Rugby league’s previous attempts to crack the vast, lucrative American market have been half-baked, piecemeal and bereft of any meaningful follow-up.

In comparison, the NRL’s audacious Las Vegas double-header to kick off the 2024 NRL premiership appears to be a well-planned, aggressively marketed and long-term proposition – and a genuine hope of netting the USD broadcasting and wagering riches Peter V’landys is dreaming of.

As Brisbane Broncos, Sydney Roosters, Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs prepare for a historic rugby league extravaganza at Allegiant Stadium, relive the colourful, chequered history of the code’s flirtation with the US of A.

No Helmets Required: The American All Stars

Legendary Australian administrator Harry Sunderland was the first prominent figure to spread the rugby league gospel to the United States.

A renowned expansionist, Sunderland was integral to the development of the game in Queensland, unsuccessfully attempted to launch it as a major sport in Victoria in the 1920s and was integral to the establishment of the sport in France by setting up an exhibition match between the touring Kangaroos and England in 1933.

It was through Sunderland’s endeavours that the American All Stars ventured on a trailblazing tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1953, under the guidance of flamboyant manager-player-promoter Mike Dimitro, a talented all-round sportsman.

Dimitro assembled a team of gridiron players to tour Down Under, where the All Stars were met by Balmain stalwart player, coach and administrator Norm ‘Latchem’ Robinson, and former Test player and referee George Bishop, to teach the squad the finer points of rugby league.

Plenty of hype surrounded the tour, but the All-Stars were generally a disappointment, despite defeating Monaro and Southern Division 34-25 in their opening match.

Resplendent in their gridiron-style red, white and blue uniforms (with stars on the shoulders), the All Stars were greeted by a phenomenal 65,453-strong SCG crowd for the second match of the tour, a 52-25 loss to Sydney.

The American side toured regional and country centres throughout NSW and Queensland, but could only muster two more wins – against Newcastle and Ipswich – and draws with Far North Queensland and Wide Bay.

Queensland quartet Harold Crocker, Brian Davies, Alan Hornery and Ken McCaffery bolstered the troubled tourists’ line-up in one tour match against NSW.

But the All-Stars’ record of 13 losses in 18

games supported the claims of Australian detractors – the most vocal of whom was former Test prop Ray Stehr – that the tour was a farce.

The All-Stars won three of their eight matches in New Zealand – with five Kiwis reps replace five Americans who returned home after the Australian leg – against Taranaki, Northland and South Auckland.

California Dreaming

Despite the general failure of the All Stars venture, Australian officials persisted in their drive to build a profile for rugby league in the States, staging two exhibitions games in California between Australia and New Zealand following the 1954 World Cup in France.

Fielding all-time greats like Clive Churchill, Harry Wells, Keith Holman, Ken Kearney and Norm Provan, Australia won both matches in front of modest crowds – 4,554 in Los Angles and 1,000 in Long Beach – and the experiment was a financial flop.

USA was comfortably beaten by France in an international at the end of a five-match tour in 1954, while Dimitro’s bid for the United States to host a World Cup tournament in the 1960s was unsuccessful after receiving little support from the major Rugby League-playing nations.

Newtown Faithful Want Moore

An offshoot of the All Stars tour was Parramatta’s signing of winger Al E. Kirkland for the 1956 season. Kirkland played all 18 games for the last-placed Eels, crossing for four tries.

Kirkland was not the first American-born player to feature in the premiership, however. Charlie Peoples, who hailed from Montana, was a foundation player for the University club. He played all 13 games for the ‘Students’ in 1920 and scored two tries.

But neither player could match the fanfare that met Newtown’s NFL recruit Manfred Moore, a former 49ers, Buccaneers and Raiders running back.

The African-American California native set Henson Park alight when he soared to catch a bomb and score a try in his debut for the Jets, a 17-10 victory over Wests in the opening round of the 1977 premiership.

Moore famously spiralled a football gridiron style over the Col Casey Stand at Henson Park to whip up further hysteria amongst the Newtown faithful.

But Moore played just five games on the wing for Newtown and returned to the States after suffering a head injury in reserve grade.

