The National Touch League (NTL) is the peak domestic competition for the sport of Touch Football in Australia. The annual four day competition invites regional permits from across Australia to compete in ~14 Divisions including Open and Senior categories. The competition is not only the pinnacle of the Australian domestic competition, but is also the primary selection event for the national representative teams. The National Touch League was created to replace the ‘Australian Nationals’ which featured the seven Australian states. The finals of this competition were traditionally played between Queensland and New South Wales, the two most dominant touch playing states, with the Australian Capital Territory also performing strongly.
The first National Touch League took place in 1997 at Coffs Harbour, with three Sydney regional permits taking part. These included Sydney Scorpions (previously Region 9 wearing bottle green and navy colours), Sydney Mets (previously Region 8 wearing navy and white) and Sydney Rebels (previously Region 7 wearing red, white and sky blue). Previous to this in 1989, there were two Sydney based regions – Region 7 and Region 8 which were divided geographically. The East (coastal) area was called Region 7. Their uniform was navy and white with a lucky 7 dice logo designed by Cary Thompson. The other area was West and named Region 8. Their uniform was red and yellow with an 8 on the logo. The uniforms were produced by Westmont.
In 1990 it was decided that there was enough playing talent to support another Sydney region and as such boundaries were redrawn. North of the Parramatta River was now Region 9, with aqua, turquoise and black uniform. Brett Gillard (Scorpions Life Member) designed the Region 9 logo which was incorporated inside the figure 9. It included an aboriginal holding a spear, infrastructure buildings and a Manly ferry and famous Manly pines. Directors of Region 9 included Gary Croft (Scorpions Life Member), Peter Casey and Brett Gillard. Between the Parramatta and Cooks River was Region 8 (still maintaining a red and yellow uniform with a change to orange and grey in 1992). South of the Cooks River was Region 7 still with a navy and white uniform.
In 1997 the first “Scorpion” appeared on the Region 9 jersey at the NSW Regional event held in Newcastle. At that time the playing colours were changed to a green and white playing top with black shorts and a lone black Scorpion on the playing shirt.
At the time of its introduction the NTL was seen as being a move away from the past and step forward in the future development of Touch in Australia. Each of the then 12 permit holders, was to represent an equal number of registered players, making for a fairer, more competitive tournament. The playing talent was spread far more evenly and it was to give a larger number of players an opportunity to impress for higher representative honours. The NTL was also to provide players with an important intermediate competition between local, state and national events. It is widely accepted that the NTL has increased representative opportunities for players from states outside of NSW & Queensland. While the format of the competition has had some minor amendments, the stability of the event has led to the development of fierce rivalries between regions. The traditionally strong Touch Football regions have maintained their dominance of the competition.
The NTL was also seen as being a marketing tool that would have significant value as a promotional vehicle. The first NTL opened up merchandising and sponsorship opportunities, and was televised on regional television networks and the Optus Vision cable network. The 1997 National Touch League was held from on 17–19 October. The divisions contested were Open Men, Women and Mixed and under-20 Men and Women. Most of the 12 permit holders fielded Men’s, Women’s and Mixed teams. The tournament finals were broadcast on WIN Television, NBN Television and Optus vision while NBN as the host broadcaster also ran 50 television commercials to promote the event.
Success at the NTL was immediate for the Scorpions with the Men’s Open team winning the first 4 titles in a row – led by the champion and Hall of Famer Mark “Bus” Boland. The Mixed Open also had some early success at this new national level, with Tony Eltakchi and David Cheung representing. The Senior divisions were introduced in 1998 and once again Scorpions had instant success. The 1998 NTL was also held in October with the competition run as two separate competitions, the Open divisions and the Seniors divisions. In 1998 the Senior divisions started on Saturday 10 March and finished on Tuesday 13 March. The Open divisions then were played on Thursday 15 March and finished on Saturday 17 March. This was similar from 1999-2004, and then again in 2008-2009. Since 2010 all divisions have started on Wednesday and finished on the Saturday. A small number of players played both the Open and Senior events as outlined below, which equated to 6-7 days of touch football.
In 2008 the under-20s divisions were removed from the Open competition and were held in conjunction with the National 18s competition, to become the National Youth Championships which were held from the 17-20 September, 2008. The under-20s divisions later returned to the NTL before being replaced by the T-League division. They were re-introduced again at NTL 2022, however much to the disappointment of the permits Touch Football Australia has stated that 20’s divisions are not in their long term plans.
2009 and 2010 were two of the few years the NTL competition was played away from Coffs Harbour. In 2009 it was held at Port Macquarie and in 2010 it was held at Caloundra, Queensland and just by chance the weather was horrendous with many of the finals that were not played on the main stadium field played in thick mud after a huge amount of rainfall at the back-end of the tournament (see photo below). Day one of the tournament was bright sunshine however this soon changed. In that year the Sydney Scorpions Men’s Open won their first title in 10 years. The Scorpions prevented the dominant South Queensland Sharks from winning their fifth title in six years and took out the final convincingly 7-3. The Terry Cooper coached Scorpions line-up included young-guns Dylan Hennessey, Jordan Marshall-King, plus John and Maurice Kennedy with the Sharks having arguably one of the best players in the game at the time in Drumayne Dayberg-Muir. In wet conditions the final was played in the evening and this was no doubt one of the best nights in Scorpions long and proud history.
