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Rugby union in Australia

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Rugby union in Australia

Rugby union in Australia
Country Australia
Governing body Australian Rugby Union
National team Australia
Nickname(s) Wallabies
First played 25 July 1839,[1] Sydney, New South Wales
Registered players 86,952 (total)
41,049 (adult)[2]
Clubs 770
National competitions
Club competitions
Audience records
Single match 109,874
Australia v New Zealand, (Telstra Stadium)
15 July 2000

Rugby union is a popular winter sport in Australia with a history dating back to 1864. It is traditionally most popular in Australia's rugby football strongholds of New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, though it is played throughout the nation.

The principal competition in Australian rugby union is Super Rugby, which is a multi-regional competition across the southern hemisphere. With the competition expanding from 14 teams to 15 for 2011, Australia entered five teams—the Reds of Queensland, the Waratahs of New South Wales, the Brumbies of the Australian Capital Territory, the Force of Western Australia and the Australian conference's newest team, the Melbourne Rebels of Victoria. The National Rugby Championship was launched as the next level below Super Rugby in August 2014. Below the NRC are traditional capital city competitions, such as the Shute Shield of Sydney and Queensland Premier Rugby of Brisbane, which formed the highest level of domestic competition for much of the sport's history in Australia.

The national team are the Wallabies, who have won the Rugby World Cup twice, in 1991 and in 1999. The Wallabies play in Australia's traditional sporting colours of green and gold. They are considered one of the top rugby nations in the world, due to their success at the World Cup, and consistently high world ranking, currently being ranked 3rd behind their historic rivals South Africa and New Zealand.


19th Century

The first rugby union club to be established in Australia was Sydney University's in 1864.[3] A decade after the first club was formed, a body called the Southern Rugby Union was formed as a result of a meeting at the Oxford Hotel in Sydney,[4] a Sydney competition was established, which was administered from the England Rugby headquarters at Twickenham. The first competition commenced the following year in 1865 with 6 teams.

The earliest record of rugby games being played in Queensland was in 1876.[5]

The 'Waratah' Rugby Club invited Australian rules football club, the Carlton Football Club to play two matches, one under rugby rules and one under Australian rules.[6] On Saturday 23 June, 3,000 spectators watched Waratah beat Carlton at rugby at the Albert Cricket Ground in Redfern.[6] In the return leg, Carlton defeated Waratah under Australian rules.[6] A week later over 100 footballers formed the New South Wales Football Association (NSWFA) to play the Australian game.[6] With its origins, image and administration anchored in England, supporters of rugby saw the code as a symbol and reminder of their Englishness.[7]

The first inter-colonial game occurred in 1882, when players from the four Queensland clubs (who played both rugby and Australian rules football) travelled to NSW. NSW won by 28 points to 4 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of 4,000 spectators.

The Australia national team in 1899.

On 2 November, in 1883, the Northern Rugby Union is formed as the rugby body in Queensland after a meeting at the Exchange Hotel. As a result of the formation of the new body, several prominent GPS schools took up rugby as opposed to Melbourne Rules. That same year, the Southern Rugby Union undertakes its inaugural tour of New Zealand, the following year, a New Zealand party comes to Australia and the first club competition is held in Queensland. In 1888 the Melbourne Rugby Union is formed in Victoria. In 1892, the rugby bodies in Australia drop Southern and Northern from their titles, adopting New South Wales and Queensland respectively. That year the first British and Irish Lions tour was carried out, although unsanctioned by official bodies in Europe, the 21-man squad went to both Australia and New Zealand.

In 1899, the national team of Australia played their first match. The Hospital's Cup becomes an annual competition in Queensland.

1900s to 1940s

In 1903, Australia played its first test against the All Blacks, in front of a crowd of 30,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. In 1907, Australia again played the All Blacks, at the same venue as the 1903 match, with crowd numbers reaching 50,000. This figure would not be surpassed again by rugby union at the ground after the start of rugby league in 1908 (the SFS commenced as the Sydney rectangular venue for rugby league and union in 1988). At the 1908 Summer Olympics, rugby union was played and the Australian team won gold. After returning to Australia, 9 of the 15 players in that team would switch to playing rugby league.

