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Rugby league movies on the big screen: The starting 13

It’s no wonder rugby league has appeared attractive to movie makers – drama, action, tears and laughter – and that’s just inside the commentary boxes.

Here’s our starting 13 for the best movies to feature rugby league, even if “featured” is at times stretching the truth.

While you’re doing the right thing in self-isolation, get on the couch, fire up the streaming services and enjoy the shows.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Although more a rugby union man - he played junior rah rah for Irish club Munster and was a lifelong fan of the club - Richard Harris turned in a brilliant performance as the bitter anti-hero Frank Machin in the film version of David Storey’s classic novel of the same name.

Storey, who played league for Leeds, also wrote the screenplay and director Lindsay Anderson is successful in portraying the toughness of the professional game played in the industrial and mining towns in the north of England.

Harris was awarded the best actor prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated in the same category at that year’s Oscars.

Rotten Tomatoes movie website positive rating: Critics - 90 per cent. Audience - 87 per cent

“I can't think of a sport movie that is better photographed. The black and white cinematography is gorgeously stark, the perfect medium for this bleakly unforgiving tale.” Wendy Ide, The Times of London

This Sporting Life trailer

The Sure Thing (1985)

This was a sleeper only on the radar of committed rugby league anoraks until it exploded on social media.

John Cusack’s character “Gib” Gibson appears wearing an Australian Kangaroos rugby league jumper 5 minutes and 48 seconds into the 1985 teen comedy.

John Cusack, closet Kangaroos fan.
John Cusack, closet Kangaroos fan.

("What had he done to deserve this bounty? Does God exist? Who invented liquid soap, and why?” In-joke for those who, if you know, you know.)

It remained a mystery for 20-odd years, until something good did happen on social media and Cusack answered an @ him on Twitter about the jersey.

Unfortunately what could have a been a great story – “My sister Joan dated an Australian rugby league player called Bryan Niebling who gave her the jumper and I stole it from her closet to wear on the set” – turned out to be rather mundane: “Nope I knew nothing except it was a rugby shirt - random choice :)” Sigh.

Also worth watching for a great cameo by Tim Robbins as Gary Cooper, not the dead one.

Rotten Tomatoes ratings: Critics - 85 per cent. Audience - 79 per cent

“The Sure Thing succeeds most in identifying the self-effacing charm that would become Cusack's stock-in-trade as a young romantic lead,” Scott Tobias, The Dissolve.

The Sure Thing trailer

Little Fish (2005)

If there ever was a character acting against type of the common perception of a league player it’s Hugo Weaving as Lionel Dawson in this gritty 2005 drama.

Weaving, starring in a supporting role opposite Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, portrays a washed-up league legend.

Dawson is a gay, heroin addict and family friend of Blanchett’s character Tracy Heart. Dawson was responsible for introducing her to heroin.

“There are some roles you do so far from yourself that there’s a lot of work to do to understand the character … And then the attempt to get there is always a struggle and always difficult so I suppose anything that challenges me to really stretch out of my comfort zone is something that is both daunting and stimulating,” Weaving told IF.com.au.

“So something like Lionel in Little Fish would probably be the character I would say would be the thing I have sort of gained the most from in a way.”

Weaving won the AFI Best Actor award in 2005 for his performance.

Rotten Tomatoes ratings: Critics - 90 per cent. Audience - 57 per cent

“It's a tidy showcase for Cate Blanchett as a recovering drug addict struggling to throw off the shackles of her past, but Sam Neill and Hugo Weaving also shine,” Stella Papamichael, BBC.com.

Little Fish trailer

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

It’s only a passing reference, but it’s one that every Warriors fan will understand from this surprise New Zealand hit.

Teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is on the run and finds himself meeting Kahu, who takes him back to her home.

While in the kitchen another door in the house opens where Kahu’s father TK enters while watching a game of league:

“Hey, bub! Far out those bloody Warriors are useless! Koretake (Maori for hopeless). …
"They are killing me.”

Lets gone Warriors, indeed.