The National Touch League did see a major format change in 2011 with the introduction of the Elite 8 Series. The Elite 8 was played in both the Men’s and Women’s Open divisions with eight new standalone permits taking the place of the NTL Open divisions (with only Mixed Open remaining). Around the same time saw the introduction of the male and female T-League divisions which replaced the under-20s divisions. T-League divisions allowed for up to six over 20 years of age players, the rest needing to be younger players. Initially the feasibility and success of the division was questioned, however each year it grew in strength and was eventually embraced as an excellent pathway for junior players from NTL to Elite 8.
Initially the Elite 8 was to be played every two years (with the elite level players being able to play for their regional permits in the alternate year), however this changed to an annual event. As such Elite 8 took place in 2011 and then 2013-2018. In 2012 Elite 8 players from the previous year played in the NTL with the Open divisions once again available. In 2011 the NSW Scorpions Men’s were the first title champions and in 2014 the NSW Scorpions Women’s were crowned undefeated champions. As a result Scorpions were the first permit to have won both a Men’s and Women’s Elite 8 title.
In 2017 and 2018 the NSW Scorpions Women’s won back to back championship titles – overall winning 3 titles in 5 years and as such dominating the event for the Women’s elite division. In 2018 the inaugural NRL Touch Premiership was played with six teams aligned to NRL clubs in both the Men’s and Women’s divisions. In 2019 this will be expanded to eight teams and as such there will be no Elite 8 at the 2019 National Touch League.
During 2018 Touch Football Australia undertook a comprehensive review of the NTL and this included a review on the divisions played. As a result the T-League divisions were no longer to be offered. Therefore, with no Elite 8 the three Open divisions (Men’s and Women’s to be added as Mixed already exists) were reintroduced as the three elite divisions at the tournament. Sydney Scorpions were Champion Permit at the 2018 and 2019 events.
In Australia we just started seeing the impact of COVID-19 during the same time as NTL 2020 took place. Timewise the sport was very fortunate, as even a week later would have likely resulted in the event cancelled for the first time in its long history. NTL 2020 and 2021 did both proceed, however with strict COVID-19 safety precautions in place. Touch Football Australia events team did an excellent job to ensure both events took place.
NTL 2022 saw many challenges with the event postponed from March until 4-7 May. Prior to this postponement the NSWTA State Cup had postponed their event from December 2021 to March 2022 due to the La Nina weather pattern. This was a challenge for regional administrators with many NSW based players now unsure whether they would commit to both the NTL and NSWTA events, which were now planned to take place just a few weeks within each other. However, Touch Football Australia were forced to also postpone their event due to the La Nina weather pattern which flooded the Coffs Harbour region and playing precinct. The new dates for the event were 4-7 May. Then on 9 March 2022, NSWTA made the decision to cancel their postponed event which was rescheduled for 25-27 March, once again due to poor weather and field conditions. The postponed NTL event successfully took place in May 2022 with Scorpions runners up in the Champion Permit for the third year in succession.
Sydney Scorpions have won several Champion Permit, also know as Golden Boot, titles. This trophy is awarded to the NTL permit who accumulates the most points across the Open/Senior divisions. Following NTL 2022 the South Queensland Sharks lead the way with 10 Golden Boot titles, then Sydney Scorpions 8, Sydney Mets 6 and Brisbane Cobras 3. Brisbane Cobras are emerging as a real force in contention for the Golden Boot, with the region entering a massive 18 teams into the 2022 event. Next were Scorpions with 16, Hunter Western Hornets 15 and South Queensland Sharks 11.
Since 2008 Scorpions have held their annual Scorpions Awards Dinner at the Coffs C-ex Club, usually held on the Friday evening of the tournament with all players, coaches and referees in attendance. The Awards Dinner includes the presentation of numerous awards including the prestigious Scorpion Medal for the best and fairest in each playing division. In 2017 the Scorpions Hall of Fame was established to help recognise the outstanding contributions made to the regional permit by players, coaches, referees and administrators. This was also the year the NTL was celebrating 21 years of competition and as such Scorpions announced their first 21 Hall of Fame inductees at their dinner. Touch Football Australia CEO Colm Maguire was a guest at the dinner and presented all 21 inductees with their awards. In 2018, the then new CEO Steve Mitchell and COO Jamie O’Connor attended the dinner with another 6 Scorpions inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2019 the names of all 27 inductees were printed on the shirt numbers of the uniforms worn by all Scorpions players at the tournament. The Cooper Medal was introduced in 2020 to recognise the outstanding contributions for players reaching 20 years of Scorpions NTL playing service. Players who had reached this milestone were presented with their Cooper Medals at the 2020 NTL Awards Dinner. At the 2022 NTL Awards Dinner which was held at C.ex Coffs on Wednesday 4 May, Sydney Scorpions announced their Silver Jubilee Men’s, Women’s and Mixed Open teams. Teams were selected by a panel of judges and based on 25 years of Scorpions National Touch League history spanning from 1997-2021.
During 2022 Touch Football Australia announced their intent to change the NTL event from a regional to affiliate based event commencing in 2024. Understandably there is a great amount of resistance from the permits who are strongly opposed to this proposal. As at late 2022 the NSW and Queensland permits have been collaboratively partnering together, and along with support from NSWTA and QTF, have provided Touch Football Australia with their collated feedback on the proposed changes. NTL 2023 is planned to take place at Coffs Harbour on 8-11 March.