A rugby game in Queensland during the early 1900s.

By the time of the 1910 Great Britain Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand, rugby league was well entrenched as the major winter sport in all of Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, surpassing rugby union. This was a position from which rugby union would never recover in Australia.

An event that was to greatly shape rugby union's future in Australia was the onset of World War I in 1914. While rugby league continued to play in the form of NSWRL competitions, rugby union competitions were suspended due to an overwhelmingly high percentage of rugby union players enlisting to serve in the Australian Imperial Force.

The enlistment of rugby union players was so quick and extensive, that by 1915, a Sydney newspaper reported: "According to figures prepared by Mr W. W. Hill, secretary of the New South Wales Rugby Union, 197 out of 220 regular first grade players are on active service, or 90 percent."

Weakened by the loss of its players to the war effort, the Queensland Rugby Union was dissolved in 1919. In the aftermath of the war, a large number of national representatives would defect to rugby league, giving rugby league a strong position in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, which it continues to maintain to this day.

In 1928 the QRU reformed, and the GPS and major clubs returned to rugby union. In 1931, the governor of New Zealand donated a sporting trophy called the Bledisloe Cup, named appropriately after Charles Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe, for competition between Australia and New Zealand. The first game was held that year at Eden Park, though the official start of the competition is disputed between that game and the 1932 New Zealand tour to Australia.

The late 1940s saw the construction of a national governing body, as opposed to the Australian Rugby Union joined the International Rugby Board.

1980s to present

In 1987, the first ever Rugby World Cup was held in both Australia and New Zealand, as a result of both the respective rugby bodies putting forth the idea to the IRB. Australia was defeated by France in the semifinal stage.

With rugby union becoming an openly professional sport in 1995, after more than a century of a strictly-enforced amateur code, major changes were seen in both the club and international game. The Super 12 rugby competition was born that year. The tournament involved 12 provincinal sides from three counties; New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Australia entered three sides into the competition; ACT Brumbies, Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs. The year also saw the Tri Nations Series, between the three Super 12 countries.

In 1999, the Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and the New Zealand All Blacks was staged at the Homebush Olympic Stadium, now known as ANZ Stadium. The game attracted a then world record crowd of 107,042 for a rugby union match. In 2000 this was bettered when a crowd of 109,874 witnessed the 'Greatest ever Rugby Match' when a Jonah Lomu try sealed a 39–35 All Blacks win over the Wallabies. The All Blacks had led 24-nil after 11 minutes only to see Australia draw level at 24 all by half time.

The Wallabies were champions of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Wales, claiming their second Webb Ellis Cup trophy. In doing this, Australia became the first multiple winners of the tournament.

The year 2003 saw the staging of the Rugby World Cup in Australia. Prior to the tournament, three high profile Kangaroo rugby league players switched codes; Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri. The fifth Rugby World Cup was held in various Australian cities from October to November in 2003. Matches were played all across the country, in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Townsville, Gosford, Wollongong and Launceston. The tournament was hailed as a huge success, an estimated 40,000 international spectators travelled to Australia for the event, some estimations said that a $100 million may have been injected into the Australian economy. The Australian Rugby Union said that revenues exceeded all expectations, the tournament surplus was estimated to be at $44.5 million.[8] The hosting of the World Cup in Australia also saw an increase in Super 12 crowds and junior participation. In 2005, to celebrate a decade of professional rugby union in Australia, the Wallaby Team of the Decade was announced.


The Wallabies playing the New Zealand All Blacks.

