Rugby League’s birth in the Illawarra began in 1910 at a meeting at the old Termines Hotel (Near Wollongong Railway station) where plans were put in place to organise and run the first competitions.
Seventy years later Illawarra's application to be included into the New South Wales Rugby League First Division was granted at a meeting of the League on December 13, 1980 - the introduction of the Illawarra Steelers RLFC.
The Illawarra Steelers competed in the game’s premier competition as a stand-alone club for 17 seasons, from 1982 to 1998, before they joined with St George RLFC to form the first of the NRL's joint ventures for the 1999 season as the "St George Illawarra Dragons".
The Illawarra District boasts a proud history and is known as one of the best nurseries in the game and has credit of producing 41 internationals including Australian Captains Graeme Langlands, Keith Barnes, Joe Jorgenson, Bob Fulton and Craig Young.
History: The Illawarra
1911 – 1981: League’s Early Years
The first Rugby League competition in the Illawarra region (on the NSW coast south of Sydney) began just two seasons after the birth of the game in Australia.
In 1910 supporters of the new game formed clubs in the Wollongong, Mt Keira and Bulli areas who played 'friendly' games against each other.
A link with Sydney was immediately established with matches organised against clubs from the lower grade Sydney competitions.
In 1911 the first local competition was played, involving teams from Dapto, Unanderra, Mt Keira, Helensburgh and Wollongong. The Illawarra competition was suspended during WW1 but the game quickly rebuilt and began to thrive over the next few decades.
The first NSW player selected from the Illawarra was Archie O'Neill in 1927 from the Wollongong club. He was soon followed by team-mate Fed Buchanan. The first Australian player was Charlie Hazelton - a pacy 19 year old winger from the Port Kembla club - who was part of the 1937 Kangaroos.
From 1946 the region began to play against touring international teams - initially under the name of 'Southern Division' before changing to 'Illawarra' in 1974. That first match in 1946 was against Great Britain at Wollongong Showground. A crowd of 12,000 provided vocal support as their side held on to win by 15-12. This set a trend for following Lions tours and it wasn't until 1958 that Great Britain were able to defeat Southern Division.
Illawarra has produced many Australian representatives including Charlie Hazelton, Frank Johnson, Kevin Schubert, Noel Mulligan, Bobby Dimond and Steve Morris. It also saw some great players join Sydney clubs where they went on to major fame including Graeme Langlands, Bob Fulton, Craig Young and Keith Barnes.
The drain on player talent and the increasing penetration of the Sydney media into the region saw the local competition lose status in the mind of the public. Illawarra sought inclusion in the Sydney competition as the answer. By the late 1970s with the F6 Freeway and electric rail-line bringing Wollongong within easy access of Sydney the entry of an Illawarra club became imperative.
Thoughts of entry into the NSWRL competition had first arisen in 1939 after South Coast (Group 7) defeated eventual Sydney premiers Bal main in the State Cup - the arrival of WW2 soon put an end to that. The entry of Manly and Parramatta in 1947 further delayed any push for Illawarra's inclusion until a serious attempt was made in late 1954. The bid though was thwarted by the Country Rugby League which feared losing such an integral part of its playing stocks.
Rugby league in the Illawarra continued to be strong and in the early 1960s had wins over Parramatta, Canterbury, Wests and Toowoomba under its belt. The CRL repeatedly vetoed all approaches by Illawarra to the NSWRL for inclusion in the Sydney competition.
In 1978 Illawarra won the Country Championship and reached the quarter-finals of the Amco Cup with wins over Balmain, Valleys and Norths (Brisbane) along the way. Meanwhile, the Illawarra Mercury moved to a “Sydney League” coverage at the expense of the local game and the Illawarra Hawks (basketball) and Wollongong City (soccer) gained entry into national competitions.
When Illawarra again went to the NSWRL in late 1980 they had a compelling argument for inclusion - the game's future in the Illawarra. On December 13, 1980, the NSWRL, headed by Kevin Humphries, Ken Arthurson and Peter Moore, voted almost unanimously for Illawarra to enter in the 1982 Sydney season. Only four dissenting votes were counted, which were the four CRL representatives present.
Illawarra entered the competition with financial backing from many of the local leagues clubs until the recession hit hard and the leagues club money dried up. In 1984, BHP Steel saved the club, signing on as the major sponsor. BHP stayed with the Steelers until they merged with St George in 1999.
