Chairman of the Queensland Rugby League History Committee, Steve Ricketts addressed the recent QRL administrative conference on the Gold Coast, about the establishment of the code in this state.
A former chief rugby league writer with ‘The Courier-Mail’, Ricketts’ address was based on his own experiences and his study of the history of the game.
Here is an edited version of the address:
State Musicals: I have been to a few, including ‘Jersey Boys’, ‘Cats’ and ‘Mama Mia’.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see ‘State of Origin – The Musical’. But I did, on Friday night, November 29 in Brisbane, and it wasn’t too bad.
The musical, made of about 20 songs, followed QRL president, Senator Ron McAuliffe’s mission to convince New South Wales to allow Queensland born players to ‘come home’ and wear the Maroon jersey, in something called ‘State of Origin’.
Under the residential system, NSW, often with Queenslanders in starring roles, had won every inter-state series between 1960 and 1980.
Queensland Rugby League was a laughing stock, south of the border.
Hugh Lunn, who came up with the Origin musical concept, said, after having 15 books published, he wanted to do something different, something for everyone in Queensland.
“I thought about what connects the whole of Queensland,” Lunn said. “I thought about someone in the smallest cattle yard, to someone in the tallest building in Queen Street. I thought the only thing that would get them all interested is State of Origin.”
Before Origin, league was the number one football code in Queensland because of the hard work and wisdom of your predecessors.
Another factor was the regularity of tours, particularly by British and Kiwi sides, but also by the French, who produced marvelous teams between 1950 and 1980. The first three French sides to Australia – 1951, ’55 and 1960 – did not lose a series.
You have to remember that televised rugby league only became a big thing in the 1970s, so the fact touring international sides took elite level league to places like Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Toowoomba and Townsville, on a regular basis, made our sport unrivaled as the winter football code of choice.
Soccer tours were few and far between; Australian rules was confined largely to Brisbane and the Gold Coast and rugby union tours were largely confined to Sydney and Brisbane, because league ruled in the bush.
One of the great strengths of league is its history, and to a large degree, that history revolves around its working class origins. In fact, in the 1960s, in Sydney, league was advertised as ‘The Working Man’s Game’.
That working class ethos is one of the reasons the game hasn’t grown much outside its starting points.
Union spread throughout the British Empire and beyond, because its adherents were generally better connected and more likely to get overseas diplomatic or business posts.
You, as the new breed of administrators, would only be too aware that League needs to look at the big picture. The game’s number one status in Queensland is not something that can be taken for granted.
AFL has deep pockets and a missionary zeal; our changing demographics should benefit soccer, while union will always have a profile because of its international component.
Now, as you forge a new way forward, it would be negligent not to acknowledge, and learn from, the past.
In August, 1895, 21 representatives of rugby union clubs in the North of England, decided to break away from the parent body in the south. The London based hierarchy wanted the game to remain amateur, whereas, in the industrial north, clubs were keen to compensate players for the time they missed from work. This was the start of rugby league.
Queensland League began as the Queensland Rugby Association, on February 28, 1908, formed in secret at the Railway Hotel (near Roma Street Station), with a formal announcement made in late March.
Club football started in 1909, and one of the game’s founding fathers, Jack Fihelly, refereed the final between Valleys and Souths at the Gabba.
One of the most dramatic events in Australian sporting history occurred in Sydney at the end of the 1909 season, when virtually the entire 1908 Wallaby touring team to the UK, switched to league. In 1910 the first English League side to come to these shores, played three games in Brisbane – two against Queensland and one, a Test against Australia.
During World War 1 (1914-18), rugby union all but closed up shop, while league continued apace. There was a feeling in union, that it was improper to participate in sport, during war, whereas league was only too willing to provide the citizens of Queensland with a respite from the ravages of war.
As an aside – North Queensland Cowboys’ star, Michael Morgan’s great grandfather, Duncan McIvor played for Queensland in 1915.
Union made an attempt at a comeback after the war, but by 1920, it ceased to exist. The GPS schools played league and the varsity game between Sydney Uni and Uni of Queensland, was played under league rules.
In the period 1920 to ’28, with effectively every able bodied man playing league, Queensland won 17 of 26 matches against NSW.
I believe the most influential administrators in Queensland history have been Harry Sunderland, Ron McAuliffe and Ross Livermore.
Gympie born Sunderland, a journalist, was secretary of the QRL from 1913 to 1938, except for two years when he left the state and lived in Victoria, where he promoted rugby league. He was a man of great energy, with a world view.
In 1929, when rugby union was reforming in Queensland, Sunderland turned up at the annual general meetings of league clubs, imploring them not to switch to the 15 man code. He even offered loyalty payments to the clubs.
