The NRL’s Best Derbies

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Club rivalries can be based on a wide range of factors, but those rooted geography entail an extra edge.

Local derbies provide some of the fiercest sporting battles on the planet: the Manchester derby (United v City), North London derby (Tottenham v Arsenal) and Merseyside derby (Liverpool v Everton) in the EPL, the ‘Old Firm’ in Scottish football (Rangers v Celtic), and Super League’s Hull KR v Hull FC battle are prime examples of the passion, parochialism and animosity a crosstown rivalry can create.

Australian rugby league’s most brutal, bitter and exciting conflicts centre around postcode proximity. Ahead of the latest instalment of the great western Sydney derby between Penrith and Parramatta on Friday night, we take a look at the neighbourly rivalries across the NRL.

Parramatta v Penrith

Penrith assumed Parramatta’s title of Sydney’s western-most team when the Panthers entered the premiership in 1967, ending a troubled relationship from Penrith’s time as part of Parramatta’s rugby league district.

The Panthers also quickly assumed the Eels’ long-held status as the premiership’s whipping boys. The ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ finally qualified for a finals series in 1985 – and were dumped out 38-6 on post-season debut by the Eels, who had featured in the previous four grand finals.

But Parramatta is still chasing its first title since its golden era ended in 1986, in which time Penrith has won three premierships and taken the upper hand in the rivalry. As derbies received more attention from the increasingly promotion-savvy NRL, the ‘Battle of the West’ began to ramp up in intensity.

“I don’t hate the Parramatta players, just the team they represent,” the Panthers’ Michael Jennings (who later joined the Eels) said before a trial match in 2011. “If you come through the Penrith juniors, you’re brought up to hate Parra.”

The adversaries produced one of their most dramatic games during the 2021 playoffs, with the patched-up Eels going down valiantly 8-6 to the Panthers in an epic sudden-death semi in Mackay.

  • The Overall Record: Played 103 – Eels won 58, Panthers won 44, draws 1
  • The Shared Legends: Bob ‘Bear’ O’Reilly, Michael Jennings, Ron Lynch, Paul Dunn, Gary Freeman, Reagan Campell-Gillard
  • The Flashpoint Incident: Big-spending Penrith poached Parramatta’s first home-grown international, Bob ‘Bear’ O’Reilly, in 1976. Disappointing at the Panthers, O’Reilly later returned to the Eels and featured in their maiden grand final win.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Peter Sterling v Greg Alexander
  • The Stat: Parramatta went unbeaten in 18 games against Penrith from 1975-83.
  • The Iconic Game: Round 19, 2011 – The Panthers spoiled Eels legend Nathan Hindmarsh’s 300th NRL game with an insane, controversial try after the buzzer to send the game into golden point, where Luke Walsh booted Penrith to a 23-22 victory.

Manly v North Sydney

The bitter rivalry between the northern peninsula clubs was exacerbated by the affluent Sea Eagles’ overwhelming success – often with ex-Norths players featuring prominently – juxtaposed with the long-suffering Bears’ notorious title drought.

Ten former Norths players played for Manly in its 1947 foundation season, while Bears icon Ken Irvine starred in the Sea Eagles’ breakthrough 1972-73 grand final successes and Manly pillaged its neighbours’ stocks as it emerged as the decade’s dominant club.

Manly dominated the win-loss ledger, but Norths’ greatest victories invariably came against their hated neighbour

The ill-advised Northern Eagles’ merger between the clubs at the end of 1999 was destined to fail and ultimately ended North Sydney’s 95-season presence in first grade.

  • The Overall Record: Played 105 – Sea Eagles won 64, Bears won 38, draws 3
  • The Shared Legends: Ken Irvine, Johnny Bliss, Cliff Lyons, Martin Bella, John Gray
  • The Flashpoint Incident: Manly Test prop Bella, who switched from Norths in 1990, lit the fuse for an explosive encounter in the 1991 finals by declaring, “North Sydney is a very ordinary side – in fact, it’s a terrible side,” after the Sea Eagles’ Round 19 victory. A high-profile Bears player allegedly put up a $200 reward for any teammate that could knock out Bella at the SFS.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Cliff Lyons v Greg Florimo
  • The Stat: From 1965-89, Norths recorded back-to-back wins over Manly just once.
  • The Iconic Game: Bella’s put-down ultimately backfired with Norths – making its first finals appearance in nine years – overwhelming Manly 28-16 with Peter Jackson and Billy Moore starring.

Brisbane v Gold Coast

The Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast Giants (late Seagulls and Chargers) both entered the NSWRL premiership in 1988, but a big brother-little brother complex developed from the outset.

The Broncos were an immediate powerhouse and had chalked up four premierships by the time hapless Gold Coast, which lurched from disaster to another off the field and finished bottom-four in all but one season, was turfed out of the NRL at the end of 1998.

But the Giants’ and Seagulls’ most famous wins came at the Broncos expense – namely the 25-22 boilover to register their maiden first grade win in 1988 and the shock 25-12 upset of the two-time defending champs in early-1994.