The Steelers name was adopted in recognition of the steel industry that dominated the region and who ultimately provided financial support to the club.
The colours of scarlet jersey and white shorts were reflective of the Illawarra area's representative sports team’s deficiting the Illawarra Flame Tree.
The Steelers: 1982-1988
1982: “Dream” Becomes Reality
The “dream” of the majority associated with Rugby League in the Illawarra, which held its first competition in 1911, became a reality on Sunday, February 28, 1982, when the Steelers made their NSWRL First Division Premiership debut. A crowd of 9,652 attended the Wollongong Showground to see the Steelers lose 17-7 to Penrith.
On the same day, the thirds went down 21-7, but the reserve grade team registered the Club’s first premiership victory beating the Panthers 17-7.
The Steelers historic debut season was believed to be the most successful of any club since Canterbury’s admission in 1935.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1982:
- The signs of local support were evident early with over 9000 spectators attending the Steelers first (of four) trial fixtures against South Sydney at Dapto Showground on February 6.
- The club’s first “unofficial” success came the following week in a trial against Canberra at Queanbeyan.
- The initial first grade victory came in round three on March 14 as the Steelers beat South Sydney 20-10 before a crowd of 6892 in driving rain at Wollongong Showground.
- Best win of the season was the 26-25 defeat of Manly-Warringah in the final minutes after being down 18-7 at half-time.
- The Allan Fitzgibbon side registered six wins – four at home and two away – and only four heavy defeats in the 26 rounds to finish 13th out of 14 teams.
- Four Steelers players scored well on the Rothmans Medal points board – John Dorahy, Michael Bolt, John Sparks and Mal Creevey.
- At the Dally Ms, Sparks was nominated for fullback of the year; and Dorahy was nominated in the top four centres as well as being voted Illawarra’s “most popular” player.
- Second-rower Wayne Springwall won the prestigious Stegbar Medal, previously awarded to the best player of the Illawarra premiership. Creevey won the 2-Double-0 Sitmar Cruise Award.
- Equal top try-scorers in First Grade were Sparks and Shane McKellar, with 13 each.
- Club captain Dorahy scored 159 points (6 tries, 70 goals, 1 field goal) in 25 matches.
1983: Economic Hardship Hits
Despite the dramatic national economic decline, which hit the Illawarra region hard, and other disruptive elements off the field, the Steelers continued to improve their overall season results.
A successful pre-season in which the Steelers won all three of their trial matches had many predicting a big year for Illawarra … but it was not to be.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1983:
- Week two of the Winfield Premiership saw the Steelers bring Rugby League in the Illawarra its greatest recognition with their match against Manly chosen as the TV match and broadcast to millions of viewers around Australia. They lost 26-18.
- The Steelers registered only one win in their first 10 matches – facing top six sides in their opening eight matches.
- In a Club first, wins were recorded in all three grades on the one day – against Cornella at Wollongong Showground; then repeated against Norths.
- The Steelers also recorded their first hat-trick of First Grade victories beating St George, Newtown and Penrith.
- Best performance of the season was their narrow 16-8 loss to premiers Eels in a Saturday Channel 9 TV match.
- Overall the Club improved its position on the ladder with eight wins (up from six) and finished equal 12th with Newtown (13th last year).
- Hooker Michael Bolt played all 26 premiership matches, won the Stegbar Medal and was the most recorded “player’s player” throughout the season.
- The team showed improvement in all areas except their defensive record.
- Four players achieved the honor of playing 50 grade matches with the Steelers in two seasons – Bolt (51), Mal Creevey (51), John Dorahy (50) and Keith Rug (50).
- All three grade coaches retired at the end of the season – Allan Fitzgibbon (First Grade), Peter Dickenson (Reserve Grade) and Arthur Fenwick (Third Grade).
- Winger Shane McKellar was Illawarra’s top achiever in the Rothmans Medal.
1984: Recovery Year
The Steelers continued to progress both on and off the field, with improvements in the club’s financial position and the performances of all three grades.
New coach Brian Smith conducted “open day” trials, graded players and held a three-day training camp for a 30-man squad prior to the start of the Winfield Premiership.