Rotten Tomatoes rating: Critics - 96 per cent. Audience - 91 per cent.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople has been a huge audience favourite at festivals this year and you can see why, with its brand of dark New Zealand humour, coupled with a boy's own adventure story that goes not merely off the rails, but off-road and off-grid,” Kate Muir, TheTimes of London.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople trailer

Mullet (2001)

Rugby league, fishing and the beautiful NSW South Coast – how could this movie not be a winner?

Former local rugby league star Eddie “Mullet” Maloney (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to the country town of Coollawarra (a combination of Kiama and Gerringong) to find plenty of things have changed since his departure – including that the woman he walked out on has married his policeman brother.

The Kiama Knights rugby league team supplied all the extras for the on-field action and Mick Cronin’s Gerringong hotel is featured in a number of scenes.

Two fun facts: Steve Le Marquand who had a small role had his nose broken during filming of a game scene which was to prove useful for in his role in Broke – keep reading to find out more. And fishing guru Steve Starling is credited as “mullet wrangler” in the movie credits.

Rotten Tomatoes rating: Critics rating - N/A  Audience rating - 43 per cent

“It's laced with stoical ocker humour - knocked off his barstool and onto the ground by his feisty sister, Mullet simply says "You stupid cow, Robbie, I could've spilt my beer." Yet beneath the jocular exchanges and matey bravado, writer-director David Caesar uncovers the loneliness and the suffering of characters who are struggling to articulate their feelings.”

Tom Dawson, BBC.com.

Mullet trailer

Broke (2016)

The new-look nose Steve Le Marquand gained filming Mullet added to the authenticity of his character in this movie.

Le Marquand portrays a fictional former North Sydney Bears star Ben Kelly who has hit the depths after his career ended, cursed by the twin demons of alcoholism and gambling addiction.

A fan of Kelly’s Cec (Max Cullen) attempts to help the former player turn his life around.

"It humanises these people. They're not just this unbelievable football machine, there's actually a real person with real emotions and real fallibility. That's a good thing for the rugby league audience and for the wider community to see,” Le Marquand told NRL.com in 2016.

"Most of the story is about him being a human being, a bloke who is living on the streets, put his last $5 down a pokie and is begging other people for money. It takes this fallen hero and you see him trying to interact as a human being."

IMDb (Internet Movie Database) rating: 6.2 out of 10

“The performances are across-the-board brilliant, with the warmth and chemistry between Steve Le Marquand, Max Cullen, and Claire Van Der Boom near palpable. Brendan Cowell, meanwhile, rips shreds off the screen in one single, extraordinary scene,” Erin Free, Filmink.com.au.

Broke trailer

The Fantastic Plastic Machine (1969)

This documentary covers the rivalry between American and Australian surfers after Nat Young won the world title in 1966.

The argument about which country had the world’s best surfers were was to be settled “once and for all” by a team from California’s famous WindanSea Surf Club heading to down under for a competition against Australia’s best.

So where does rugby league come in?

Well a member of the Australian team selected to surf against the seppos was John Monie, who at the time was playing for the Cronulla Sharks.

Monie won the player of the year award at the Sharks in 1969 and would go on to become a successful coach winning a premiership with Parramatta in 1986 and four consecutive League Championship, Challenge Cup doubles with Wigan between 1989-92.

So who won the surfing competition? No spoilers here baby, you’ll have to watch the movie.

IMDb rating: 7.9/10

Fantastic Plastic is a great film, I love how it just goes mad when they hit Australia and hand the film over to Nat [Young], Bob [McTavish] and [John] Witzig. The first bit is some goofy surfari stuff, then it turns psychedelic. Needless to say the surfing is epic the whole way through.” Consafos, Swalocks.com.

The fantastic plastic machine trailer

The Final Winter (2007)

Written by and starring Matt Nable, The Final Winter examines a player as he approaches the end of his career in the 1980s as the game becomes more "professional".

Nable’s character Mick “Grub” Henderson is a loyal servant of the mighty Newtown Jets but he faces a challenge to keep his football career and family life intact in the changing environment of the code which echoes the sentiment of David Williamson’s Australian Rules play The Club.

