will be broadcast by a new Australian pay television company, Foxtel, a joint venture between News Corporation and Telstra."

The group were then addressed by Sharks manager Shane Richardson, who informed the group the club had signed with Super League, but the players would be required to sign an individual contact to remain with Cronulla.

What ensured over the next twelve months was nothing short of pandemonium, as clubs clambered to align themselves with one of the two ventures and fill their playing rosters.

During the tumultuous period surrounding Cronulla and the Super League saga, club president Peter Gow took proactive measures to address unrest among the Shire and Sharks supporter base. Conducting surveys among members and distributing numerous propaganda and information bulletins, Gow sought to justify the club's decision to align with the rebel competition.

One particularly telling response came in a tri-fold pamphlet distributed by the Sharks, answering members' questions about the decision. When asked what would have happened if they had declined the Super League franchise, the club's stark answer was that they would have faced bankruptcy. Gow recently affirmed this fact in a meeting with your writer.

"I actually approached them," Gow told me. "I spoke with Porky (Paul) Morgan and requested an audience with Lachlan Murdoch which Porky arranged. When we signed with Super League, our $30 million debt was wiped overnight."

Gow and the board's decision was more than vindicated with a number of upgrades seen shortly after signing including the upgrade of the club’s home ground.

The Sharks train ahead of the 1997 Super League season.
The Sharks train ahead of the 1997 Super League season.

Cronulla reached the inaugural - and only - grand final of the ten-team competition, losing to the Brisbane Broncos 26-8 in Brisbane. The game was notable for being the only grand final to be played outside Sydney.

Mat Rogers reflects on the season in his book: "For Cronulla and me, the Super League competition was a success. Throughout, we're clearly among the stand-out teams and make it all the way to the grand final. But while we're strong, the Brisbane Broncos, our opponents in the decider, are a powerhouse, in my opinion the better side across the two competitions."

After both the ARL and Super League had haemorrhaged large amounts of money, a merged competition was agreed upon for the 1998 season which would be a 50% partnership between News Limited and the ARL. 

Acknowledgement of Country

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

Premier Partner

Major Partners

View All Partners