This laid the foundations to what would be the Club’s most successful season to date. Here are some highs and lows of Season 1984:
- Circumstances led to poor scheduling and saw teams play the first five matches in 15 days; with the Steelers gong on to play their first 10 matches in 35 days.
- Despite the grueling schedule, the Steelers showed immediate improvement with consistent performances and a club record number of wins for the season – 12 (five in round one; seven in round two) – finishing ninth.
- Going into the last round they had a chance to force a play-off for a final-five spot, their best season yet.
- The Club was awarded two ABC TV live matches – but are yet to win a TV match.
- The Reserve Grade team took Illawarra to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) for the first time in a grade semi-final after winning the Minor Premiership – but lost their next two matches to miss the final.
- Three players played all 26 games in the Winfield Premiership Michael Bolt, Rod Reddy and Stan Brown.
- Centre Michael Hetherington won the Stegbar Medal; Bolt won the Home craft best and fairest award; and Michael Wicks was awarded the Rookie of the Year honors.
- Rookie Geoff Selby was the Steelers highest point scorer in the Rothmans Medal.
1985: Tough Times
The Steelers improving financial position and security continued to gain momentum, but on the field the Steelers performances were their worst overall as a Club.
Many reasons, excuses, injuries and hard-luck stories combined to make it the unmemorable year it was, but history will show that the Steelers finished last in First Grade, Under 23s and the Club Championship; and, after leading Reserve Grade at the halfway mark, failed to qualify for the final five (finishing sixth).
The battles were not confined to the playing field, with administrators having to overcome their most trying season to date as the NSWRL increased their financial requirements and tightened the criteria for clubs to compete in future premierships.
Here are some highs and lows of Season 1985:
- The season started slowly with a 2-2 result after four games, before a horror run of nine consecutive losses – the Club’s longest losing streak.
- The drought was broken with two successive away wins, but with only one other win coming, the Steelers were reluctant recipients of the wooden spoon, finishing 13th with five wins in 24 matches.
- A courageous showing against top of the table Balmain at the SCG in front of a TV audience of over 700,000 (lost 17-4) and a few other standout performances in an otherwise horror year, gave the Steelers hope for 1986.
- Finishing last caused retention and recruiting issues for the Club, leaving them vulnerable to raids from rival clubs.
- The Stegbar Medal was awarded to Michael Pattison; and Trevor Kassel was named Stanley Rookie of the year.
- Forward Geoff Selby again tallied the most points for a Steelers player (15 points)
- Steve Roach became the 22nd international produced in the Illawarra following his selection in the Test teams for the Trans-Tasman Series against New Zealand
1986: A Mixed Season
The Steelers reported their best financial year in the Club’s five-year history, but failed to make any improvements with their on-field results, finishing with the wooden spoon again in First Grade, Reserve Grade and the Club Championship.
However the allocation of six TV games for the Steelers was a vote of confidence by the NSWRL in the Club and their ability to produce a competitive performance, belying their standing on the competition ladder.
Here are some highs and lows of Season 1986:
- The pre-season set the scene for what was to come with the Club’s major buy – international and Sharks legend Steve Rogers (now deceased) – ruled out from a return to the playing field in Australia after suffering a broken leg in England.
- The Steelers opening first round 16-12 loss to North Sydney set the trend for narrow losses to continue throughout the season. They lost seven games by just four points or less - not deserving of a last placing.
- They suffered only one decisive defeat throughout the season in their 17 losses – 25-0 to Canterbury.
- Rep honors were gained by Alan McEnroe (Australian train-on squad); Brian Hetherington (NSW, Sydney Firsts and Country Firsts).
- Second-row forward Michael Car berry received a standing ovation when named Stegbar Medal winner. Stanley rookie of the year was won by Chris Macklin-Shaw.
- Greg Mackey (11) polled the highest points of an Illawarra player in the Rothman’s Medal.
- There was a dramatic increase in the Club’s home and away attendances. The home crowd average of 7718 was the best since the Club’s inception; and record away figures saw an increase of 25,000 spectators on the previous season with an average of 6806.
1987: Shedding the Spoon
Illawarra’s initial success in First Grade came in the Western Suburbs annual pre-season round robin knock-out, beating the Magpies for the title.
