20 Years On: The First Day of the NRL


20 years ago today, the first game under the unified NRL banner kicked off, beginning a competition that has brought about plenty of excitement and drama since.

After several years of disruption between ARL and the breakaway Super League, which included the 1997 split season where two competitions ran concurrently, the game was united in a new 20-team format.

December 1997 saw the official ending of the Super League War when the ARL accepted News Limited’s offer of a settlement leading to the eventual formation of the National Rugby League.

19 teams from the ARL and Super League carried over and were joined by the newly created Melbourne Storm.

We will however always remember the Hunter Mariners, Western Reds and South Queensland Crushers as they joined the list of former clubs.

Day one of the first NRL regular season featured a triple header across two countries and three time zones.

The Auckland Warriors began proceedings at Mt Smart Stadium against the South Sydney Rabbitohs which saw the visitors run away 24-18 winners.

After the first game, the lone Super League Premiers Brisbane hosted the Manly Sea Eagles, who were coming off the ARL Minor Premiership and Grand Final loss to Newcastle.

As one of the sides predicted to be in contention for end of season honours, they got their season off to a good start with a comfortable 22-6 win.

Joining the Broncos staff for that season was an assistant by the name of Craig Bellamy, who of course would go on to be a pretty successful coach in his own right with Melbourne.

Adelaide had the honour of closing out the first day of the NRL season beginning their second and final season by hosting the North Queensland Cowboys at the Adelaide Oval.

It would be the Cowboys leaving with the two points however, as tries to Noa Nadruku, Dale Shearer and Steve Walters would allow them to run out 18-8 winners.

Former Queensland State of Origin star Shearer made his debut for the Cowboys in what would be his final season of professional rugby league.

He was one of four new acquisitions the Cowboys rolled out as they began their season on a tear winning four in a row and five of their first six.

The remainder of Round one featured the Storm winning their debut match away to Illawarra plus the Roosters and Parramatta recording wins on Saturday.

Sunday’s matches featured Newcastle following on from their ARL Grand Final win by beating North Sydney before St George and the Bulldogs also recorded opening round wins.

As many remember (at least in Brisbane), that season finished with the Broncos as minor premiers and the Western Suburbs Magpies with the wooden spoon.

Brisbane were upset in their opening finals match before going on to win their next three including a 38-12 Grand Final victory over Canterbury to become the first NRL Premiers.