Rugby union in Australia is governed by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) which is a member of the International Rugby Board (IRB). There are constituent state and territory unions with the New South Wales Rugby Union and Queensland Rugby Union traditionally being the dominant members, reflecting the games higher status in these states. However, every state and territory in Australia is represented by their respective union, and in recent years, the ACT and Southern NSW Rugby Union has elevated itself to competitive equality with NSW and Queensland—though not in governance, as NSW and Queensland have more representatives on the ARU board than the other state and territorial unions. The ARU was formed in 1949 and before this time the NSWRU was responsible for international fixtures for Australian teams.

Rugby Union Players Association

Past and present professional Australian rugby players are represented by the Rugby Union Players Association.


In 2009, IRB figures show there are just over 38,000 registered adult rugby union players in Australia, of which the states of New South Wales and Queensland account for 82.3% of all senior players. The highest participation rate is 0.8% in the Australian Capital Territory.[9]

In NSW, major support comes from the private schools who still maintain Union over league. In Sydney there are three major private school associations contributing the most support. These are the GPS, CAS and ISA, the major of these being the GPS which includes St Ignatius' College, Riverview and St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill whose game against each other is broadcast on the ABC every year.

National Teams


The Wallabies are Australia's national rugby union team. Australia has won the World Cup on two occasions, in 1991 against England at Twickenham, and then again in 1999 in Wales against France. The team plays in green and gold, which have traditionally been Australia's sporting colours. Australia has been playing internationals since 1899, when they played the visiting British Isles team on 24 June. They won their first outing, defeating the British team 13 to 3.

The Wallabies play in the Southern Hemisphere's principal international competition. From 1996 through 2011, this was the Tri Nations, also involving the New Zealand All Blacks and the South Africa Springboks. Since 2012, the tournament has been renamed The Rugby Championship and features the Argentina Pumas.

The rivalry with the New Zealand All Blacks is considered the marquee rivalry for the game of rugby union in Australia and the teams contest the Bledisloe Cup on an annual basis. The biggest crowd for a Bledisloe match was 109,874 in Sydney.[10] Other rivalries that Australia once held such as games against England, Wales and France are now considered less relevant, aggravated by under-strength northern hemisphere teams touring Australia during Rugby World Cup years.

Other representative teams


Australia also has a successful sevens team which competes in the IRB Sevens World Series, Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games. They have won the Hong Kong Sevens event on five occasions, and are also a "core team" that participates in all rounds of the Sevens World Series.

The country has hosted one leg of the IRB Sevens World Series in each season since 2006–07. From 2007 through 2011, the Adelaide Sevens was held in that city in March or April. Starting with the 2011–12 season, the Australian leg moved to the Gold Coast and was renamed the Gold Coast Sevens. In addition, the event moved to November, becoming the first tournament of each season. The tournament moved to October beginning in the 2012–13 season, but remains the season opener.

Australia A

Australia A is a team of players who are being developed as future Wallaby players. They plays matches against touring teams as well as compete in the Pacific Nations Cup.


The women's team, the Wallaroos have been playing international rugby since 1994, and have competed at four Women's Rugby World Cups. Their best finish was third in 2010.

Women's Sevens

The women's sevens team were champions of the inaugural Women's World Cup Sevens in 2009. They have also been a core team in the IRB Women's Sevens World Series since its inaugural 2012–13 season.

Age level representation

Australia also has an under 21 side, an under 20 side, an under 19 side and a schoolboys team.

Competitions, Tournaments and Tours

International Tournaments

Rugby World Cup

Australia co-hosted the first Rugby World Cup, along with New Zealand in 1987. It acted as host to the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Australia has won twice, in 1991 and 1999.

Tri Nations and The Rugby Championship

The Tri Nations Series was an annual tournament held between Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa from 1996 through 2011. With Argentina's entry into the tournament in 2012, the competition has been renamed The Rugby Championship.

Bledisloe Cup

The Bledisloe Cup was a trophy introduced by the Governor General of New Zealand Lord Bledisloe, in 1947 to honour the rivalry between New Zealand and Australia. The Cup is awarded to the winner of each annual series of test matches played. Matches played at Rugby World Cups do not count towards the competition.

