Rugby union in Australia

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Rugby union in Australia
World Cup Telstra stadium.jpg
Crowd in Sydney for Australia's opening match of the 2003 Rugby World Cup
Governing body Rugby Australia
National team(s) Australia
Nickname(s) Wallabies
First played25 July 1839, [1] Sydney, New South Wales
Registered players86,952 (total)
41,049 (adult) [2]
Club competitions
International competitions
Audience records
Single match109,874
Australia v New Zealand, (Telstra Stadium)
15 July 2000

Rugby union is a football code within Australia with a history dating back to 1864. Although traditionally most popular in Australia's rugby football strongholds of New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, 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. Australia enters five teams: the Reds of Queensland, the Waratahs of New South Wales, the Brumbies of the Australian Capital Territory, the Western Force of Western Australia and 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, two from New South Wales, one each from the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Western Australia, plus the Fijian Drua, effectively a developmental side for that country's national team. Below the NRC are traditional capital city competitions, such as the Shute Shield of Sydney, Queensland Premier Rugby of Brisbane, the ACTRU Premier Division in Canberra, and Perth's Fortescue Premier Grade. These city-based competitions formed the highest level of domestic competition for much of the sport's history in Australia.

The national governing body of Rugby Australia launched a new top-level women's 15s competition known as Super W in 2018. The new league features five state/territorial representative teams—the ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. [3]

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 sixth in the world as of 27 December 2020. [4]


19th century

The NSW team, 1883. StateLibQld 1 109656 New South Wales Rugby Union Team, ca. 1883.jpg
The NSW team, 1883.
The Australia national team in 1899. 1899 Australian Team.jpg
The Australia national team in 1899.

The first rugby union club to be established in Australia was Sydney University's in 1864. [5] In 1869, Newington College was the first Australian school to play rugby in a match against the University of Sydney. [6] [7] 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, [8] a Sydney competition was established, which was administered from the England Rugby headquarters at Twickenham [ citation needed ]. 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. [9]

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. [10] On Saturday 23 June, 3,000 spectators watched Waratah beat Carlton at rugby at the Albert Cricket Ground in Redfern. [10] In the return leg, Carlton defeated Waratah under Australian rules. [10] 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. [11] Later that same year, the Southern Rugby Union undertook its inaugural tour of New Zealand, winning four of its seven matches. [12]

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 grammar schools took up rugby as opposed to Melbourne Rules. 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, and the Hospital's Cup became an annual competition in Queensland.

1900s to 1940s

A rugby game in Queensland during the early 1900s. Rugby-union-lineout-r.jpg
A rugby game in Queensland during the early 1900s.
Toowoomba Grammar School Rugby Union Team, 1927. StateLibQld 1 77971 Toowoomba Grammar School Rugby Union Team, 1927.jpg
Toowoomba Grammar School Rugby Union Team, 1927.

Australia played its first test against New Zealand in 1903 in front of a crowd of 30,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.[ citation needed ] In 1907, Australia again played New Zealand, at the same venue as the 1903 match, with crowd numbers reaching 50,000.[ citation needed ] This figure would not be surpassed again in Australian rugby union until after the game turned professional.

The British Isles team visited Australia in 1904 and 1908, and at the 1908 Summer Olympics, the Australian team defeated England to win the gold medal in rugby.

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. It was not until 1928 that the union was re-formed and the Brisbane clubs and Great Public Schools returned to playing the rugby union code.

In 1931, Charles Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe, as Governor of New Zealand, donated a sporting trophy called the Bledisloe Cup 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.

Until the late 1940s, the administration of the Australian team, including all tours, was handled by New South Wales, being the senior union. A national body, the Australian Rugby Football Union was formed at a conference in Sydney in 1945, acting initially in an advisory capacity only, [13] and in 1949 was formally constituted and joined the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), representing Australia.

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.

The 1991 Rugby World Cup took place in Europe, and saw Australia defeat England 12-6 in the Final, winning their first world cup after having triumphed over their fierce rivals New Zealand in the semifinal.

With rugby union becoming an openly professional sport in 1995, after more than a century of a professed amateur status, major changes were seen in both the club and international game. The Super 12 rugby competition was born that year. The tournament involved 12 provincial sides from three countries; 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 first Tri Nations Series, between the three Super 12 countries.

