Two decades back, in the midst of the almost-crippling Super League War, even abbreviated rugby league was split in two.
For its 1997 sevens tournament, the game’s establishment - missing the clubs who had defected to News Limited’s rebel Super League competition – scrambled together a troop of teams and played out what was arguably one of the most depressing mini tournaments ever held. (We’ll touch on the “arguably” part later).
Staged at the Sydney Football Stadium across February 8 and 9, the Coca-Cola World Rugby League Sevens attracted just 14,445 spectators on the Saturday and 15,116 the day following.
The ARL-loyal clubs contested for the spoils against teams from across the globe: Tonga, “NRL Fiji”, American Samoa, New Zealand, PNG, Italy, United States, Japan, Lebanon, NSW Country and Melbourne. Rounding out the non-ARL teams was an outfit called the Aboriginal Dream Team.
Parramatta beat the North Sydney Bears in the final 32-22. Jim Dymock, Troy Campbell, Jason Smith, Nathan Barnes and Stuart Kelly crossed for the blue and golds, while Greg Florimo and Gary Larson scored doubles for the Bears. Jason Taylor (pictured at top playing in the 1997 sevens, alongside Andrew Ettingshausen, pictured playing in the Super League Nines) booted three goals.
Across the rugby league divide, Super League staged its second World Nines tournament at about the same time. Consisting of Great Britain, Western Samoa, Japan, Tonga, South Africa, France, United States, Australia, Papau New Guinea, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Fiji, the event was won for the second successive year by the Kiwis, who knocked off Western Samoa 16-0 in the final.
The tournament followed on from Super League’s inaugural 1996 event, held at the National Stadium in Suva, Fiji across 22-24 February, in which the Kiwis claimed a whopping $30,000 cheque for their winning efforts. The 1996 World Nines marked the first time a video referee was used for a game of rugby league.
As David Middleton and Ian Heads write in their bible of rugby league history, A Centenary Of Rugby League, the 1996 tournament, Super League’s first official competition, “received a double whammy on its second day when monsoonal rain washed out play … and then players and officials received news that Justice Burchett had awarded victory to the ARL in the battle for control of the game”.
Love them or brush them, this weekend’s Auckland Nines will be a far cry from the turmoil of two decades ago, when even a fun, hit and giggle event like a nines or sevens tournament couldn’t escape controversy.