Saturday 7 February 2009 5:37 AM
RL News 25/6/1923 - QLD and NSW "Welcome Young Brother Victoria"
The spread of the rugby game throughout the 19th century finally reached Victoria in 1877 when cross-code matches were played between Sydney's Waratah rugby club and Melbourne's Carlton FC in both cities. The southern matches were played at the MCG.
In 1888 teams from North Melbourne and Melbourne meet in a lead up to the visit of Stoddart's English rugby team to Melbourne during their Australian tour.
Stoddart's team ended up playing more Victorian Rules games than rugby while in the state, winning more than half their games. The English played Carlton at the MCG in front of 25,000 and also against South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Essendon and Port Melbourne.
Victoria sent its first rugby team to Sydney to play NSW in 1889. The Victorian captain F.L. Scarborough, speaking at Sydney dinner for his team, said: "I regret to say there is not a single native-born Victorian in the team." Ironically, 108 or so years later similar words were spoken about the first Melbourne rugby league club in the NRL.
NSW and Victoria paid visits to each other in 1894 and 1895, with the VIctorians winning the first game. Great Britain played against Victoria on their 1899 tour, but the rugby game then withered and disappeared until the 1930s.
With the arrival of rugby league in Sydney there were mentions in the press of teams being formed in the "major capital cities" - it was a long wait though for the people of Melbourne before they got their rugby league team.
Fitzroy Cricket Ground, 1924 - the Govenor of Victoria presents Lions captain Jonty Parkin with an Australian flag
Efforts to establish rugby league in Melbourne were made though in the first few decades of the game - principally by Harry Sunderland who was head of the Victorian Rugby League for a time.
Two early Lions tours from England each included a match in Melbourne, the most famous being the first in 1914 (between England and NSW).
"I shall never forget the sight of the two packs standing up to each other in some real all-in stuff, with a tremendous crowd cheering like mad because they thought it was all in the game!".
So said British captain Harold Wagstaff reflecting on the first Rugby League match played in Melbourne in 1914. The "favourable" impression of rugby league on 12,000 spectators didn't last and the game failed to take hold in Melbourne.
Efforts were again made in the 1920s, led by Sunderland and Harry Caples, to establish rugby league in the southern city.
In 1924 Victoria played against the visiting English Lions on the first game of their tour (losing 45-13 at Fitzroy Cricket Ground) and the famed Toowoomba club from Queensland (losing again 47-18).
Their efforts were in vain and not long afterwards rugby league permanently disappeared from the sporting fields and newspapers of Melbourne.
The odd match was taken to Melbourne over the following decades - the most notorious being in 1979 when Manly and Wests initiated their 'fibros v silvertails' battles.
Being Australia's second largest city, meant Melbourne's prospects were again seriously discussed as the NSWRL competition began to expand in the 1980s.
Melbourne had hosted a number of premiership games during the early 1990s to limited interest from the local sporting public. In 1991 the St Kilda VFL club made an unsuccessful attempt to have NSWRL games played on their Moorabbin Ground, later the Sydney Tigers played games at Princess Park in 1994 to small crowds.
However, large numbers had attended Test matches and State of Origin games in the 1990s. Origin played to over 25,000 at Olympic Park in 1990 and then another 160,000 in three matches at the MCG (1994, 1995 and 1997). Whether a Melbourne Rugby League club could be a success on a weekly basis against the VFL/AFL was another question.
In August 1991 the NSWRL sought expressions of interest for its 1993 competition, and made a specific request to the VRL to put forward a proposal. The local League showed significant hesitation, indicating that the game had little support to build upon.
However during 1993 ARL Chairman Ken Arthurson made it clear that he remained positive about Melbourne and thought it had much to offer, perhaps even more than the Perth and North Queensland sides that had already been accepted for 1995.
Plans to enter Melbourne gained momentum in November 1994 when both the ARL and the organisers of the (then called) News Ltd rebel competition both began initiatives to fast track their own teams in the Victorian capital.
The NSWRL and ARL continued negotiations with the Victorian Rugby League. The situation became clouded after the South Australian Rugby League joined Super League in June 1995. With SA covered, Super League began their own discussions with the VRL to join and for Melbourne to be the 10th team in the 1996 competition. Melbourne was the preferred option for Super League but they also knew that they could fall back on Adelaide if necessary - for 1996 it would be one or the other.
Super League's pursuit of Melbourne and Victoria continued until very late in 1995. Agreement could not be reached with the VRL and the Victorian government had shown reluctance to support the Melbourne initiative. In comparison the South Australian government and the SARL had been willing partners with Super League - in mid December the Rams become team #10 in Super League instead of Melbourne.