Unfortunately that did not translate to success in the Winfield Cup Premiership; however, the Steelers did manage to shake the wooden spoon, jumping two places to 11th (8 wins, 16 losses)
Off the field, the Club continued to achieve success in a variety of areas from the establishment of a Talent Youth Squad to the redevelopment of the Wollongong Showground to a rectangular Rugby League stadium and the singing of former Australian coach Terry Fernley as Head Coach for 1988.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1987:
- The Steelers won their season “opener” for the first time when they beat South Sydney 25-5 at Red fern Oval.
- First win over Parramatta in First Grade – 16-8 at Wollongong Showground – after 10 Premiership and two Panasonic Cup losses.
- Created a record for “home attendance” when 12,926 witnessed the Steelers beat Parramatta 16-8 at Wollongong Showground
- Being allocated their first Sunday TV fixture – against premiers Manly, at Brookvale.
- Coach Brian Smith asked for a release from his final year after a four-year term with the Club.
- Except for a four-week period late in the first round – when the Steelers won three of four matches – the remainder of the season took on a similar pattern to the previous season
- The pre-season injury to Queensland prop Cavill Heugh and loss of fellow prop Chris Walsh after only seven matches were telling blows to the Club’s hopes.
- Two other imports proved to be valuable assets – captain Perry Haddock played in all 24 matches; and Dean Carney finished third on the premiership individual point scorers with 162.
- Reserve Grade and Under 23s both finished 9th.
- Rep honours went to: McIndoe (Qld); Paul Upfield (Sydney Firsts); Peter Spring, Trevor Kissell (Sydney Seconds); and Peter Phillips (NSW U19s).
- Michael Bolt became the first player to win the Stegmar Medal twice (also in 1983) edging out Haddock; and Phillips was the Rookie of the Year.
- Haddock finished equal fifth in the Rothmans Medal.
- Hooker Sean O’Connor (103) and winger Owen Saunders (101), both in their fifth season, registered their century of grade games. Saunders also became the Club’s leading try scorer (41).
1988: No Place Like “Home”
The official opening of the re-developed Wollongong Showground on March 13 was one of the highlights of the season, where again achievements away from the field overshadowed the on-field performances.
The Gold Coast spoiled Illawarra’s party with an 18-18 draw in front of 9459 spectators at the round two match.
The State Government granted the Steelers a 20-year lease on their “home” ground; and the club purchased its first asset – No. 5 Burelli Street property, which would be transformed to the company’s administration headquarters.
There were also options with the Wollongong City Council to purchase two adjoining blocks approval top construct a licensed football club.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1988:
- A new-look 16-team Winfield Cup premiership involved the two-zone grouping of clubs and divided the premiership into three rounds.
- Under new coach Terry Fearnley, the Steelers won five and drew one of their first 10 matches.
- This was followed by the worst losing sequence in the Club’s history with 11 successive losses.
- The only other victory was in the last round, against Eastern Suburbs (31-10), with the Steelers finishing 13th (of 16).
- Reserve Grade finished 10th and the Under 21s fifth.
- The U21s (186 points against) had the best defensive record of any team in the three grades of the Winfield Premiership; and First Grade the worst (520 points against).
- Rep honours went to: Paul Upfield (Country Origin); Peter Phillips (Sydney Firsts); Alan McIndoe (QLD; Aust v Rest of the World); Brett Rodwell (NSW U19); Wayne Farquhar (NSW U17).
- McIndoe was the first Steeler to gain Australian representative honours, playing in the team which beat the “Rest of the World” 22-10 at the new Sydney Football Stadium.
- Captain and front row forward Chris Walsh won the Stegbar Medal in his comeback season (neck injury 1987); and Duncan Warlters was the Rookie of the Year.
- Rookie Ian Russell finished equal eighth with international Michael O’Connor in the Rothmans Medal.
- Another five “Centurions” achieved the honour of playing over 100 grade premiership matches – Upfield, Dean Hanson, Greg Mackey, Steve Worthington and McIndoe.
1989: Best and Worst In One Season
The Steelers produced their worst season as a Club on the field, surpassing the previous worst season in 1985; yet support from sponsors and supporters continued to grow.
First Grade and Under 21s finished last and Reserve Grade were 9th; while the Steelers also finished last in the Club Championship (which did not include the Under 21s result).