Following the Titans’ arrival in 2007, the south-east Queensland derby has been far more competitive – though it’s the Broncos who have enjoyed the headline moments with unforgettable golden point wins in 2007 (Lockyer’s field goal) and ’08 (Eastwood’s try), and finals victories in 2009 and ’16.

  • The Overall Record: Broncos v Giants/Seagulls/Chargers – Played 14 – Broncos won 12; Broncos v Titans – Played 31 – Broncos won 21, Titans won 10
  • The Shared Legends: Wally Lewis, Dale Shearer, Kevin Campion, Scott Prince, Brad Meyers, Ashley Harrison, David Taylor, David Fifita
  • The Flashpoint Incident: Broncos captain Wally Lewis and Giants prop Jim Cowell were both fined after an ugly spitting incident in a spiteful 1989 match. Queensland icon Lewis later joined the rebranded Seagulls after being squeezed out of Brisbane by Wayne Bennett.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Petero Civoniceva v Luke Bailey
  • The Stat: The record winning margin between Brisbane and the various Gold Coast incarnations is the Broncos’ 54-0 rout of the Titans in 2017.
  • The Iconic Game: Darren Lockyer won a golden point classic for the Broncos during the Titans’ 2007 debut season, with his booming field goal hitting both uprights before dropping over the bar.

South Sydney v Sydney Roosters

South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs (later Sydney Roosters), the only foundation clubs remaining in the NRL, boast the longest-running rivalry in premiership history – and arguably the most bitter and most storied.

Animosity between the inner-city neighbours, regular finals combatants during the competition’s formative decades, has festered courtesy of player poaching, boundaries and junior territories, perceived class differences and contrasting financial positions as much as anything that has happened in more than a century of on-field conflict.

The Roosters’ rise to break a three-decade premiership drought in the mid-1970s coincided with long-dominant Souths’ decline, while ex-Rabbitohs greats Ron Coote and Elwyn Walters were vital cogs of Easts’ 1974-75 triumphs.

“Souths fans used to love me – suddenly they hated me. I got a letter when I was leaving Souths to go to the Roosters. This lady wrote, ‘We used to have a pet rabbit and we called him ‘Ronnie Coote’. When you left we ate him for lunch’,” Coote recalled for Rugby League Week.

The clubs’ simultaneous rise to heavyweight status in the NRL has arguably elevated the rivalry to its highest-ever pedestal – helped along by Russell Crowe’s famed ‘Book of Feuds’ – and setting the scene for some of the most thrilling and explosive encounters of the modern era.

The adversaries pulled off a miraculous buzzer-beating comeback win each over the other in 2012, while ex-Rooster Latrell Mitchell’s shocking hit on former teammate Joey Manu last year – ending both players’ campaign – sparked tensions between the inner-Sydney outfits once more.

  • The Overall Record: Played 227 – Rabbitohs won 119, Roosters won 103, draws 5
  • The Shared Legends: Ron Coote, Elwyn Walters, Arthur Hennessy, Craig Wing, Bryan Fletcher, Terry Fahey, Jim Morgan, Mike Cleary, Arthur Oxford, Luke Keary, Latrell Mitchell
  • The Flashpoint Incident: South Sydney fans unfurled a giant, controversial banner that read ‘SCUM: FOREVER IN OUR SHADOW’, directed at the Sydney Roosters during the clubs’ 2013 final-round encounter; the inflammatory sign was condemned by Rabbitohs officials.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Sonny Bill Williams v Sam Burgess
  • The Stat: After the clubs met in the 1938 semi-final, they incredibly did not square off in another playoffs match for 76 years.
  • The Iconic Game: South Sydney advanced to its first grand final appearance in 43 years with a euphoric 32-22 triumph over defending champs Sydney Roosters in the 2014 preliminary final, a classic, see-sawing encounter.

Brisbane v North Queensland

This Queensland derby remained one of the premiership’s most one-sided contests for almost a decade, but the Cowboys’ belated arrival as a force – coupled with a memorable finals triumph – gave rise to one of the most entertaining and fierce rivalries in the NRL.

After 16 fruitless forays against the Broncos, the Cowboys chalked up their maiden victory over the perennial heavyweights with an epic 10-0 semi-final result in front of a jam-packed home crowd in 2004.

The clubs routinely staged sizzling encounters, until producing quite possibly the greatest grand final in 2015 as Johnathan Thurston booted the Cowboys to their first premiership in golden point.

A succession of astonishing regular-season and finals matches ensued over the next few seasons and it remains a fixture even neutral fans circle in the NRL calendar – despite both teams’ recent slide down the ladder.