League had taken its eye off the ball during its decade of dominance, in the 1920s, because of an internal squabble. For eight years there had been a battle for control of the game in Brisbane, between the QRL and the Brisbane League.
One of the reasons for a ‘breakaway’ BRL, was resentment over the salary paid to Sunderland. The players felt they were underpaid, and that he was overpaid.
In 1929, the BRL clubs withdrew affiliation with the QRL and announced their own seven team competition. The next day the QRL announced a ‘Metro’ competition – four Ipswich clubs and Brothers and Valleys from Brisbane. The BRL players were banned from rep. footy. There was a talk of a mass defection to to union, but a peace deal was brokered in July, 1930, with the help of the NSWRL.
Sunderland managed an Australian touring side to the UK in 1929; and to the UK and France in 1933 and ’37, with Australia’s exhibition match against Great Britain in Paris, on January 1, 1934, giving impetus to the birth of league in France that year, with Villeneuve-sur-Lot the first of many clubs to switch from rugby union.
Sunderland left Qld in 1938, accepting a lucrative offer to manage Wigan in England. He died in Manchester in 1964 and to this day the Harry Sunderland Medal is awarded to the best player in the English Super League Grand Final. The Australian Rugby League also honors Sunderland, with a medal named after him presented to the best player in the end-of-season Tests or World Cup tournaments.
British historian, Geoffrey Moorehouse wrote: ‘Harry Sunderland was many things, but, most of all, he was uncommonly astute’.
In today’s language, he was a ‘mover and shaker’.
Ron McAuliffe, an orphan, raised at Sandgate, believed the best committee was a committee of three, with one on leave and the other ill.
In 1954, he became joint secretary of a united BRL and QRL. The following year the QRL was granted a 21-year lease of Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) and McAuliffe predicted it one day would become a 60,000 capacity stadium. (The QRL effectively had control of Lang Park until 1989).
In 1959, McAuliffe resigned his post, to run the Kirrabelle Hotel (Now Coolangatta Sands) on the Gold Coast, but he returned to the QRL in 1970.
By then the poker machine backed Sydney clubs were mounting raid after raid on Queensland talent, and the Maroons had not won a series against the Blues in the decade since McAuliffe’s departure.
Something had to be done!
In 1971, 20 players, headed by current QRL chairman, Bruce Hatcher, were chosen for a special training squad. Wayne Bennett, Greg Veivers, John Lang and Des Morris were some of the other members of the squad.
For eight weeks the players lived in the dressing rooms at Lang Park, and were put through grueling physical and psychological challenges.
The last two weeks, the players were allowed out a couple of nights, but they had to be in by 10 p.m. You have to remember, some of them were married men.
Des Morris and a few others got back late, and had to scale the fence. Eight car loads of police turned up, because they thought Lang Park was under siege.
Queensland lost all three matches against NSW that year, and won only one of the next 24 matches against the Blues, before the first Origin in 1980. (There were two draws).
In 1980, thanks to McAuliffe, Queensland, for the first time, had equal representation on the national selection panel.
He always stood up for Queensland, and got under the skin of NSW officials many times, with calls from south of the border to cite him. On one occasion he threatened to withdraw Qld from the ARL, when Manly-Warringah refused to play the Brisbane representative side at Lang Park, with a Queensland referee. He got his way.
He took a massive gamble with Origin. It was the last throw of the dice. If Queensland lost, it was the end of inter-state football. All that would matter, would be the Sydney premiership.
Ron put indigenous hero, Artie Beetson and later, Wally Lewis, on a pedestal, and they delivered for him in those crucial years in the early 1980s, Artie first as skipper and then as coach, and Lewis as skipper.
1981 saw major changes in the administrative structure and operation of the QRL, the most significant the implementation of the ‘One League’ concept, which had been the keynote recommendation of what was known as the ‘Eric White Report’.
‘One League’ meant the QRL administered the game as a whole, but the divisions looked after things at a local level.
Ross Livermore, a former league ball boy, was appointed QRL managing director. He had attended Toowoomba Grammar, where a classmate was John ‘Cracker’ McDonald, who would go on to become QRL chairman, and coach of the first Origin side.
Ross was a workaholic, who hated to delegate. Mind you, there were not many people to delegate to, in those days.
One night, a match at Lang Park drew an unexpectedly large crowd and Livermore found himself in the bar cold room, opening beer cartons to help meet the demand from thirsty patrons.
McAuliffe and Livermore knew the importance of the media, and although television was crucial from a financial stand point, newspapers, in the pre-digital era, set the agenda. There were no media managers, no Michael Hilliers or Colleen Edwards, in the 1980s.