The only player to score a touchdown in the NFL and a try in first grade rugby league, Moore linked with Minnesota Vikings for the 1977 NFL season.

He passed away in 2020, aged 69.

United States of Origin

Rugby League underwent a mini-revival in the US in the late-1980s.

After an American national side played the inaugural international against northern neighbours Canada in 1987, won by the Canadians, California hosted a promotional State of Origin match between NSW and Queensland.

The Blues defeated the Maroons, who earlier won the annual three-match series, 30-18 in front of 12,349 fans at Veterans Stadium, Long Beach.

NSW captain Peter Sterling (who infamously got tangled up in the banner running onto the field) was named man of the match in the five-tries-to-three victory.

While the match is officially recognised in State of Origin statistics, it is not considered part of the 1987 series.

The Wally Lewis-led Queenslanders treated the trip as a junket, while the NSW players – who remain indignant the result was not included in the series ledger – were kept on a tight rein by coach Ron Willey.

But the lack of follow-through from Australian administrators consigned the match to historical curiosity status.

Poms Head to Cream City

Another Rugby League exhibition match was staged in 1989, between heavyweight English clubs Wigan and Warrington in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

American promoter Mike Mayer – who tried in vain to get a local professional comp up and running the US in the 1970s and had been integral to bringing the Origin match to California – was heavily involved in bringing the Brits to County Stadium.

The bitter rivals turned on some biff for the benefit of the decent 17,000-strong crowd, with Aussie firebrand Les Boyd marking his last game for Warrington by getting sin-binned along with Wigan superstar Ellery Hanley for fighting.

Wigan got the result 12-5.

Yanks Enter the International Stage

The most significant development since the All Stars tour occurred when United States team was invited to play in the World Sevens tournament in Sydney.

Despite failing to win a game in the 1993-94 tournaments, the Patriots proved to be one of the most popular and colourful teams.

Following the 1994 competition, USA played a 13-a-side game against Metropolitan Cup champs St Mary’s, but was comprehensively beaten 44-4.

Playing in an American flag-inspired jersey, USA reached the Plate final of the ’95 tournament, going down to Tonga after wins over Italy and Russia.

St George’s 1991 end-of-season trip to Hawaii had a long-lasting impact on rugby league in the United States.

Halfback David Niu met his future wife on the holiday and moved to Philadelphia.

Niu was a key figure in establishing a domestic competition in the US and played for the national side – variously nicknamed the Patriots and the Tomahawks – between 1994 and 2006, before coaching the national team and serving as a high-ranking administrator for the American National Rugby League.

International matches against Canada and Russia in 1993-94 were a precursor for USA’s entry into the Emerging Nations World Cup in 1995.

As a warm-up, the United States hosted Wales in a two-international series in Philadelphia.

Both matches were won convincingly by the visitors – 92-4 and 66-10 – with young Welsh stars Keiron Cunningham and Iestyn Harris running riot.

The Patriots were defeated in all three pool games against Cook Islands, Scotland and Russia at the Emerging Nations World Cup.

USA also fielded teams in both the ARL’s World Sevens tournaments and Super League’s World Nines tournaments in 1996 and ’97.

A semi-professional domestic competition began in the late 1990s, beginning with four teams and expanding to 11 teams by 2010.

The nation’s quest to participate in the 2000 World Cup in England was halted by a heavy loss to Lebanon.

The USA Tomahawks, as they were now known, ventured to Australia to play South Sydney as a warm-up for the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup.

Souths won 82-12 in front of 20,535 fans at Redfern Oval in a match that doubled as a forum to push for the Rabbitohs’ reinstatement to the NRL.

After a crushing 110-0 loss to England in another warm-up match, the Tomahawks defeated Morocco in a play-off for third place in the Emerging Nations tournament.

Greg Smith

The NRL had another brief but memorable encounter with an American player in 1999 when Greg Smith turned out in one match for Newcastle, having been coached briefly by Knights mentor Warren Ryan as part of the USA’s 1997 World Sevens team

Smith was accused of misrepresenting himself as a former NFL player with Philadelphia Eagles (he later refuted that he had made the claim) and was fast-tracked into the Knights’ line-up.

