The History of South African Rugby League

Failed promotion - 1950s

In 1953, a committee was formed, headed by Mr. Ludwig Japhet, for the sole purpose of promotion of rugby league. No doubt, the decision to form such a committee was the lure of potential sponsorship and gate takings that playing rugby league in new areas or against other nations would undoubtedly bring to the game. Mr. Ludwig Japhet held a meeting with Mr. Fallowfield in December of that year to discuss the possibilities of rugby league promotion in which South Africa was discussed.
The labours of the promotional committee bore its fruit in South Africa in 1957 with the British and French teams staging a series of exhibition matches for the promotion of the game. Unfortunately neither the British or the French took the games seriously, which resulted in light and effortless tackling; the lack of the biff and barge, which the South Africans where so accustom too left them unsatisfied with what they had seen. After playing the two matches in Benoni and Durban a third was scheduled for East London, although this never did take place.

Another attempt - 1960s

The idea of rugby league in South Africa faded with the death of Mr. Ludwig Japhet after the experimental tour, only to be brought back to life with the formation of two almost indistinguishable but totally separate rugby league organisations: The National Rugby League (NRL), formed by one Mr. Norman Lacey and Rugby League South Africa (RLSA) instigated by a Mr Maurice Smith with the formation of a caretaker committee of which Messrs John B. Weill and Irwin Benson where involved and subsequently handed the responsibility of the fledgling organisation.
Both leagues saw themselves as the governing body of rugby league in South Africa and thus both had plans to commence competitions in the summer of 1962. Eventually both organisations came to be actively reporting to the British RFL, as well as receiving promotional material which fostered an intense rivalry between the two factions. Unfortunately for rugby league in South Africa, the two organisations could not settle their differences and each went a head with their respectful competitions; so was born rugby league in South Africa, under confusing and hostile circumstances.
In that year, both organisations sought touring teams from the UK. The National rugby league organised to have Wakefield Trinity compete against a combined XIII, however as the score lines told, this was perhaps too stiff for the South Africans to handle, losing 59-3. Rugby League South Africa attempted to counteract any of the difficulties its identical twin had in the face of stiff English competition and hired former Wigan, Easts and Australian couch, Dave Brown, for three months. The Lions defeated the South Africans rugby league representative side convincingly. Fortunately, not all was lost as the British later admitting that the South Africans where skilled, only lacking in tactics, specifically defensive, which had lost them the game.

1962 - Imagination

Each organisation went on to make separate applications for affiliation with the International Board. The RLIF must have known that the decision to grant one league affiliation with the board would inevitably lead to the collapse of the other and thus such a move would result in loss of clubs and fans.
In an effort to protect the game in South Africa, the international board put forth a proposal to both parties that would effectively see the two league’s merged. In reality, the RLIF gave the NRL its death notice, who had little choice but to turn over its clubs to the South African Rugby League as it seemed the RLIF now favoured the SARL over itself. To make the deal more appealing to the NRL, the international board also proposed that the NRL clubs founders be reimbursed for any initial investments through future NRL club profits in the SARL.

1963 - The Beginning of the end

South African rugby league as it seemed, had a future. Part of this future, it was hoped, was that the nine teams located in the Johannesburg area would launch the 1963 season.
At the time when the International Board had made its proposal for the combined governing body for rugby league in South Africa it also stated the significance an invitation from Australia to the South Africans to tour. The Australian board of control also took on the International Boards proposal and in an obvious expression of their interest in seeing rugby league exceed in South Africa, offered the invitational side 65 percent of gross gates and a guaranteed $45,000.
As was a tradition already set down in South African rugby league history, only more could go wrong, and it did. The visitors where totally out-played by the Australian’s, even taking into account the early injuries sustained by the South Africans. It was obvious the skill and their knowledge of tactics (particularly of the forwards) had not improved and so it set a deep decline for South African rugby league.

New Beginnings - 1990s

South African rugby league was reintroduced on the sporting landscape after a 30 year absence in 1989 when Dave Southern looked to develop the game he had played and loved for many years in his home town of Widnes (UK). He played Rugby Union for the now defunked Transvaal Sub Union club Old Edwardian in Houghton Johannesburg. After attending the IRB Sanctioned Springbok vs Rest of the World RU Test match at Ellis park, he wrote to the Editor of Open Rugby magazine (now Rugby League World) Harry Edgar (in the UK) to enquire if there were any resources available to help assist the code of RL develop in SA?