The Melbourne option again went into stasis from both competitions - neither did anything significant about the issue until 1997 arrived. The ARL announced in March that Melbourne would be playing in the 1998 season - though the ARL had yet to determine exactly how Melbourne would be fit into their 12 club competition.
For a time it appeared that Melbourne would start its foray into rugby league with two clubs in 1998! The SMH reporting in mid-May 1997: "Super League will launch a team (yet to be named) in Melbourne next season following a meeting between News Ltd chairman Ken Cowley and the Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett yesterday."
With the ARL already being forced to fund the South Queensland Crushers from reserves dwindled by the "war", the ARL club chief executives recommended in late June that Melbourne not be admitted until 1999. The VRL continued to stress to the ARL that their club was fully sponsored.
Waiting until after the State of Origin at the MCG to make its announcement, the ARL abandoned its plans for a Melbourne franchise.
Super League though continued to build for the Melbourne Storm's arrival in 1998. They also made it known that any compromise with the ARL would not be made unless the Storm club was included in the combined competition. Which is exactly what eventuated.
When the "peace agreement" was made in late 1997 there were 22 existing rugby league clubs plus Super League's Melbourne Storm. The new competition - National Rugby League - was announced as including 20 clubs for 1998 and 14 clubs for 2000. The pressures on the existing clubs to survive to the 2000 14 team competition, were obvious. Adding a new club still seemed unlikely.
However, amidst all the drama of the "peace deal", the inclusion of Melbourne Storm was still seen as important enough to warrant their inclusion. Ninety seasons after rugby league was first played in Australia, the dream of a team in Melbourne had finally been realised.
There were many doomsayers though who saw a Melbourne team as having little hope of achieving acceptance with the Victorian public - especially as the players would all be imported to their new 'home'. The key to acceptance would be in developing competitive local rugby league talent, of which at the time there was none to speak of.
The NRL agreement saw the immediate demise of three other regional clubs. This provided Melbourne with an opportunity to quickly build a respectable playing roster from what was left of the Hunter Mariners, South Queensland Crushers and Perth.
After the key signing of Chris Anderson as coach and Brisbane's power front rower Glenn Lazarus, the Storm were able to attract Marcus Bai, Scott Hill, Rodney Howe, Stephen Kearney, Brett Kimmorely, Robbie Kearns, Tawera Nikau, Richard Swain, Robbie Ross, Aaron Moule, Paul Marquet and Danny Williams.
Two lesser known players that had been developed by the Brisbane Broncos but found their local opportunities limited, Tony Martin and Russell Bawden, were signed from the London Broncos and returned to Australia.
The Melbourne Storm's first-up performance across season 1998 was a major surprise to many, with Melbourne finishing the regular season in 3rd place and only one win behind minor premiers Brisbane. Adopting coach Anderson's new "flat-line" attack, the big Storm forwards laid a platform for their young halves Hill and Kimmorely to wreak havoc on opposing teams.
A late season injury to captain Lazarus combined with a lack of Finals experience quickly saw the Storm exit the play-offs. The club though had proven they were to be taken seriously, and they had easily produced the best debut season of any new team in the game's history.
Stability in playing talent and continued off-field support from Melbourne's core supporters, produced a continued improvement in 1999. Injury took away Scott Hill and Robbie Kearns for much of the season, but it seemed to have minimal impact on the Storm's run to the play-offs, particularly with versatile back Matt Geyer making rapid improvement.
However, in the second last round the Melbourne Storm played poorly at North Sydney Oval losing to the Bears in their last ever game at the famous ground. Melbourne unfortunately had a bye in the last round and they had no opportunity to lift their form before fronting St. George - Illawarra in the semi-finals. The Storm lost to the Dragons by 34-10 and looked set for a repeat of the 1998 exit.
Despite lacking confidence Melbourne Storm managed to outlast the Canterbury Bulldogs by 24-22 to reach the Final against Parramatta. The Eels had let a place in the Grand Final slip out of their grasp in the same match in 1998, and were tipped to be much hungrier for a win than the Storm. Parramatta took a hold on the match, but the Storm did not relent and thanks to some last ditch tackling stayed in the game. A late try to the Storm saw them win by 18-16 and secure a re-match against the Dragons for the title.
The Storm had lost twice to the Dragons already in 1999 and by the time Melbourne was behind by 0-14 at half time, it was more than apparent that St. George - Illawarra were going to take the premiership in their first ever season. There was nothing in the Storm's performance to indicate that a come back was possible.