But he turned in a notorious error-strewn display as they were run down by Canterbury and his dubious gridiron credentials were revealed.

Smith returned to Metropolitan Cup level and later became a track and field coach in Sydney.

Kangaroos almost chopped down by Tomahawks

The most important international match played in the United States to date was in 2004, when the Kangaroos played the Tomahawks in Philadelphia en route back to Australia after their successful Tri-Nations campaign in England.

The fixture was expected to be a cakewalk for the star-studded, Darren Lockyer-led Australian side, but the Tomahawks stunned the travel-weary world champions to lead 24-6 at halftime as the most outrageous boilover in the game’s history loomed.

Bolstered by NRL players Matt Petersen and Brandon Costin (who both qualified for the United States team through family links), the Tomahawks were eventually overrun 36-24 by the fatigued Kangaroos, with North Queensland fullback Matt Bowen scoring a hat-trick.

Only 4,500 turned up at the University of Pennsylvania venue.

Hollywood Appeal

South Sydney owner and film star Russell Crowe set up an exhibition match between the Rabbitohs and Super League champions Leeds prior to the 2008 NRL season.

The contest was played in front of a 12,500-strong crowd in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Rhinos emerged victorious 26-24 after Souths fought back from 26-0 down at halftime.

World Cup Breakthrough

NRL regulars Petersen, Ryan McGoldrick and David Myles represented USA in its unsuccessful bid to qualify for the 2008 World Cup in Australia.

The Tomahawks lost 42-10 to the Nigel Vagana-led Samoan side in the final qualifying match.

Halfback Damian O’Malveney, raised in the NSW country town of Canowindra, was named player of the tournament in the USA’s victory at the 2010 Atlantic Cup (the Tomahawks were coached by AMNRL chief executive Niu) but the bulk of the Tomahawks’ squads have been made up of domestic players.

Former Bradford, Canberra and Penrith head coach Matt Elliott assumed the position of United States coach in 2011.

Ellliott guided the Tomahawks – featuring Petersen, McGoldrick, Myles and Parramatta brothers Junior (not to be confused with the current Eels prop with the same name) and Joseph Paulo – to a historic maiden World Cup berth for the 2013 tournament in Britain.

Former Brisbane grand final hero Terry Matterson took over the reins for the historic RLWC appearance, which garnered pool wins over Cook Islands and Wales, and an eventual 62-0 quarter-final loss to the Kangaroos.

Joseph Paulo led a side containing NRL players Eddy Pettybourne and Clint Newton.

After a long winning streak against Americas rivals Canada and Jamaica, USA qualified for the 2017 RLWC but were comprehensively beaten by Fiji, Italy and Papua New Guinea by a combined 168 points to 12.

A United States bid to host the 2021 tournament was unsuccessful and the national side failed to qualify for the UK-staged event.

In their first international in almost five years, USA will play Canada in Las Vegas later this week.


Arguably the biggest impression the NRL has made on the consciousness of the American sporting fraternity was achieved by Parramatta superstar Jarryd Hayne’s shock switch to the NFL at the end of 2014.

Against the odds, the dual Dally M Medal winner made San Francisco 49ers’ 53-man final roster for the 2015 season and played eight NFL games before being waived and signed to the 49ers’ practice squad.

Hayne returned to the NRL with Gold Coast Titans (via a rugby sevens stint with Fiji) and finished his career with the Eels, after which his personal life unravelled.

Fellow Origin and Test star Valentine Holmes made a less successful NFL foray in 2019. The Cronulla premiership winner joined New York Jets as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, playing three pre-season games before being waived during the cuts for the final roster.

Released from the Jets’ practice squad in November, Holmes was snapped up by North Queensland and regain his representative jumpers.

Mile High Club

An ambitious plan to stage a one-off Test between New Zealand and England during the June representative weekend in 2018 was met with scepticism from pundits and opposition from NRL clubs.

The match at Denver’s Mile High Stadium went ahead in front of 19,320 fans, but the Kiwis were forced to name seven debutants in Michael Maguire’s first Test in charge and went down 36-18 to a more experienced England outfit, who were coached by Wayne Bennett.