The reply was not positive – Harry suggested that a SA would not be made to feel welcome by the main RL playing nations due to the political status (Apartheid). A letter was dispatched to David Oxley the then head of the Rugby Football League at Red Hall in in Leeds, asking for consideration to be given to the development of RL in the Republic on the strength of political change and the sanctioning of the Rest of the World RU team to play at Ellis Park against the Springboks. The response from Mr Oxley was similar to Mr Edgars. The main thrust of the letter was to say that “Sport and Politics are inextricably mixed and to ignore one without the other is akin to simply burying ones head in the sand”. Another negative response this time from an official RL playing nation still did not deter Dave Southern from his desire to see the game establish itself in the Republic. A chance meeting with a certain Anthony Barker set the stage for real self help development. Dave had informed Anthony of his frustrations at being told that there was nothing that could be done by the UK authorities. At this time it was decided that the 2 guys would do it themselves – In early 1990 an advertisement was placed in the Sunday Star newspaper looking for people who were interested in playing, officiating, supporting and developing Rugby League in South Africa to call Dave Southern. The response was positive and on the strength of the calls received Dave organised for an open meeting to take place at Old Eds. The press made a big deal of former Springbok and Ex Wigan player Ray Mordt being in attendance.

The meeting caught the imagination of the Johannesburg Star reporter Mr Rodney Hartman, who gave the launch some crucial publicity. After the meeting had concluded with close on 100 people in attendance a working committee was assembled with Ex Junior Springbok and Wigan legend Trevor Lake being voted in as Chairman. Informal training sessions were conducted and a couple of trial games undertaken between interested players at venues such as Old Eds and Jeppe Quondam (ex Sub Union team). Trevor lake was instrumental in arranging the Inaugural Fundraising Dinner at the plush Holiday Inn facility. From here Ray Mordt introduced Dave Southern to Mr Jacey Strauss the General Manager of Associated Bottling Industries (ABI) who bottled and distributed Coke in the Pretoria region. The involvement of Jacey certainly gave the game a kickstart with his contacts and connections in the fields of sports and business.

Info supplied by Dave Southern – His involvement in SARL dates from:
Establishment of SARL in 1989-90.
Resignation from the board in 1993.
Setting up Mini League South Africa 1993 with Trevor Lake, Tony Ellison and John Callaghan.

1992 - The first champion ship

Until this point, the SARL board had only organised the odd friendlies and township clinics. That all changed when SARL organised an inner city championship, the first of its kinda under the administrations control.
Strauss began to effectively run the league in 1992 and set about fundraising; at times utilising his offices efforts to get things done, which earned the board a new sponsor (a local Pretoria motor dealer) for the championship to be held in September.
Meanwhile, SARL had also made contact with a Melbourne-based entrepreneur Glenn Johnson who in turn, saw potential of Russia coming to South Africa for a test. Importantly, he brought to South Africa his cousin, Paul Matete, the ex-Kiwi international who soon become South African Rhino’s coach. Paul Matete used the championship as a launch pad for his first ever-national team to play Russia that November.
Importantly the championship had attracted Mike Bardsley, an enthusiast who had access to videos, editing equipment and contacts at S.A.B.C, the state broadcaster. Bardsley videod the championship and some black clinics and put together a good promotional package. S.A.B.C showed it and the response was good.
The championship was staged in Pretoria over two days and included teams from Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and East London. Durban beat Pretoria 8-6 in a very hard final.erty
Barry Haslam refereed seven open age games in 24 hours. It was this that lead to further development of the league and South African rugby leagues first referee development program.
The first test series
Dave Southern’s good work in the townships had given SARL useful political allies to get approval for the tour. Jacey Strauss found both SA and Russian based sponsors to pay for food, accommodation and matches. The Russian Bears arrived in November.
South Africa lost both their games, leaving it to a local Cape Town side to win back some South African pride. The aggregate crowd for the tour was in excess of 6000, which unfortunately was not enough to have the competition at least break even. Despite the debt, the good crowd figures and pleasing displays from both sides meant that the series had given SARL a small launch pad for the code in South Africa.
Meanwhile the RFL was struggling to manage troubles that had arisen in Russian rugby league which lead to the RFL to appoint the Australian Rugby League and Bob Abbottas, minder of the SARL.

