20 April 1908

First day of competition in the New South Wales Rugby League.

Early in the 20th century in Sydney, the game of rugby football was contested in competitions that were affiliated with the Rugby Football Union based in England. In 1895 the breakaway Northern Rugby Football Union was formed and its own version of rugby football started to evolve. The reasons for this split were ultimately based around the fact that clubs had wanted to compensate their players for time away from work due to injuries and travelling. After the Rugby Football Union denied the clubs’ requests for compensation, many northern English clubs broke away and formed a new league, which implemented gradual rule changes to the football it played in an attempt to make a more attractive game for crowds. When crowd numbers started to rise, clubs were able to afford to pay players benefits as a direct result of increased gate takings.

In 1906 in Sydney, crowd numbers for football matches began to increase significantly following the emergence of a special player, Dally Messenger, whose skill was considered a pleasure to watch. It was around this time that the discontent of players with their clubs for continually failing to shift away from the amateur culture of the Rugby Football Union was starting to show. Even though bigger crowds had brought increased revenue to the game, footballers ended up failing to see any of the increased revenue going back to them. On 8 August 1907 a group of leading players and supporters met at Bateman’s Hotel, George Street, Sydney and resolved to form the New South Wales Rugby Football League. In the latter half of 1907, and unknown to the general public, Dally Messenger secretly agreed to sign on to play in a breakaway professional competition that would start the following year, run by the New South Wales Rugby Football League. It would turn out to be Messenger’s popularity that would ensure the success of the new competition.

Early in 1908, a number of Rugby Football Union clubs held meetings across Sydney and Newcastle to decide whether or not breakaway clubs should be formed in preparation for the new Rugby Football League’s premiership that was to start in the following months. The popularity amongst players in support of the new competition was overwhelming, with only some players deciding to continue playing in the traditional amateur Rugby Football Union competition. The Rugby Football League clubs that were formed were essentially breakaway clubs, and in most instances, teams continued the use of their team colours into the new competition. A key aspect of the new code was that players would be paid for playing the game. Adopting the playing rules of the rebel Northern Union of England, the new competition began in earnest in Australia on Easter Monday, 20 April 1908.