End Of Year Tests

The Australian rugby team annually plays a test series against other squads, either at home acting as host nation to visiting teams, or touring overseas.

Domestic Rugby

Super Rugby

Super Rugby, previously known as Super 12 and Super 14, is a multi-regional rugby union competition that involves teams from three nations across the southern hemisphere; Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Australia has five sides in the 15-team competition: the Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs, Brumbies (playing out of Canberra), Western Force and, since 2011, the Melbourne Rebels. The Brumbies have won the competition twice and the Reds once, and the Waratahs have made the finals.

Prior to the creation of professional Super Rugby in 1996, there were a number of other Oceania-African competitions that featured representative teams from both Queensland and New South Wales, such as the Super 10 competition, which Queensland won twice. Before that there was the Super Sixes competition. State teams have been playing each other since the late 1800s, when Queensland took on New South Wales in Sydney. The Australian Provincial Championship (APC) was also played in 2006, featuring the Australian Super 14 teams.

National Rugby Championship

In late 2013, the Australian Rugby Union announced plans to launch a new domestic competition to be known as the National Rugby Championship (NRC) with the goal of bridging the gap between club rugby and Super Rugby. Originally expected to involve 10 teams[11] and ultimately unveiled in March 2014 with nine teams,[12] the NRC began play in August 2014, with the season running through to November.[12] The inaugural NRC teams include four in NSW, two in Queensland and one each in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth.[12]

The country's previous attempt to launch a national domestic competition came in 2007 in the form of the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC). It included eight teams in all, with a geographic distribution almost identical to that of the NRC, with the exception of one fewer NSW team. The aim of the competition, scheduled to run from August finishing in October with the final, was similar to that of the NRC. The ARU scrapped the competition for the 2008 season due to the union suffering a A$4.7 million loss.[13]


Each major city and many country areas support club rugby competitions in Australia. The club competitions in NSW and Queensland are the oldest and most prestigious. The NSWRU runs the Shute Shield, the highest level in New South Wales along with also running the NSW Country Championships played by regional representative teams from country areas in NSW. Similarly the QRU runs the Queensland Premier Rugby competition, which is the top Brisbane club competition, as well as the Queensland Country Championships for representative teams in the major regions of greater Queensland. All other states also run their own club competitions of varying strength, but the NSW and Queensland competitions have historically been regarded as the major domestic competitions below Super Rugby and are now the major level below the NRC.

Ballymore Cup

The Ballymore Cup is the largest school boys rugby competition in Queensland.[14] It was founded to promote the sport of rugby across rural and metropolitan Queensland. The winner of the 2012 Ballymore Cup in the open age went to Rockhampton Grammar, and in the under-15's St Brendan's College, Yeppoon.

Television coverage



Setanta Sports

See also



  1. ^ "History of the ARU". Retrieved 4 December 2006. 
  2. ^ International Rugby Board Website:
  3. ^ Godwin (1981) p.10
  4. ^ Godwin (1981) p.11
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d M. P. Sharp, Football in Sydney before 1914, Sporting Traditions Vol 4 No 1 Nov 1987.
  7. ^ "The hidden story of Australian rules in Sydney". Retrieved 4 December 2006. 
  8. ^ "ARU make huge profit from RWC". Archived from the original on 29 March 2006. Retrieved 20 April 2006. 
  9. ^ Rugby Union Profile, Ausport
  10. ^ "Highest Attendance At A Rugby Union Match". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 13 August 2007. 
  11. ^ Robinson, Georgina (6 February 2014). "National Rugby Championship: Ambitious plans begin to take shape".  
  12. ^ a b c "ARU Board approves nine team National Rugby Championship to start in August 2014" (Press release). Australian Rugby Union. 24 March 2014. Archived from the original on 24 March 2014. Retrieved 24 March 2014. 
  13. ^ "Rugby: ARC scrapped after just one season". NZ Herald. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-18. 
  14. ^ [1], 2012.

External links

  • FOX Sports Australia Rugby section
  • - NSW Suburban Rugby Union
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