1993 - The board splits

Turmoil hit South African rugby league again as two factions formed within the board when members became disgruntled over poor financial management, extravagance and naivete. Strauss and his entrepreneurs felt the organisation could recover and that the investments over the last year where needed to lift the profile of the game. The alternative faction, behind Lake, where concerned with ill-disciplined planning and aimed at more sustainable growth and thus felt resources should be invested in grassroots and particularly the town ships. In January 1993, nine board members, led by Barry Haslam called for Lake’s resignation ‘out of the blue’. It duly came and with him two other board members. Dave Southern eventually linked up with the other two to form Mini League. The exchange of letters, threats, abuse and acrimony was unpleasant on both sides. The high point The period from 1993 to 1994 is supposed to have been an era of unprecedented growth and success of the game in South Africa attributed mostly to the South African televising of the ARL despite the claim that the weekly half hour highlights package was used more as a filler than as a program designed to attract significant viewers. The televising ran uninterrupted for 18 months and attracted an average verwiership of 1.2 million, no doubt an important advertisement for rugby league in South Africa. In August, the league finances stabilised and Pepsi became major sponsor of a youth sevens tournament. The tournament ran with over 1,000 children, still a rugby league record for one festival. Meanwhile Ian Parnaby and Haslam coached over 90 referees/teachers and ran clinics in the Cape townships for 500 children. South Africa performed well enough at the World Sevens earlier in the year that the ARL saw fit to give their blessing for a tour to South Africa by Australian outfit, North Sydney Bears; negotiated by Struass and Haslam. Following the Russian tests, the 1993/94 season included an all time high of 26 clubs from Johannesburge, Cape Town, Natal and Mooi-Nooi. The league also consisted of 4 regional committees which began to prepare for the arrival of Barla. The number of clubs and regional committees represented a strength to the board, never before seen in South African rugby league.

1994 - Political Change

The SARL was riding a wave of success and profit from the 1993 season. The BARLA tour was well run, well attended and had good sponsorship. The Rhinos sharpened their own preparation with another good Sydney Sevens. The league was in the black, expanding and taking the game to new areas, such as Randfontein with the Transvaal and BARLA game, which it is reported attracted a crowd of 300 The multi-racial elections of April 1994 precipitated changes to the country that caused League to rapidly lose ground over the next 18 months and since never regain its previous public support. Global sport exploded; South Africa had legitimate international competition. Rugby Union, soccer, cricket, tennis, golf and athletics made large in-roads into South African psyche as sports people signed up deal after deal and world sport filled South African television screens; leaving little room for rugby league. Former sponsors of township development now diverted all their spare cash to government projects. The league was eventually forced off television as other sports with overseas sponsorship came in, such as swimming, basketball and baseball

1995 - World Cup / Ockie Oosthuizen

Ocki Oosthuizen was a self-made and well known entrepreneur who had been hovering on the fringes of the league well before his arrival in mid 1994 when he was to professionally event manage the October series against Queensland, another tour attributable to Bob Abbott. The Rhinos were coached by Paul Matete and assisted by no less than Artie Beetson. The event ran in the red and the Rhinos were beat 28-0. Suffering a substantial financial loss, Ockie promptly withdrew his financial support for the December tour by Perth’s Western Reds, which went ahead anyway, although it was modestly run, staged and attended. The South African Rugby League club season shrank on the back of SARLs looming financial crisis and a lack of league being broadcast on South African television screens. However, Ockie had not been discouraged by the years misfortunes and arranged to have the ailing SARL office moved to his insurance firm where a consultants developed a business plan for the launching of a professional league in South Africa. However, Ockie lost patience with the board, who were largely amateur club men, as opposed to ockie who had come from an entrepreneurial life. Ockie’s attitude hardened the moment Super League exploded onto the scene. He was above board about his views, which largely excluded grassroots development, and frantically pursued Super League in with his plans in Leeds and Sydney. But the clubs fought back, undermining Oosthuizen’s ambitions and fuelling suspicions and global politics that held back the previous international board. By July 1995, three months before the Centenary World Cup, Ockie Oosthuizen had serious reservations about the likelihood of a deal with Super League. Tony Fisher arrived to prepare the Rhinos for the World Cup and he and Ootsthuizen – both abrasive- quickly fell out. The Rhinos, a collection of largely club players, trained daily for 15 weeks and confidently beat BARLA in two tests. Oosthuizen was footing the bill and a last-ditch visit by Roy Waudby did not engender Ockie or the British Rugby League to either. The Halifax World Cup saw the Rhinos easily beat in their three games. The court case against the Australian Super League and Ockie’s Fall out with the British Rugby League (Maurice Lindsay) ended his involvement with SARL.


