Rugby league first gained attention in South Africa when the English and French attempted expansion in the 1950s for the purpose of creating further international opposition.Three games were then played between the two nations on the continent but both sides viewed the matches as nothing more than friendly fixtures so never undertook the games in a serious manner and the public never subsequently took to the three exhibition games.
Over the next several years, rugby league lay dormant in South Africa and it was not until the 1960s when talks of creating a national side began. After much discussion within South Africa, it was eventually agreed that a national side would play a touring Great Britain and then undertake a tour of Australasia. The first South African national side played their first competitive fixture on 23 August 1962 and put on a good showing against the much stronger British but eventually lost by nineteen points 49–30. The following two fixtures turned out to be much the same with the South Africans being defeated on another two occasions but putting in good performances whilst never being comprehensively beaten. The South Africans embarked on their first tour eleven months later with a twenty-four-man squad that included several former Springboks. The tour started with several friendly fixtures against various minor representative sides where they gained two comfortable victories; the first international fixture of the tour took place in Brisbane against the world champion Australians and the South Africans performed with courage but eventually lost the match 34–6. The following test was played a week later in Sydney that again saw the team put in a tough effort but would lose again 54–21. South Africa would leave Australia without an international win and be low on confidence heading to New Zealand to play a sole fixture against the New Zealand national side whom were expected to win comfortably. However, the match turned out to be a tough encounter and surprisingly saw the team gain its first international victory 4–3 The South Africans featured several Australian players bought in to cover injuries and improve the quality of the side and so the match against New Zealand is not counted as a test match.
After this first string of international fixtures the South Africans became disheartened after only winning four of the thirteen tour matches and rugby league again lay dormant for decades.
The Rugby League World Cup tournament had been scheduled to be held in France in 1965, this time with the inclusion of the South African team. However the tournament was abandoned.
The early 1990s saw new South African administrators begin to rebuild the international facet of South African rugby. During 1992, the South African national side again played for the first time in years against several combined African representative teams and the following years saw things look more promising for the Africans with their qualification into the 1995 World Cup and more regularity in international fixtures. Their first World Cup saw the South Africans seeded into the toughest group of the competition containing Australia, England and Fiji. The South Africans found their three group matches extremely difficult and failed to win a match during the tournament.
The following years saw the South Africans play on an inconsistent basis against several touring sides and qualify for their second consecutive World Cup in 2000. Leading into the tournament they were hopeful of gaining their first Cup win after being drawn into an easier yet still competitive group with France, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. After initial optimism leading into the competition the South Africans would face Tonga in their first world cup fixture and be comprehensively beaten 66–18.The following world cup matches would add further disappointment and diminish all optimism the South Africans originally had with further heavy losses to both Papua New Guinea and the French.
After a second disappointing World Cup the side would again begin playing irregularly with one off fixtures over the next several years and it would not be until 2006 when they would again undertake another tour. A tour to Italy would be undertaken in June 2006 that saw the South Africans play in two tests and a nines competition in Montelanico.
In 2008, the South Africa Rhinos were scheduled to participate in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup Qualifiers in the Atlantic pool also featuring the USA, Japan and the West Indies. The winner of the tournament would enter into the repecharge round for the chance to qualify for the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. South Africa withdrew alongside the West Indies due to financial reasons, leaving the tournament as a one off fixture between the USA and Japan. As a result of their withdrawal South Africa forfeited the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup.
In 2011 however, the South Africa national rugby league team participated in the Atlantic Qualification Tournament as part of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Qualifiers. The winner of the tournament qualified for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup that is to be held in England and Wales. Despite beating Canada 36–22 in a warm-up match before the beginning of the tournament, South Africa nevertheless lost to USA 40–4 in the opening match of the tournament.
In 2015 South Africa were confirmed to take on Lebanon in a one-off 2017 Rugby League World Cup qualifier in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. However the match was shifted to a two match playoff in Pretoria, South Africa due to a controversial arrest of an illegal immigrant who was in charge of organizing the initial match at the Dubai Sports City complex.