Written by Callum Walker
Ask any Rugby League expansionist in Australia about the sport’s most ill-fated venture, and expansion into South Australia would be right up there. In December 1995, the Adelaide Rams were founded. It was surprising that the Rams were even created in the first place.
Originally the Australian Rugby League (ARL) planned to relocate one of the struggling Sydney teams to Adelaide, but the increasingly damaging Super League war and the South Australia Rugby League’s decision to align themselves with the Rupert Murdoch-financed Super League in 1995, ended the ARL’s pursuit for a club in the region. Then, later in 1995, with Super League still only consisting of nine teams and the Victorian Rugby League still aligned with the ARL, a decision was made to give Adelaide the 10th Super League licence.
Born out of such a mess that only Rugby League seems to generate, the Adelaide Rams were perhaps doomed from the start. This is especially relevant when considering that South Australia has always been a stronghold of Aussie Rules (AFL). Though the state of Victoria is the giant of Aussie Rules, South Australia’s Adelaide Football Club, for example, is the oldest Aussie Rules club in Australia outside Victoria.
Whilst the AFL’s Port Adelaide Power joined the elite competition in the same year as the Rams’ first season in Super League (1997), the Adelaide Crows won their first two AFL premierships in the same two years that the Rams played (1997 and 1998).
The new team from Port Adelaide, who already had a large fan base in the local South Australian National Football League (SANFL) competition, and the Crows successes in 1997–98 made it much harder for the Rams to compete for fan support. The Rams even had to contend with the popular Adelaide 36ers who played in the National Basketball League (NBL) which at the time ran a winter season.
Having said that, the Rams attracted 27,435 spectators to their first ever home game at the Adelaide Oval against fellow newcomers Hunter Mariners. The Rams’ 1997 Super League season was not one to write home about however, and they ended the year second-bottom with just six wins from 18.
Despite this lack of success, in 1998 they were selected to join the 20-team National Rugby League (NRL). Crowd numbers continued to fall in 1998 as on-field results continued to disappoint. A dispute over playing at the Adelaide Oval saw the Rams move to the smaller Hindmarsh Stadium for the final four rounds of the season – a stadium at which the Rams attracted over 7,000 spectators for each game.
Poor on field results also resulted in inaugural head coach Rod Reddy being sacked halfway through the season and replaced by Dean Lance – who would later go on to coach the European Super League’s Leeds Rhinos. The Rams finished in 17th place with a 7-17 win-loss record, placing in front of South Sydney Rabbitohs, Gold Coast Chargers and the Western Suburbs Magpies.
The Rams got as far as their season launch for the 1999 NRL season before the club’s owners News Ltd agreed to axe them before the start of the season as part of the rationalisation of teams (from 20 to 17) in the competition. Along with Adelaide, the Gold Coast (Chargers) club also folded, whilst the St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers merged.
The cost of building and sustaining an uncompetitive Rugby League team in an area dominated by another football sport (the AFL) had resulted in News Limited incurring heavy financial losses with the Rams. Subsequent attempts to merge with a Sydney club (rumoured to be the ARL loyal and struggling South Sydney Rabbitohs) failed, however the Canberra Raiders offered to merge with the club and effectively took over the club on 1 December 1998.
Since then, NRL clubs have taken sporadic fixtures to South Australia; Canterbury and Melbourne in 2010, for example, registered a crowd of over 10,000 at Adelaide Oval with Roosters playing some home games at the Adeliade Oval more recently. But, there is the debate that if the NRL had stuck with the Adelaide Rams, then Rugby League in Adelaide might have flourished. The Rams were not around for long enough to make any effective strides. Look at Melbourne Storm; a team that was created in 1997, the Storm now perform successfully on and off the field in the AFL’s heartland, having won three Premierships and contested many more.
There are six states of Australia and two territories: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia, ACT and the Northern Territory. Despite the NRL being a so-called “national” competition, only three states and one Territory are represented: New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT.
Ten of the 16 NRL clubs are based in New South Wales, with three in Queensland and just one in Victoria (Melbourne), New Zealand (NZ Warriors) and the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra). And, nine of the ten clubs based in New South Wales in fact hail from Sydney and the Greater Sydney area.
To be considered truly national, surely the ARL Commission needs to try and branch out instead of being fixated on the eastern coast. Even now though, the depth of junior AFL talent, the success of the A-League footballing franchise and the quick departure of the Adelaide Rams have left the state of play in South Australia very grim for fans of Rugby League.
The AFL currently have more chance of launching a third team in South Australia than the NRL have of launching their first. One can only feel that the decision to axe the Adelaide Rams set the sun on professional Rugby League in South Australia.