I knew I could rely on Ron McAuliffe for a yarn when things were quiet, although sometimes these collaborations landed us both in hot water. On one occasion we both received a court summons, after Sydney Easts’ CEO, Ron Jones was outraged by a story I had written, quoting McAuliffe. Nothing came of if, because the story was true.
Ross Livermore was often accused of leaking me State of Origin sides, but I can honestly say he never handed me a team, although sometimes he would caution me about speculating on the likely selection of a certain player.
In 1982, the inaugural Winfield State League was staged across Queensland, with all eight Brisbane clubs participating, along with Ipswich, Gold Coast, Toowoomba, Wide Bay, Central Qld and North Qld. It was the forerunner of today’s Intrust Super Cup.
The Courier-Mail and Daily Sun newspapers sent reporters to every match, whether they were played in Mount Isa, Roma or Wondai. The afternoon paper, the Telegraph, with comparatively limited resources, also did its best to cover all matches, and TV and radio scampered to get on top of the news. The Courier-Mail even had to call on noted rugby union personalities, Andrew Slack and Wayne Smith, both sports writers at the paper, to cover matches.
In 1985, McAuliffe quit, and Livermore became managing director and CEO, while Wayne Bennett was appointed State Director of Coaching, replacing Bob Bax. Bax had held the post from 1981 to ’85, and during that time continued to operate his SP bookie business. There were only two telephone lines into Lang Park, and with Bax constantly on the phone, as he juggled his two responsibilities, members of the public found it very hard to get through to buy tickets, or to seek information. Wally Lewis was appointed schools liaison officer in 1985, and John Ribot came on board in marketing.
In 1987, the QRL gave its backing to the privately owned Broncos (with Ribot as inaugural CEO), to enter what was then known as the NSWRL. Aussie rules, soccer and basketball had taken giant strides towards national competitions. Now it was League’s turn to go down that path.
The QRL had tried everything to keep top players here – transfer fees, sponsorships, loyalty agreements – but simply could not compete with the money down south. Poker machines were still four years away from being legalised in Queensland.
In 1995, the game was torn apart by money, and lifetime friendships were fractured.
Armed with millions of dollars, and travelling by Lear Jet, News Ltd’s agents set out to sign the country’s best players for a rebel competition, to be known as Super League.
The Australian Rugby League, and that meant the QRL as well, fought back with the cheque book and through the courts, but in 1997 there were two competitions – ARL and Super League.
There had to be a peace settlement, because the public would not cop two competitions. The NRL, which began in 1998, was the result of the ensuing peace talks.
The efforts of Livermore and McDonald in the trenches in the ‘Super League War’, cannot be understated, and despite the chaos around them, they were able to launch the inaugural Queensland Cup in 1996, with Toowoomba the premiers.
Rugby League in Australian celebrated its Centenary in 2008, with a World Cup, which New Zealand won, while meanwhile Queensland won its third Origin series in a row, on the way to eight on the trot.
News Ltd made its exit from the game in 2011 and the Australian Rugby League Commission finally came into being in 2012, with Queenslander, John Grant, the chairman, while former Queenslander of the Year, Dr Chris Sarra was one of the other seven Commissioners.
Former QRL director and Deputy Premier, the late Terry Mackenroth was a big player in the establishment of the Commission.
The Broncos won six premierships between 1992 and 2006 and the Cowboys beat them in the unforgettable 2015 grand final. The North Queensland Rugby League had been established in 1920, by Arthur Fadden, who would go on to become Prime Minister of Australia.
The face of rugby league has changed so much, not just compared with 110 years ago, but compared with just eight years ago, when Ross Livermore retired.
There have always been women to the forefront of our game, but now 48 percent of what is a large QRL work force, is female, and there are 7,500 registered female players.
The QRL works to a strategic plan, something I don’t think Harry Sunderland and Ron McAuliffe could cope with, given their dictatorial tendencies, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
There have been many fine administrators over the years, and I have failed to mention many worthy names.
But let’s be fair dinkum. There have been some who have risen to prominence, for reasons other than merit.
But the vast majority of people I have met, in administrative posts, have had a passion for the game.
The challenge for career ‘admin’ staffers is to deliver results.
I understand that, and I hope this address has provided background which helps you understand, that while rugby league is indeed a product, it is first and foremost a game of the people, whether those people are working in a cattle yard at Ilfracombe, or in the ‘tower of power’ in George Street.
1 France, victorious in Australia in 1951
2 Valleys’ 1924 team
3 Harry Sunderland (second from left) on tour in the UK with the Kangaroos
4 Ron McAuliffe and Wally Lewis
5 Ross Livermore and Terry Mackenroth
6 It’s the people at the grassroots that make rugby league great. Pictured here are Life Members of the St George Rugby League in Queensland’s Balonne Shire.

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