October 2020

Decades of Champions

Across five decades rugby league has featured the stories of one hit wonders and premiership dynasties.

With each decade comes a list of new champions, new storylines and a new generation of players. Over the last 50 years the game has changed from a semi-professional organisation featuring players who worked day jobs, to a billion dollar behemoth sporting millionaires in its ranks.

But despite all the change, the same goal remains and will remain. The quest for a premiership. 

    Since 1970, certain teams have dominated different decades and as the game has become more professional, the number of individual premiers in each decade has increased. This is a look at the sides who won premierships in the past 50 years.

    Manly Sea Eagles 1976 Premiership winning team


    Individual Premiers: Four

    Premiership winning teams: South Sydney Rabbitohs (2), Eastern Suburbs Roosters (2), Manly Sea Eagles (4), St George Dragons (2).

    The 1970s was a decade dominated by the Sea Eagles. It was a breakthrough decade for the club, which saw it collect its first four premierships after failing at its first five attempts in previous decades. 

    The Rabbitohs meanwhile enjoyed their last great hurrah for more than 40 years, netting the 1970 and 1971 premierships. They would next win the premiership in 2014. 

    For the Roosters, they enjoyed a renaissance of sorts after a tough period in the 1960s that saw them collect three wooden spoons. Coached by Jack Gibson, they won the 1974 and 1975 premierships. Interestingly though, despite being a premiership force in the 1980s they wouldn’t win another title until 2002.

    The St George Dragons meanwhile revisited their success from the 1950s and 1960s by adding a further two premierships to the cabinet. They collected the 1977 and 1979 premiership with the ‘77 triumph being particularly notable after they won a grand final replay against the Parramatta Eels following a 9-9 draw.

    These same four sides also dominated the minor premierships of the 1970s and runners up positions. There were only six different minor premiers with the Eels and Western Suburbs Magpies managing to triumph during the regular season.

    Featuring in, but losing grand finals in the 1970s were the Eels, Canterbury Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks.

    Parramatta Eels legends Michael Cronin and Ray Price receive the 1986 premiership trophy from Prime Minister Bob Hawke


    Individual Premiers: Four

    Premiership winning teams: Parramatta Eels (4), Canterbury Bulldogs (4), Manly Sea Eagles (1), Canberra Raiders (1) 

    The 1980s are seen as rugby league’s golden age. The birth of State of Origin and the introduction of four point tries brings the decade closer to the modern day. It’s also the era when many of our current commentators plied their trades.

    The 80s though, belonged to the Eels and Bulldogs. In fact, it’s the most lopsided decade in modern history. Of the 10 premierships, eight were won by either the Dogs or Eels. From 1980 to 1986, the premiers were one of the two sides with the Eels collecting four titles and the Dogs winning three.

    Interestingly though, there were seven different minor premiers, indicating that the competition overall was more competitive, but when it came to finals, only two sides really knew how to win.

    For the other two premiership winners, the Sea Eagles were mostly bridesmaids throughout the decade save for their 1987 title after they finished runners up in 1982 and 1983 to the Eels.

    The Raiders meanwhile broke through for their maiden crown in 1989, setting up their charge to the top of the tree in the early 1990s.

    Also featuring in grand finals during the 1980s but unable to break the stranglehold of the two western Sydney rivals were the Roosters, Newtown Jets, Dragons and Balmain Tigers.

    The Brisbane Broncos celebrate winning the 1993 Premiership


    Individual Premiers: Seven

    Premiership winning teams: Canberra Raiders (2), Sydney Bulldogs, Brisbane Broncos (3, 1 SL), Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers, Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm

    The 1990s saw the door fly wide open in terms of premiership winners. The Raiders picked up the decade from where they left off in 1989 before the Panthers broke through for their maiden premiership. The Broncos announced themselves as a heavyweight, collecting three titles plus the only Super League title on offer.

    The Bulldogs meanwhile snagged a premiership alongside the Sea Eagles with the Storm and Knights also opening their premiership accounts.

    It isn’t entirely clear why the virtual duopoly held by the Eels and Bulldogs almost disintegrated overnight and, instead of being replaced by two clearly dominant forces, basically saw a free for all.

    Something could be said for the Super League war in the middle of the decade that shifted players around at the drop of a hat and saw teams weakened and strengthened a lot faster than in previous decades.

    The salary cap was also enforced at the end of the decade that once again forced talent to shift around, although those effects would be more apparent in the following two decades. Despite the salary cap existing earlier in the decade it wasn’t exactly policed.

    The Wests Tigers celebrate winning the 2005 Premiership


    Individual Premiers: Eight

    Premiership winning teams: Brisbane Broncos (2), Sydney Roosters, Bulldogs, Penrith Panthers, Wests Tigers, Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm* (2)

    The 2000s followed the trend of the previous decade with a different premier almost every year and not a single back-to-back title holder for the first time in NRL history.

    The Roosters had the best crack at consecutive titles, featuring in grand finals from 2002-2004, however they only managed the 2002 triumph.

    The Broncos continued their winning ways from the 90s to chalk up premierships five and six.

    The 2000s were of course marred by the Melbourne Storm’s salary cap cheating which saw them stripped of the 2007 and 2009 titles.

    However, a total of eight premiers across 10 seasons is the most number of individual title winners in a decade in NRL history. Much of this could be down to the salary cap. While teams like the Roosters and Storm featured in multiple grand finals, they couldn’t manage to do what sides like the Broncos, Raiders, Eels and Bulldogs had done previously.

    The salary cap forced players to move around and meant coaches had to continuously rejig their sides to stay under the cap. Unless, of course, they were Melbourne.

    The Sydney Roosters celebrate winning the 2018 Premiership


    Individual Premiers: Seven

    Premiership winning teams: Sydney Roosters (3), Melbourne Storm (2), St George Illawarra Dragons, South Sydney Rabbitohs, North Queensland Cowboys, Cronulla Sharks

    The most recent decade was a step backwards in some respect given the back-to-back premierships of the Roosters and continued minor premierships between them and the Storm.

    However, the start of the decade was very open and saw a different premier from 2010-2016. 

    South Sydney returned to the winners circle for the first time in four decades, while both the Cowboys and Sharks broke their premiership droughts.

    Melbourne claimed their first legitimate premiership since 1999 while the Roosters enjoyed a revival after they quickly fell away following their 2010 grand final appearance.

    The coming decade

    With the 2020 finals series upon us there is reason to be optimistic of the premiership wheels turning once again and introducing us to new storylines.

    The Penrith Panthers have secured their first minor premiership since 2003 and at the time of writing are premiership favourites.

    The Parramatta Eels have managed their best finish since their 2005 minor premiership and seem to have the nucleus of a premiership contender in the years to come.

    While in Melbourne Cameron Smith will retire in the next few years and Craig Bellamy seems set to depart which could change that club’s winning ways.

    The Roosters are bedded in and will seemingly be premiership contenders for much of the decade.

    Meanwhile in Queensland the Gold Coast Titans have the makings of a top eight team, the Cowboys have struggled since the retirement of Johnathan Thurston and the Brisbane Broncos have collected their first wooden spoon in club history.

    So who will be the first premiership winner in 2020?

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