A History of NRL Club Debut Seasons

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The NRL will expand to 17 teams for the 2023 season with the Dolphins of Redcliffe set to become the first new club in 16 years.

With superstar coach Wayne Bennett set to take the helm, there will be plenty of expectations around the new entity.

Debut seasons have seen the sides enjoy varying levels of success ranging from Grand Final appearances to battling through the year.

We’ve dug into the archives to see how every new NRL club has fared in their first campaign.  

Melbourne Storm – 1998

20 clubs contested the inaugural NRL season in 1998 with a mix of sides from the Super League, ARL and one new entity.

That new team was the Melbourne Storm and they began life on a high note, defeating the Illawarra Steelers 14-12.

It was a largely successful campaign for the NRL’s newbies, winning their first four games, spending every week inside the finals placing and even sitting on top of the ladder after Round 15.

They ended up finishing the regular season in third place, with 17 wins and a draw from their 24 matches and earning hosting rights for the first round of the NRL Finals.

They fell to the Roosters in the first weekend 26-12 before bouncing back against the Raiders in the Quarter Final, topping them 24-10.

Melbourne’s season came to an end one game short of the Grand Final going down to eventual premiers Brisbane.

Of course, their second season was even more successful…

St George Illawarra Dragons – 1999

While not a new club formed out of the blue, the merger of St George and Illawarra for the 1999 series saw the joint venture take a while to get going.

It took three weeks for them to record their first victory and they only spent two of the first 13 rounds in the top eight.

After their Round 14 bye however, it all clicked for the Dragons and they were one of the form teams winning eight of their last 11 games to finish the regular season in sixth place.

That form continued into the finals recording double digit wins over the Storm, Roosters and Sharks to advance to the 1999 NRL Grand Final against Melbourne.

Leading 14-0 in the decider, it looked like the Dragons would be taking out a premiership in their first season.

That was where their fairytale run would come to an end however with the Storm flying home and winning the Premiership in their second season with a late penalty try.

Wests Tigers – 2000

Following the lead of the Dragons and in line with the NRL’s desire to contract to 14 entities, two joint ventures played their first official games in the 2000 season.

Balmain and the Wests Magpies merged to create the Wests Tigers, who managed to draw with the runaway premiers Brisbane 24-24 in their first game.

The biggest highlight of the Tigers’ debut season however was their trip to Canberra which was to date, the only NRL game played in the snow.

They were quite competitive in the early part of the season, keeping within two points of the top of the table Broncos through to Round 10.

At that stage they had won six and drawn two of their first eight, but the finals push would falter winning just five of their last 16 and two of their last ten to miss out on the NRL Finals by two points.

Northern Eagles – 2000

It was a similar story for the Northern Eagles, whose brief time as an NRL club was brought about by the merger of Manly and the North Sydney Bears.

While the Northern Eagles opted for Manly’s colour scheme, they did have to play a preseason game in a plain blue jersey, reportedly due to the final design not being ready for launch.

When they did launch the jerseys they got off to a good start, winning their first ever game over the Newcastle Knights 24-14 thanks to a double from Nigel Roy.

they would win three of their first four and were one point behind the Broncos at that stage, however remainder of the season would be quite barren in terms of wins.

Between Rounds 5 and 26 they would record just six more victories to finish their inaugural campaign in 12th place, six points above the wooden spoon.

It would be the first of three seasons for the Northern Eagles who would eventually dissolve in 2002 with the licence being retained by the Manly part of the club.

Gold Coast Titans – 2007

From the moment South Sydney were brought back to the NRL as the 15th club, the competition was always going to add a 16th and that was the Gold Coast Titans who played their first game in 2007.

They would end an almost decade long exile on the Glitter Strip after the removal of the Gold Coast Chargers following the 1998 season.

Over 42000 fans turned up to Suncorp Stadium for the Titans inaugural game which saw them go down to the Dragons by a final score of 20-18.

A week later they played their first game on the Gold Coast at their temporary home of Carrara Stadium, where they collected their first Premiership points, defeating Cronulla 18-16.

By midseason the Titans were in the top eight but injuries dominated the late season headlines, including one suffered by captain Scott Prince.

They won just two of their final ten games to finish the season in 12th place, two points out of the finals.