Rugby League’s roots go back to the 1870s when rugby became hugely popular in the north of England. Hundreds of clubs were formed and thousands flocked to watch games. The Yorkshire Cup Final regularly attracted bigger crowds than soccer’s FA Cup Final.
But the Rugby Football Union worried that they would lose control of the game and suspended clubs and players they suspected of professionalism. Civil war broke out and in 1895 twenty-two of the top northern sides met in Huddersfield and broke away to form the Northern Union (which became the Rugby Football League in 1922).
...despite the fact that the RFU banned for life anyone who played rugby league. Professionalism was legalised and rugby was made more attractive to play and watch. Tries were made more important than goals, the line-out was abolished, and in 1906 teams were cut from fifteen to thirteen a side and the play-the-ball replaced the ruck and the maul.
The first international rugby league match was played at Wigan in 1904 when England lost 9-3 to a team called ‘Other Nationalities’ composed of Welsh and Scottish players.
The impact of rugby’s great split was soon felt on other side of the world. In 1907 the first rugby league tourists from New Zealand, led by Albert Baskerville, came to Britain. On their way, they stopped in Sydney, providing the impetus for the birth of rugby league in Australia. The following year the first Kangaroo tourists arrived in Britain and in 1910 the British Lions toured ‘down under’ for the first time.
... between Britain, Australia and New Zealand became the centrepiece of the sport. Australian and New Zealand players such as Brian Bevan and Lance Todd became household names across the north of England.
In 1934 France joined the rugby league family, when top French rugby stars led by Jean Galia started the game across the channel. In April 1934 England defeated France 32-21 in Paris in France’s first international match. in 1938 ‘Les Tricolours’ were crowned European champions.
But rugby league’s booming popularity was cut down during World War Two, when in 1941 the Nazi-collaborationist regime of Marshall Petain banned rugby league.
In 1948 the Rugby League International Board was created and Paul Barriere, the war-time resistance leader who became president of the French Rugby League, proposed that a rugby league world cup should be started.
...which was won by an underdog Great Britain team who defeated the favourites France 16-12 in the final in front of 30,000 fans at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Britain won again in 1972, captained by Clive Sullivan, the first black athlete to captain a British national sporting side, but then the latest in a long line of black league players and coaches.
In the 1960s, the game was changed radically by the introduction of limited tackle rugby league - instead of one side keeping the ball for as long as it was able, teams now had only four, later increased to six, tackles in which to score before having to give up control of the ball.
New Zealand appeared in their first World Cup final in 1988, the first to be held in New Zealand, but were defeated 25-12 to Wally Lewis’s Australia. Also that year, Papua New Guinea, where the game had been played since the 1940s, were welcomed into the tournament for first time.
That same decade, Samoa, Tonga and other Pacific nations joined the league family and in 1995 a record ten nations played in the Centenary World Cup. Wembley Stadium staged the final but England lost 16-8 to Australia. The increasing number of nations playing the game led to the formation of the Rugby League International Federation in 1998.
...and Australia romped home 40-12 against New Zealand in a thrilling final match held at Old Trafford. Perhaps more importantly, Lebanon, Russia, the Cook Islands, Scotland and Ireland made their first world cup appearances.
That same year, British, Australian and NZ women came together to stage the first ever Women’s Rugby League World Cup in England, which was won by the NZ Kiwi Ferns.
...to celebrate the centenary of Australian rugby league. New Zealand spoiled the party by pulling off one of the biggest shocks in history by defeating the home favourites 34-20 to win the World Cup for the first time ever.
RLWC 2013 was the most successful world cup staged. The electric atmosphere, the sold out games, a raft of close matches and a heartbreaking last minute England semi-final loss to New Zealand arguably made it the most memorable competition so far. The Kangaroos reversed the 2008 result with a comprehensive 34-2 win over the Kiwis.
2013 also saw the biggest ever festival of rugby league world cups. Australian students defeated England 26-16 to retain the Student World cup, their police pipped Fiji 18-16 in the Police World Cup and their Defence Forces outplayed New Zealand 32-22 to lift the Armed Forces trophy.
In the Women’s World Cup, the Jillaroos overturned the form book to defeat the New Zealand Kiwi Ferns 22-12 in the final at Headingley, while the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup Final was a high-scoring match that saw France narrowly defeat England 44-40.
Today rugby league is played in over 50 nations around the globe. Despite the tremendous differences between now and 1895, the sport has always prided itself on its capacity to change and to open its doors to players of all backgrounds. It has come a very long way from that first meeting in Huddersfield in 1895 - and its international journey is only just beginning.