Sydney Rugby Union & Premiership Rugby History

The Sydney Rugby Premiership

Initially, a competition was loosely arranged by the Union where the clubs were in charge of organising their own matches. This would result in clubs not playing the same teams or the same number of teams. A "Premier Club of the Colony" was declared by the Union at an end of year meeting. It was not necessarily given to the team that had the best results on the field. Results mattered, but other criteria may have also been used. What these where are not known.

The year 1880 saw the Southern Rugby Football Union endure the first splintering of the football code in Australia. It was during this season that a newspaper "war" began. Discussions centred around the merits of Rugby Football, British Association Football (Soccer) and the Victorian game (Aussie Rules Football). As a result of these heated discussions, an association was formed under the Victorian rules with two strong clubs formed to play the game. No sooner than the dust had settled and another association was formed under the British Association rules. Despite this new competition, Rugby Football held sway as the premier code in Sydney.

In 1883, the Gardiner Challenge Cup was introduced with a mixture of "senior" and "junior" clubs competing. Foundation clubs included Redfern, Sydney University, Wallaroo, Newtown, Burwood, Oriental, Glebe, Balmain, St. Leonards, Parramatta, Arfoma and Paddington. The first Cup was won by Redfern who were undefeated. At the beginning of the season, a proposal was put to the Southern Rugby Union to change the rules determining how a game was decided. Prior to the 1883 season, a game was decided by the number of goals scored. The amendment that was successfully passed by the Union declared that games would be decided by number of points scored. A try was awarded 2 points, a conversion was 3 points and a goal kicked from the field of play 4 points.

Within a few years of the Gardiner Cup beginning, the Premiership had developed to become a more structured competition with a centralised list of fixtures and rounds. An official ladder was produced and maintained with points given for wins, draws and byes. By the 1890s a finals system was introduced to assist in determining the premiership winner.

The Sydney Rugby Premiership came under the control of the Metropolitan Rugby Union, a branch of the New South Wales Rugby Football Union (formally the Southern Rugby Football Union), in 1897.

The District Competition

As early as 1893 it had been suggested to change the current structure of the premiership to a district-based formula. In early 1900, a meeting of the Metropolitan Rugby Union was held and a recommendation to establish district football in the coming season was made. Eight clubs competed in the inaugural season: Balmain, Glebe, Newtown, South Sydney, North Sydney, Western Suburbs, Eastern Suburbs and Sydney University. The first district competition was won by Glebe who were successful in all three grade competitions.

It was during this period, in 1907, that the supremacy of the Sydney Rugby Premiership was threatened. The imminent arrival of a professional football team from New Zealand sparked heated discussion about professionalism and compensation pay for lost time at work. In August of that year, the New South Wales Rugby Football League was formed. During the following season, a professional league competition was begun. Over the next few years, players switched across to the professional competition resulting in crowd numbers falling at Union matches.

Despite this, the district competition continued to run, rebuilding its supporter base, until the outbreak of World War 1 with the last season held during 1914. With the outbreak of war, competition was suspended.

The Return of the Premiership

At the conclusion of the war, the Sydney Rugby Premiership was recommenced. With the competition returning under the control of the NSW Rugby Football Union, only six clubs competed: Cambridge, Eastern Suburbs, Glebe-Balmain, Manly, Sydney University and YMCA. The competition remained as a district-based premiership until approximately the 1940s.

The Shute Shield was founded in 1923 and continued to be part of the District Competition which formed a key part of Premiership Rugby.

In 1966, the Sydney Rugby Union was formed to administer the running of Sydney Rugby include the Shute Shield.

The NSW Championship

In late 1986, the Sydney Rugby Union (SRU) approved a new competition structure for the Shute Shield. The SRU were concerned about the falling number of clubs involved in the lower divisions. The new structure involved distributing all teams in the three competitions evenly across three new divisions with some teams earning the right to play for the premiership in the first division.

The clubs that made up first division were opposed to the new structure and sought the opportunity to form a breakaway competition affiliated directly with the NSWRFU. This resulted in the formation of a 10 club competition called the NSW Championship, while the remaining lower division clubs remained with the SRU Championship. Both competitions ran during the 1987 and 1988 seasons.

For the 1989 season, the NSW Championship clubs returned to the SRU and the Shute Shield.

In 1992, the NSW Rugby Union again took over the administration of the Shute Shield competition. In 2011, the SRU was reformed to take control of the competition once again and remains the custodian of Premiership Rugby in Sydney. Today, SRU run the Premiership Competition with 12 clubs competing across 4 Grade and 3 Colts teams every Saturday from April to August and the Charter Hall Shute Shield remains the pinnacle of club rugby in Australia.