In 1999, the Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand was staged at the Homebush Olympic Stadium, now known as ANZ Stadium. The game attracted a then world record crowd for a rugby union match of 107,042 to see Australia win with its greatest margin over New Zealand by 28–7. In 2000 this record was raised again when a crowd of 109,874 witnessed the 'Greatest ever Rugby Match'. New Zealand took an early lead of 24-nil after 11 minutes only to see Australia draw level at 24 all by half time, and the match was decided by a Jonah Lomu try to finish in favour of New Zealand by 39–35.

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 team to win multiple world cups.

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. [14] 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. All Blacks Wallabies.jpg
The Wallabies playing the New Zealand All Blacks.

Rugby union in Australia is governed by Rugby Australia, which is a member of 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. Rugby Australia was formed in 1949 as the Australian Rugby Union; 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 highest participation rate was 0.8%, in the Australian Capital Territory. [15] 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. [16] Other rivalries that Australia once held such as games against England, Wales and France are now considered less relevant,[ citation needed ] 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 World Rugby Sevens 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. Since the 2015–16 series, the event has been held in Sydney, and is now fourth on the series schedule.

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

Australia co-hosted the first Rugby World Cup, along with New Zealand in 1987. It acted as host for the second time in 2003. 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 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, however rugby league is by far the more dominant code in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Super Rugby

Super Rugby, previously known as Super 12 and Super 14, is a multi-regional rugby union competition currently involving teams from Australia and New Zealand. It previously featured teams from South Africa, Argentina, and Japan. Australia has five sides in the competition: the Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs, Brumbies, Western Force, and Melbourne Rebels. The Brumbies have won the competition twice, and the Reds and Waratahs have each won 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 South Pacific Championship, also known as the Super 6. State teams have been playing each other since the late 1800s, when Queensland first took on New South Wales in Sydney.[ citation needed ] The Australian Provincial Championship (APC) was also played in 2006, featuring the Australian Super 14 teams.

National Rugby Championship

In late 2013, Rugby Australia (then known as 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, [17] and ultimately unveiled in March 2014 with nine teams, [18] the NRC began play in August 2014, with the season running through to November. [18] The inaugural NRC teams included four in NSW, two in Queensland and one each in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. [18] After the 2016 season, one of the NSW teams was dropped from the competition and was replaced by the Fijian Drua, an effective developmental side for the Fiji national team.

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 first three seasons 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 an A$4.7 million loss. [19]

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

The Nine Network owns the broadcast rights to the majority of major Australian and Southern Hemisphere competitions and airs them on through streaming service Stan, as well as providing select coverage on its free-to-air television channels. [20]

Free-to-air on Nine

Stan Sports

Other content

BeIN Sports

Fox 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. "Rugby Australia unveils 'Super W', will bid for 2021 Women's World Cup". ESPN (UK). 12 December 2017. Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  4. "Men's Rankings | World Rugby". Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  5. Godwin 1981, p. 10.
  6. Hickie, Thomas V. (1998). A Sense of Union – A History of the Sydney University Football Club. Playright Publishing. p. 22.
  7. Ross, Barry (2019), 150 Years of Newington Rugby 1869-2019, Newington College, ISBN   978-0-9873016-2-8
  8. "Football: Southern Rugby Football Union". Australian Town and Country Journal . Sydney, NSW. 1 August 1874. p. 30. Retrieved 1 November 2016. At Trove
  9. "Key Dates in Qld Rugby History". Queensland Rugby. 2009. Archived from the original on 6 May 2009. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  10. 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.
  11. "Intercolonial Football Match". The Brisbane Courier . 14 August 1882. Retrieved 3 October 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  12. "Rugby Union Football: Overseas Teams in New Zealand". An Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 1966. Archived from the original on 23 May 2018. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  13. "Australian Rugby Football Union to foster code". The Mercury. Hobart. 6 December 1945. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  14. "ARU make huge profit from RWC". Archived from the original on 29 March 2006. Retrieved 20 April 2006.
  15. "Rugby Union Profile" (PDF). Ausport. 2000. Archived (PDF) from the original on 22 July 2012.
  16. "Highest Attendance at a Rugby Union Match". Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on 21 December 2014. Retrieved 13 August 2007.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. "Rugby: ARC scrapped after just one season". NZ Herald. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 18 December 2007.
  20. Phillips, Sam (9 November 2020). "Nine, Rugby Australia confirm groundbreaking $100m broadcast deal". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 27 December 2020.


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