  • The Overall Record: Played 57 – Broncos won 36, Cowboys won 19, draws 2
  • The Shared Legends: Kevin Campion, Brent Tate, Carl Webb, Antonio Winterstein
  • The Flashpoint Incident: The clubs’ late-2010 clash erupted after Cowboys prop James Tamou’s ‘dog shot’ on Broncos rival Josh McGuire. Tamou, Anthony Watts and Sam Thaiday all ended up in the sin-bin. Meanwhile, Johnathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer suffered season-ending injuries in the Broncos’ 34-26 win.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Johanthan Thurston v Darren Lockyer
  • The Stat: The Cowboys boast a 5-1 record against the Broncos in finals matches.
  • The Iconic Game: The 2015 NRL grand final was a masterpiece, capped by a crazy last-second try to level the scores, before Thurston hit the post with the match-winning conversion attempt. Ben Hunt’s drop of the extra-time kick-off and JT’s premiership-clinching field goal rank among the great grand final moments.

Balmain v South Sydney

Just 6.8 kilometres separate Leicchardt Oval and Redfern Oval, the homes of foundation rivals Balmain and South Sydney. Meanwhile, one of the most controversial events of the premiership’s formative seasons – the forfeited final of 1909 – sealed a perpetual grudge between the clubs.

Balmain refused to field a team in the 1909 decider after it was demoted to curtain-raiser status. Farcically kicking off to a non-existent opponent, South Sydney picked up the ball to score a try and was declared premiers via forfeit.

Debate has raged ever since, with Balmain claiming that South Sydney had also agreed to boycott the final, although no official evidence has ever emerged to support this contention. Nevertheless, Balmain refused to forgive or forget.

While Souths became the most successful club in the code’s history, the Tigers crafted an incredible finals record at the Rabbitohs’ expense, including three pre-war premiership deciders and the greatest grand final upset of all-time in 1969.

The fierce rivals renewed acquaintances during the 1980s with another string of furious finals contests that routinely descended into a rolling brawl.

  • The Overall Record: Played 178 – South Sydney won 95, Balmain won 80, draws 3
  • The Shared Legends: Bob Grant, Tim Brasher
  • The Flashpoint Incident: A scrum erupted in the second half of the 1986 minor semi and Souths captain Mario Fenech was sensationally sent off for allegedly gouging bitter rival Ben Elias. High tackles, head-butts and melees permeated the remainder of the match as the Rabbitohs imploded to a 36-11 loss. There was an ugly butting incident involving Phil Gould and Steve Roach, while Souths’ Tony Rampling and Ian Roberts and Balmain’s Kerry Hemsley were sin-binned to leave it at 10 on 12 in the latter stages.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Mario Fenech v Ben Elias
  • The Stat: Balmain won eight of its 10 finals matches against South Sydney
  • The Iconic Game: Balmain surged to the most famous boilover victory in Grand Final history, employing questionable – but highly effective – tactics to down South Sydney 11-2. Balmain refused to kick on the last tackle, instead forcing a scrum to be packed, among other overstated ploys to slow down the play that many (predominantly those on the Rabbitohs’ side of the fence) believed went against the spirit of the game.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA V CRONULLA

Initially based on geography and a succession of shared important figures, St George and Cronulla forged one of the premiership’s most intense, evenly-fought and at times bitter derby rivalries.

Cronulla was a prominent club within the St George district competition’s junior ranks before joining the NSWRL-run President’s Cup, Jersey Flegg and SG Ball competitions.

Cronulla’s 1967 foundation first grade team dripped with St George heritage, captained by Dragons clubman Monty Porter and coached by Saints icon Ken ‘Killer’ Kearney. Fellow Red V legends Johnny Raper and Norm Provan also had stints as Sharks coach during the 1970s.

The Sharks came of age by thrashing the star-studded Dragons 18-0 in their 1973 finals debut. Meanwhile, Cronulla’s greatest player, Steve Rogers, switched to St George in the early-1980s in an ultimately futile pursuit of a premiership.

St George’s merger with Illawarra has done little to tone down the ferocity of the rivalry with Cronulla. Less than 10 kilometres separate the southern Sydney clubs’ home grounds (when the Dragons play at Kogarah) and their annual showdowns are a highlight of the NRL schedule.

  • The Overall Record: St George v Cronulla – Played 60 – Dragons won 31, Sharks won 27, draws 2; St George Illawarra v Cronulla – Played – Sharks won 25, Dragons won 23, draws 1
  • The Shared Legends: Steve Rogers, Ken Maddison, Monty Porter, Jason Stevens, Lance Thompson, Trent Barrett
  • The Flashpoint Incident: In a notorious 1999 incident, Sharks CEO Peter Gow took to a St George supporter’s jersey at a Cronulla Leagues Club restaurant with a pair of scissors in a misguided practical joke; former Dragons forward Barry Beath was on hand and intervened, sparking a fracas with Gow.
  • The Individual Rivalry: Billy Smith v Tommy Bishop
  • The Stat: St George won its first nine games against Cronulla.
  • The Iconic Game: In 1999, a hat-trick from Anthony Mundine carried the Dragons to a 24-8 preliminary final victory over the minor premiership-winning Sharks, who led 8-0 at halftime. The mercurial Mundine mercilessly sledged Sharks fullback David Peachey during his second-half masterclass.