It’s now been nearly 25 years since rugby league went to war…with itself.
Going into the 1995 season, the ARL had never been stronger. Tina Turner ad campaigns, growing crowds, booming sponsorship and largely successful expansions to Perth, North Queensland and New Zealand had rugby league in better shape than ever.
As the games value had boomed, so did the desire of outside interests who wanted a piece of the pie.
Enter News Limited and their rebel competition, Super League.
Super League had the backing of the entirety of News Limited, making it incredibly powerful. Before long, the game was dominated by loyalty contracts, broken friendships and court battles, as each side scrambled to secure the best talent.
With the league divided, Newcastle became the ultimate battle ground in what became known as the Super League War.
“I think News Limited and the ARL believed whoever got Newcastle would go a long, long way to winning the war,” Knights forward Paul Harragon told the A Century of Rugby League documentary.
Newcastle had what both sides wanted. A successful team with loyal fans, great players (including a future immortal) and a rugby league heartland with one of the biggest junior bases in the country.
Super League’s first target: Andrew Johns.
“We got a phone call at about 11 O’clock at night saying, ‘this Super League’s happening, you needed to get in a taxi now and go down and sign’, otherwise you’re going to miss the boat’,” Johns told A Century of Rugby League.
“You’d talk to one side and decide to stay with this side, then talk to the other side and that would sound so enticing.
“You’d be getting phone calls at 3 in the morning.”
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For some, the choice was a difficult one. For others, such as second-rower Steve Crowe, it was easy.
“I had no interest in doing so (joining Super League), to be fair,” Crowe said.
“The Knights were my club, they built me into the man I am today and developed me as a person, and once they decided to stick with the ARL, the answer to that was no.”
Others, such as Marc Glanville, took the chaotic times as an opportunity to gain a contract upgrade.
“When I went in and met with them (Super League), they offered me bugger all, virtually what I was on then,” Glanville said.
With Super League out of the equation, Glanville met with the ARL and managed to use his meeting with News Limited to the best of his advantage.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I had an offer from Super League’ and they bumped it up by about 100 grand and I ended up signing with the ARL,” he said.
“It was 250 (thousand) and if you signed, they’d give you 100-grand upfront, which was amazing figures back then.
“I walked out of there with a cheque of 100 (thousand).”
Unlike Glanville, fellow veteran Tony Butterfield wasn't so lucky.
After negotiating a multi-million dollar mega-deal on behalf of the Johns brothers (representing them as their player agent), Butterfield turned to ARL negotiator Phil 'Gus' Gould to sort out his own contract.
"Combined I negotiated a deal worth around $2.2 million (for the Johns brothers)...they then left the room high-fiving," Butterfield told the Our Town Our Team podcast.
"They closed the door, and then Gus said 'sorry Butts, I've got nothing for you.
"I said, 'Mate, you're paying reserve graders 50, 60 or 70 grand out there,' so he ended up saying he'd give me 40 grand."
The chaotic nature of the war took its toll on the code’s younger players, who were found unprepared by the sudden addition of lawyers, player managers and massive contracts.
“There were blokes signing under duress, late at night under pressure of ‘sign this or it’s gone’, there was some pretty crummy behaviour,” Crowe said.
“Some players did get out of contracts in some instances, because they were negotiated in pretty awful circumstances.”
One of those young players was none other than Darren Albert, the hero of the 1997 Grand Final.
“In ‘95 I was playing reserve grade, and when the Super League started signing everybody, they sort of came to me when I wasn’t on a full-time contract and still had to work,” Albert said.
“They were flashing money around, so I signed.”
Luckily for Albert and Knights fans everywhere, he manoeuvred his way out of that contract and signed with the ARL.
“I had a local lawyer in Newcastle help me out, I couldn’t even tell you the full details,” he said.
“The rest wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Albert certainly wasn’t alone, with the entire team being inundated with offers from both sides.
With many not knowing which way to go, it was captain Paul Harragon who led the way for the rest of the team.
“I spoke to News Limited first, then I went straight across to Phillip St and spoke to the ARL, and by the end of that day I knew where I wanted to go to,” Harragon said.
“I was really determined to make sure our Club got to hear both sides, so we decided to hire a bus from a bloke up the road, threw the boys in and we drove down the road (to Sydney).”
With the team having heard the pitch from both sides, it was a speech from Gould which sealed the deal for much of the side.
“Phil Gould came up to Newcastle, he talked to us all as a group and then siphoned us all off one at a time into this room and we signed contracts,” Crowe said.
With the Knights secured, it seemed the battle for Newcastle had been lost by Super League.
However, they were determined to win the war.
What followed was an extraordinarily bold and ambitious move, with the rival competition announcing it would feature its own team based in the region. That team came to be known as the Hunter Mariners.
“The Hunter Mariners were despised, probably the most unpopular team in the history of rugby league,” NRL.com journalist Brett Keeble told A Century of Rugby League.
“The whole thing became so nasty you had some of the Mariners executives getting around town with bodyguards because of death threats.”
The threats came after it became apparent the Knights and Mariners couldn’t possibly co-exist, with the town banding behind the ARL-aligned Knights.
“It was a little bit of a Civil War I suppose, in that it was a whole working-class town uprising against a huge organisation,” Harragon said.
“It was a town ripped apart.”
While the public may’ve despised the rival team, there was little, if any, animosity between the players.
“Some of our best players split off, Brett Kimmorley, Robbie Ross, Tim Maddison, Richard Swaine, Paul Marquett, Robbie McCormack, Brad Godden, some of our best players went off and signed for the Mariners mid-season,” Crowe said.
“I’m still close mates with most of them, you just didn’t see them as often and that was a pity.”
One of those players was Brett Kimmorley, who signed with Super League as a young Knights halfback stuck behind Andrew Johns.
While he enjoyed his time at the Club, he accepted they weren’t well received amongst the community.
“The offices got vandalised a few times, so it was obviously everyone showing their allegiance to the Knights and very anti Hunter Mariners,” Kimmorley told the Our Town Our Team podcast.
“There was some hatred up there against us, we didn't have a very big fan base, and we had players that had travelled from all over the world to come play in Newcastle."
While the Mariners found some success in their one and only season, across town it was all about the Knights on their way to the 1997 ARL Grand Final.
With the tumultuous few years that was the Super League War, the Knights were able to overcome all odds and win the Grand Final over Manly.
“All those players left, and we were still able to win a premiership. It’s quite incredible,” Crowe said.
For Keeble, the ’97 Grand Final marked the end of the war.
“It (‘97) was a moment that convinced the powers that be on both sides of the fence during the Super League War that the game had to come back together,” Keeble said.
“It’s still seen as the game that saved the game.”