SARL steadily became more unstable as Ockie disassociated himself with the board and their membership of the RLIF was suspended. As the Super League and ARL civil war continued in Australia, chewing mounds of moneys that otherwise would have been used for international development, South Africa where left abandon like many start up leagues of the time. The South African Rugby League came close to total collapse; the board however regrouped and contact resumed with the RFL. Following the regrouping, the board held a fully democratic annual general meeting. Contact resumed with the RFL, through Maurice Lindsay who supported SARLs ambitions to enter the 1996 student world cup, which SARL had planned to use as a vehicle for reestablishing the ailing SARL and its clubs to its former more stable self. SARL went onto win the bowl-final as opposed to the cup final of the student world cup; a semi-good result. Through some intense lobbying by SARL and constant support from the RFL’s Maurice Lindsay, South Africa were further awarded the Student World Cup for 1998. Further to SARLs rebuilding effort, Barry Haslam accepted an invite to the international board meeting in Auckland of that year. Haslam gave his presentation and proposal for SARL to be invited back as a member of the RLIF. Maurice Lindsay subsequently announced that by a unanimous vote, SARL had been welcomed back to the RLIF.


SARL put together a nines side, coached by ex Springbok, Tiaan Strauss and supplemented by South African players that had been strengthened through scholarships to Australian Super League clubs. The SARL nines beat France, Japan, the Cook Islands, drew to Tonga and lost to GB and Fiji. The Australian Press labelled the SARL nines side as ‘the surprise package’ of the tournament and dramatically improved. Bill Banuley, Chairman of Germiston and board member pioneered the “Athlone” model. SARL’s efforts in the black townships over the years have largely failed due to little infrastructure and support. Schools, however have been encouraging since parents and teachers are great resources and your still establishing the game at a grass roots level. Athlone had developed into an established league playing school, of whom most of its students where black. Anthlone went on to regularly play and beat white teams without; one of the few sustained achievements of the 1990s SARL board. The team that left the South African shores to tour Australasia, were studded with ex- Springbok, union players. Some of the Union stars of the 60’s, played rugby league but did not adapt fast enough to challenge any rugby league team on their tour to Australia. There they suffered two defeats but very little is said about this team which learned by their mistakes, to score a narrow of 7-4 in the land of the White Cloud ! The team was known as the “Springbok Rugby League side”, the first and very last to wear a Springbok on their blazers. Back at home, the South Africans faced the the unforeseen! Virtually all the municipalities were instructed not make playing fields available to Rugby League. League players in South Africa were scorned as “Traitors”, “Sell outs” and were out cast for selling their first birth right, namely Union rugby. The game that was loved by dedicated, rugby stars, was a dying one. But, the fighting spirit of a dedicated young rugby player from Pretoria club, took up the fight with the South African Rugby Board and in particular with the President of SARB, Dr. Danie Craven, better known as Mr. Rugby in the world. His efforts were shared by his mates and he promised Craven that this game of rugby will one day become a giant amongst rugby codes in the world and until then, he will not rest till this happened. The battle went on for some time and many others tried to revive the sport. The sand was running out and most of the players. ne and old, became disillusioned. The years went by. In the background stood the the very same young player who has now became an old man, always wearing his Rugby League blazer, fighting relentlessly, even up to today on Ministerial and Parliamentary level, supported by others to have this game recognized as a national sport. A dream is coming true and the South African Rugby League giant, is awakening.