Rugby union in Australia

Rugby union in Australia

Crowd in Sydney for Australia's opening match of the 2003 Rugby World Cup
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
Club competitions
International competitions
Audience records
Single match 109,874
Australia v New Zealand, (Telstra Stadium)
15 July 2000

Rugby union is a 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 is Super Rugby, which is a multi-regional competition across the southern hemisphere. With the competition expanding from 14 teams to 15 for 2011 and to 18 teams in 2016, 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. The NRC consists of nine teams – two from Queensland, four from New South Wales, and one each from the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Western Australia. The Buildcorp NRC will run for 11 weeks from 21 August to 1 November. It will include preliminary rounds, with each team playing each other once (four home and four away games), one bye week per team and a finals series (semi-finals and final). 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 men's 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, owing to success at the World Cup and consistently high ranking, being ranked third in the world as of 26 September 2016.[3]


19th century

The NSW team, 1883.
The Australia national team in 1899.

The first rugby union club to be established in Australia was Sydney University's in 1864.[4] In 1869, Newington College was the first Australian school to play rugby in a match against the University of Sydney.[5] 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,[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] On Saturday 23 June, 3,000 spectators watched Waratah beat Carlton at rugby at the Albert Cricket Ground in Redfern.[8] In the return leg, Carlton defeated Waratah under Australian rules.[8] The first inter-colonial game occurred on 12 August 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 Association Ground (later to be renamed the Sydney Cricket Ground) in front of 4,000 spectators.[9]

On 2 November, in 1883, the Northern Rugby Union was 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 undertook its inaugural tour of New Zealand. The following year, a New Zealand party went to Australia and the first club competition was held in Queensland. In 1888 the Melbourne Rugby Union was formed in Victoria. In 1892, the rugby bodies in Australia dropped 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

A rugby game in Queensland during the early 1900s.
Toowoomba Grammar School Rugby Union Team, 1927.

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 (the SFS commenced as the Sydney rectangular venue for rugby in 1988). At the 1908 Summer Olympics, rugbywas played and the Australian team won gold. However, there were only 2 teams in the Olympiad that year. England and Australia

Thee 1908 British Isles tour to New Zealand and Australia was the seventh tour by a British Isles team and the fourth to New Zealand and Australia. The tour is often referred to as the Anglo-Welsh Tour as only English and Welsh players were selected due to the Irish and Scottish Rugby Unions not participating. It is retrospectively classed as one of the British Lions tours, as the Lions naming convention was not adopted until 1950.

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

The enlistment of rugby 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 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 NSWRU being the main organisation. In 1949, the Australian Rugby Union joined the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), later known as the International Rugby Board (IRB) and now as World Rugby.

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. 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.[10] 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 World Rugby (WR). 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, figures from World Rugby (then the IRB) show there were just over 38,000 registered adult rugby union players in Australia, of which the states of New South Wales and Queensland accounted for 82.3% of all senior players. The lowest participation rate was 0.8%, in the Australian Capital Territory.[11] In NSW, major support comes from the private schools, which play union rather than 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 schools, including The King's School, St Ignatius' College, Riverview and St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill.

National teams


The Wallabies is 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 a visiting British Isles team on 24 June, defeating them by 13 points 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.[12] 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 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 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 remained the season opener through 2014–15. Starting in 2015–16, the event will move to Sydney; its position in the series schedule has not yet been announced.

Australia A

Australia A is a team of players who are being developed as future Wallaby players. They play 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 World Rugby Women's Sevens Series since its inaugural 2012–13 season, and won the gold medal for inaugural Olympic sevens tournament at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

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

Main article: 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

Main article: Bledisloe Cup

The Bledisloe Cup is 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.

Rugby's domestic presence in Australia

When Australia became one of the world's best sides in the 1980s, the team was largely drawn from the NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds. The ACT Brumbies had become another strong province by the 1990s and joined the Super 12 competition with the Waratahs and Reds in 1996, playing against the top rugby provinces from New Zealand and South Africa. The Western Force, based in Perth, joined the competition in 2006 when it expanded to become the Super 14, and the Melbourne Rebels were added when it became Super Rugby in 2011.

The strongholds of the game are still in New South Wales and Queensland where rugby football, initially rugby union and later rugby league, has been the dominant code since the 1880s. Rugby was introduced to other cities and regions at around the same time but Melbourne rules (now Australian football) was preferred in the southern states. Rugby union had a diminished national profile for many decades after rugby league became the more popular football code in Sydney and Brisbane prior to the first world war. The game gradually expanded its reach again after the second world war, and rugby union was re-established in most areas of the country by the 1970s.

Super Rugby

Main article: 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, and expanded in 2016 to also include teams based in Argentina and Japan. Australia had five sides in the 15-team competition (which expanded to 18 in 2016): 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, the Reds and Waratahs once.

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,[13] and ultimately unveiled in March 2014 with nine teams,[14] the NRC began play in August 2014, with the season running through to November.[14] The inaugural NRC teams include four in NSW, two in Queensland and one each in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth.[14]

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.[15]

Club competitions

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.

Television coverage



Setanta Sports

See also


  1. "History of the ARU". Archived from the original on 6 June 2011. Retrieved 4 December 2006.
  2. "Australia". IRB. 2012. Archived from the original on 16 February 2012. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  3. Men's World Rugby Rankings at World Rugby, 26 September 2016
  4. Godwin 1981, p. 10.
  5. Hickie, Thomas V. (1998). A Sense of Union – A History of the Sydney University Football Club. Playright Publishing. p. 22.
  6. "Football: Southern Rugby Football Union". Australian Town and Country Journal. Sydney, NSW. 1 August 1874. p. 30. Retrieved 1 November 2016. At Trove
  7. "Key Dates in Qld Rugby History". Queensland Rugby. 2009. Archived from the original on 6 May 2009. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  8. 1 2 3 Sharp, M.P. (November 1987). "Football in Sydney before 1914". Sporting Traditions. 4 (1). Archived from the original on 3 July 2008.
  9. "Intercolonial Football Match". The Brisbane Courier. 14 August 1882. Retrieved 3 October 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  10. "ARU make huge profit from RWC". Archived from the original on 29 March 2006. Retrieved 20 April 2006.
  11. "Rugby Union Profile" (PDF 0.1 MB). Ausport. 2000. Archived (PDF) from the original on 22 July 2012.
  12. "Highest Attendance At A Rugby Union Match". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 13 August 2007. Archived 21 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. Robinson, Georgina (6 February 2014). "National Rugby Championship: Ambitious plans begin to take shape". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 6 February 2014. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
  14. 1 2 3 "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.
  15. "Rugby: ARC scrapped after just one season". NZ Herald. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-18.


  • Godwin, Terry; Rhys, Chris (1981). The Guinness Book of Rugby Facts & Feats. Enfield: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. ISBN 0-85112-214-0. 
  • Richards, Huw (2007). A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84596-255-5. 
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