But Melbourne Storm recovered from their poor start with inspiring efforts from Paul Marquet, Brett Kimmorley and Tawera Nikau. Into the final minutes of the game the Dragons led 18-14 but were forced to drop out from their own line. On the fifth tackle Kimmorley kicked high into the Dragons' corner. As the Storm's winger Craig Smith caught the ball over the try-line he was knocked unconscious in a head high tackle by Jamie Ainscough and lost the ball.
Referee Bill Harrigan deferred to the video referee and the replay clearly showed that if not for the illegal tackle Smith would have scored a try. A penalty try was awarded giving the Storm's Matt Geyer a conversion from in front of the posts to take Melbourne Storm to a 20-18 lead and the title.
Nikau left for the England and Glenn Lazarus retired, leaving the Storm's pack a lot less lethal for 2000. An easy win over St. Helens in the World Club Challenge was a great start for Melbourne, but overall the 2000 season was a disappointment. Major injuries to Marcus Bai and Robbie Ross, along with a lengthy suspension to Stephen Kearney, seriously disrupted the season.
It was made worse when the club was forced to negotiate its way through the trials and tribulations of twelve players coming off contract by the end of the year. Most distracting was the saga of Kimmorley as he travelled between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in search of his future (much to the bewilderment of the Victorian public who were not used to rugby league's mid-season mayhem).
With respectable home crowds averaging over 14,000 the Storm finished the 2000 season in 7th place, earning themselves a semi-final against the Knights in Newcastle. However, the defending premiers exited with a 30-16 loss on a wet and miserable afternoon. The season's undoubted highlight was the Grand Final rematch against the Dragons at the MCG where the Storm won by an incredible scoreline of 70-10.
Tony Martin (to London) and Brett Kimmorley (to Northern Eagles) were key losses for the club in the lead up to 2001 which were slightly off-set by the arrival of half-back Matt Orford and winger Junior Langi.
The 2001 season was the least successful in the Storm's history, missing the play-offs for the first time. After making a decision to move base from Olympic Park to the larger Colonial Stadium, the club seemed to lack the support, atmosphere and composure they had built up. It reflected in the team's on field performances, losing four of their first six homes games and 7 from their opening 10 overall. Amidst this time the Storm was rocked when coach Anderson quit the club after the 42-18 loss to Parramatta in Round 7.
Along with Richard Swain and Matt Orford, replacement coach Mark Murray lifted the Storm from their bad beginning. Melbourne won seven of their next ten games to reach 6th place on the ladder.
But the bad start had taken its toll, and with the 2001 finals in sight they won only two more games. A last round home loss to New Zealand saw the Storm finish outside the Top 8 semi-finals.
The 2001 season continued to mark the endurability of Kiwi Test hooker Richard Swain. He was on the field for every minute of the Storm's season and had yet to miss a game for Melbourne in the club's history.
In 2002 the Storm returned to Olympic Park. The club secured no big name player signings for the season as it kept under the NRL imposed salary cap.
In an effort to reignite its floundering success the return to its smaller home ground was seen by players and supporters as a positive move. The club though continued to deliver hot and cold performances as the season progressed, leaving them on the fringe of the Top 8 (from only 14 competitors).
The club suffered internal turmoil during the season, particularly when the captaincy was removed from Robbie Kearns and given to Rodney Howe. The Storm was also troubled over the renegotiation of club stalwart Richard Swain's contract - he reluctantly signed for Brisbane for 2003 when the Storm (sighting salary cap issues) failed to make him an offer.
The Storm's season again came down to needing to win its final round game to reach the semi-finals. In a repeat of 2001, Melbourne appeared to lack enthusiasm when it mattered and again lost a crucial match.
Bellamy has transformed the club since his arrival
Under new coach Craig Bellamy the 2003 season for the Stormers was one of regaining premiership credibility. Melbourne reached the play-offs for the first time since 2000 with evergreen Robbie Kearns and a confident Matt Orford showing the way.
A disappointing exit two weeks before the Grand Final was tempered by the rise of young Queenslanders Billy Slater and Cameron Smith. Unheard of at the start of 2003, the steady hooker and dummy-half Smith gave splendid service to Orford and his forwards. He was rewarded with a place in the Maroons Origin side and was unlucky to miss the Kangaroos train-on squad.
The silky - and pacy - moves of Slater in the centres and at fullback were attention getters for fans and keen judges of football talent alike. His debut season for the Storm realised a record 19 tries and talk of a big future in the game.
As the Storm now continues through the seasons, the NRL has been given assurances by News Limited and the Victorian government that the club is committed to its Melbourne base for the long term. With talk of relocation or disbandment now less frequent in the northern states' media, Melbourne will want to produce further on-field success and attract more fans to Olympic Park.
Melbourne Storm Rugby League History © Sean Fagan / RL1908