Matt Nable at the 2019 Dally Ms.
Matt Nable at the 2019 Dally Ms. ©NRL Photos

Matthew Johns puts in a credible acting performance as the Bluebags’ coach and there are memorable cameos by Tom Raudonikis, Roy Masters, Jack Elsegood, Max Krilich, Terry Randall, Phil “Whatsapacketta” Sigsworth, Noel Kelly, Peter Peters, Ivan Cleary, Les Johns, Craig Hancock and Barry Vining.

IMDb rating: 7/10

“To me, enduring a rugby league match is like witnessing front-end loaders shift blocks of concrete. But Nable, who looks like a sad-eyed Charles Bronson when playing the tough guy, is so thoroughly watchable that even the football is bearable. What you're really watching is Grub's struggle to find a way to end the war going on in his head.” Sandra Hall, The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Final Winter trailer

Puberty Blues (1981)

A coming of age movie about two teenage girls growing up in the Sutherland Shire during the seventies and the surf culture of the time.

It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference, but the back window of the panel van where much of the “action” takes place features some Benny Hill-quality humorous bumper stickers: “Mechanics have a way with their tools”, “If it’s rockin don’t bother knockin”.

The shiny Sharks sticker in Puberty Blues.
The shiny Sharks sticker in Puberty Blues.

Featuring amongst all this hilarity is a very attractive sparkling Cronulla Sharks supporters sticker – deadset.

At the drive-in during Puberty Blues.
At the drive-in during Puberty Blues.

Rotten Tomatoes rating: Critics - N/A. Audience - 67 per cent

Puberty Blues stands out... on several counts. For one thing, it focuses on girls. For another, its handling of sexual initiation is realistic in welcome contrast to the raunchy comedy-glamour-fantasy treatment sex is given in other summer offerings.” Yardena Arar, Associated Press.

Puberty Blues trailer

Where’s George? (1935)

Possibly the most notable thing about this movie is it was reviewed in The Spectator magazine by one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers.

Graham Greene, author of The Power and The Glory, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American and The Third Man, cast his critical eye over Where's George? as part of his movie review column for the British magazine.

According to an article in 40/20 magazine the comedy’s plot involves Alf (Sydney Howard) who discovers he has a talent for league by avoiding his wife and thereby unwittingly becomes the star of his local team Yorcaster.

Sidney Howard tries the greatest game of all on for size.
Sidney Howard tries the greatest game of all on for size.

“Into this badly acted and carelessly directed film a real actor had been introduced, Mr Sydney Howard, and, comic actor though he is, he bursts like a realist through its unrealities. He can do very little with the stale gags they have given him; even the Rugger game, which might have been thought foolproof, was made as tame as table tennis.” Graham Greene, The Spectator.

Footy Legends (2006)

This is Fibros v Silvertails comes to the big screen.

Luc Vu (Anh Do) is a battler from the western suburbs of Sydney who loves rugby league. Using the game as a way of getting his old schoolboy mates, who are all facing hard-luck life stories, back together, Vu enters them in a knockout rugby league competition.

In the competition they must overcome the silvertails from Double Bay – a team featuring former NRL star players Brett Kenny, Rod Wishart, Cliff Lyons and Brad Clyde.

Who will win?

IMDb rating: 5.8/10

Footy Legends was like most of the other times rugby league has broken through into other popular media formats - like Rugby League Live on Xbox - you're excited it's happened but ultimately it’s not as good as you'd like it to be and you end up watching out of obligation rather than entertainment. Good location shots of the Snake Pit bar at Yagoona, though.” Sunday Session podcaster Kenny Scott told NRL.com.

Footy Legends trailer

Chasing Comets (2018)

Rugby league nice guy Jason Stevens wrote and produced this movie after finishing his decorated playing career for St George, Cronulla, NSW and Australia.

Based in Wagga Wagga, a town in a perpetual struggle between rugby league and Australian Rules, the story follows Chase (Dan Ewing) as he attempts to achieve his ambition of having an NRL career, while also dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Brooke (Isabel Lucas).

IMDb rating: 5.2/10

“Taking into consideration the moments when it stumbles, the most satisfying aspect of Chasing Comets is that emerges as greater than the sum of its parts; it shouldn’t work so well as a contemporary mix of small-town charm, hard man mateship and heavenly intervention, but Steven’s story certainly does,” Simon Foster, Screen-space.com.

Chasing Comets trailer