The NRL’s Greatest Club Rivalries of All Time
At the heart of every sport is a sense of tribalism and fans are united by a shared history – an understanding that a club is bigger than any individual. While individual rivalries can last years, club hostilities extend for decades and even centuries. Here are the 10 fiercest club rivalries in NRL history.
10. St George Dragons v Cronulla Sharks
Initially based on geography and a succession of shared important figures, St George and Cronulla forged one of the premiership’s most intense, evenly-fought and at times bitter derby rivalries. Less than 10 kilometres separated the southern Sydney clubs’ home grounds, ensuring record-breaking crowds, fierce matches and momentous finals showdowns. The mighty Dragons claimed the early ascendancy, but the Sharks rallied to all but square the ledger before St George merged with Illawarra – a development that did little to slow down the heated competition between the Red V and the sky blue, black and white of Cronulla. The Sharks’ historic 1973 finals win over ‘big brother’ and the Dragons’ Anthony Mundine-led preliminary final victory of ’99 stand as arguably the two biggest matches the clubs have played, but Cronulla chairman Peter Gow taking a pair of scissors to a Saints supporter’s jersey illustrated that this rivalry extended far beyond the parameters of the footy field.
9. Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles
Parramatta, from Sydney’s west, and northern beaches-residing Manly-Warringah entered the premiership together in 1947. Although both clubs waited decades for elusive grand final success, the Sea Eagles and Eels collectively claimed nine of 16 premierships from 1972-87. They contested three grand finals – Manly thwarting Parramatta in 1976, before the dominant blue-and-golds powered to convincing wins in 1982-83 – and a string of dramatic, controversial finals matches during that period, ensuring fierce animosity between the clubs which continues to simmer away in the present day.
8. Manly Sea Eagles v North Sydney Bears
Based primarily on geography, the rivalry between Manly and neighbouring North Sydney ranks among the most bitter in premiership history. It was exacerbated by the affluent Sea Eagles’ overwhelming success – often with ex-Norths players (Peter Diversi, Ken Irvine, John Gray, Cliff Lyons, Martin Bella) featuring prominently – juxtaposed with the long-suffering Bears’ notorious title drought. Manly dominated the win-loss ledger, although Norths produced several famous derby upsets as time wore on. An ill-advised merger between the clubs at the end of 1999 was destined to fail and ultimately ended North Sydney’s 95-season presence in first grade.
7. South Sydney Rabbitohs v St George Dragons
South Sydney and St George, the premiership’s two most successful clubs, built a rivalry based around frequent post-season showdowns and classic grand finals as they wrestled for supremacy. After memorable premiership deciders in 1949 and, the Saints’ record title-winning streak of the 1950s and ’60s was bookended by two Rabbitohs golden eras. The 1965 grand final, which saw St George win its 10th premiership in a row against plucky South Sydney in front of a record SCG crowd, was a shimmering highlight, while the Rabbitohs clinched their fourth title in five years at the Saints expense in 1971. The post-season clashes dried up thereafter, but the tradition of both proud southern Sydney clubs continued to permeate their encounters, while the advent of the pre-season Charity Shield in the 1980s – marked by a string of violent encounters belying its name – introduced another fiery element to competition between the sides.
6. Western Suburbs Magpies v Manly Sea Eagles
While Western Suburbs and Manly maintained a willing rivalry throughout the clubs’ 53-season coexistence, the conflict that broke out in the late-1970s bound them together for perpetuity. The ‘Fibros’ v ‘Silvertails’ feud, based on a perceived class gap – a disparity largely invented and promoted by Magpies coach Roy Masters – descended into on-field war and some of the fieriest clashes of a hard era. The Magpies-Sea Eagles hostility was built on passion, pride and aggression; violence, thuggery and unmatched drama were the by-products. Manly egged it on by poaching the likes of Les Boyd, Ray Brown and John Dorahy. The rivalry still carries significant mystique – and undoubtedly ranks among the greatest in the code’s history.
5. Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland Cowboys
This Queensland derby remained one of the premiership’s most one-sided contests for almost a decade, but the Cowboys’ belated arrival as a force – coupled with a memorable finals triumph in 2004 – gave rise to one of the most entertaining and fierce rivalries in the NRL. The Broncos had the premierships in the bank and maintained an emphatic regular season winning record in the clubs’ competition, but the title-less Cowboys snared some bragging rights by eliminating their higher-profile adversaries from another two finals series in 2012 and ’14. The epic 2015 grand final, where the Cowboys broke their drought by winning an all-Queensland affair in golden point, and a phenomenal run of unforgettable regular season and finals encounters has now rendered the rivalry among the biggest highlights on the NRL calendar.
4. Canterbury Bulldogs v Sydney Roosters
A competition that began with one of the biggest thrashings in history – Easts’ 87-7 demolition of newcomers Canterbury in 1935 – ramped up with a battle for premiership supremacy in the first half of the 1940s and drought-breaking grand final victories for Eastern Suburbs in 1974 and Canterbury in 1980. But the rivalry exploded into full-blown hatred as the sides emerged as the preeminent forces of the early-2000s, giving rise to a string of fiery grudge matches, another decider in 2004 and later a series of high-profile defections from the Bulldogs to the Roosters, with the likes of former favourites Willie Mason, Braith Anasta, Nate Myles, Mark O’Meley and Sonny Bill Williams riling up the Bulldog Army no end in the tricolours.
3. Balmain Tigers v South Sydney Rabbitohs
One of the most controversial events of the premiership’s formative seasons – the forfeited final of 1909 – sealed a perpetual grudge between foundation clubs Balmain and South Sydney. While Souths became the most successful club in the code’s history, the Tigers crafted an incredible finals record at the Rabbitohs’ expense (eight wins from 10 post-season games), including three pre-war premiership deciders and the greatest grand final upset of all-time in 1969. The fierce rivals renewed acquaintances during the 1980s with another string of furious finals contests with the likes of Mario Fenech and Ben Elias at the forefront.
2. Canterbury Bulldogs v Parramatta Eels
After concurrently emerging as premiership forces during the late-1970s, western Sydney outfits Parramatta and Canterbury wrestled fiercely for the ‘Team of the 1980s’ mantle, winning four titles apiece and engaging in two classic grand final struggles and a succession of memorable finals encounters. The rivalry ramped up amidst the Super League upheaval as the big-spending Eels ravaged the Bulldogs’ playing ranks, while a pair of epic preliminary finals in 1998 and 2009 have stoked the fire during the NRL era between two clubs that appear to have a genuine distaste for one another.
1. South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters
South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs (later Sydney Roosters), the only foundation clubs remaining in the NRL, boast the longest-running rivalry in premiership history – and arguably the most bitter and most storied. Animosity between the inner-city neighbours, regular finals combatants during the competition’s formative decades, has festered courtesy of player poaching, boundaries and junior territories, perceived class differences and contrasting financial positions as much as anything that has happened in more than a century of on-field conflict. The clubs’ simultaneous rise to heavyweight status over the last decade – peaking with a preliminary final showdown in 2014, incredibly their first post-season clash in 76 years – has arguably elevated the rivalry to its highest-ever pedestal, with their derbies generally given main event billing.