Ironically it was a the season in which the Steelers also produced their highest Panasonic Cup achievement. Having only won one match in the Panasonic Cup series in the previous seven years, they registered 12-0 and 40-0 wins to make the semi-final.
Despite a 12-all draw with North Sydney, a penalty countback system saw Illawarra make the final against the Broncos. Brisbane raced away to an early 16-0 lead, but the Steelers dug deep, losing narrowly 22-20 in what was considered the best Panasonic final contested – and it was also the last.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1989:
- The licensed club building project is underway and expected to be ready to trade next year.
- Major sponsor BHP Steel increased their support for the 1990-91 seasons.
- Becoming the first Winfield Cup club to obtain a “premiership Sponsorship – sleeve identification (Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance).
- Over 430 subscribers to the Gold Foundation membership campaign which contributed $630,000 to finance the purchase of land for a licensed club.
- On the field, First Grade Coach Ron Hilditch’s side had a disappointing season with only two wins and a draw.
- The one redeeming feature was the performance of rookies Rod Wishart (top point scorer for the season), Brett Rodwell, Dean Schifilliti and Neil Piccinelli who gave the Club much hope for the future.
- Importing English Test players Andy Gregory and Steve Hampson was a successful promotion although it did not equate to the desired results.
- No Steelers played gained rep honours; with the exception of NSW under 17 and 19s.
- Front rower and captain Chris Walsh won back-to-back Player of the Year awards taking out the new BHP Steel Medal (formerly Stegbar Medal); and Brett Rodwell was named Rookie of the Year.
- Walsh and Ian Russell were the best Illawarra performers in the Rothmans Medal.
- Steve Larder and Jeff Hardy took the number of players to make 100 grade appearances to 11.
- Atrocious weather affected the crowd attendances with five of the first six home matches held during the “big wet”.
1990: Best Season to Date
The Steelers rose to achieve a mid-table finish, the best in their nine-year history; and the Steelers licenced club opened its doors for business.
For the first time, the rewards many years of hard work were beginning to show with the Club’s best season, both on and off the field.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1990:
- Record home ground match and season attendance figures – a match record of 15,296 against St George (previous best 12,926 in1987), which was also a TV match; total season home attendances of 110,126 from 11 matches (previous best 106,887 – 13 matches in 1982); and a new match average of 10,011 (previous best 8388 in 1988) .
- Increased sponsorship and community support from all sections.
- Representative selection was the Club’s best on record, including four players in the Kangaroos train-on squad (Ian Russell, Chris Walsh, Rod Wishart, Brett Rodwell); and reps in NSW and Country Origin (Wishart); and Sydney Firsts (Rodwell).
- New plans to further develop Wollongong Showground, increasing capacity to in excess of 20,000.
- First Grade Coach Ron Hilditch and his assistant Graham Murray helped lift the Club from the bottom of the table to ninth – five points from the equal fifth teams.
- Only Alan McIndoe was drafted back to the Club, because of salary cap restrictions.
- Young prop Phil Tiernan overcame a bad pre-season hip injury to return mid-season and play nine games.
- Pioneer Steelers player Michael Bolt was awarded the NSWRL’s Ken Stephens Memorial Award for “Service to the Game of Rugby League”.
- Ian Russell won the Club’s BHP Medal; and was the highest placed Steeler ever in the Rothmans medal, finishing fourth. Three points behind winner Peter Sterling.
- Five more Centurions, with the 100 grade matches mark passed by Greg Carberry, Trevor Kissell, David Moon, Michael Carberry and Tony Smith.
1991: The 10th and Best Results
The Steelers celebrated their first decade in the premier Winfield Cup competition with their best First Grade results, as well as the Club’s highest standing on the Club Championship.
Coach Graham Murray steered the First Grade team to 12 wins and one draw for 25 points – just two points out of the five (in eighth place), despite having a season points differential second only to eventual premiers, Penrith. They lost only one game at home (to Penrith).
The Reserve Grade team also finished with 25 points, one point out of the five; and the Under 21s registered 20 points, finishing mid-table; and the Steelers moved to eighth on the Club Championship.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1991:
- The Steelers won 10 consecutive “home” matches after losing the season-opener to eventual premiers Penrith, but their “away” form of eight consecutive losses was of serious concern.
- Record selection of players in senior and age representative teams – culminating in Rod Wishart’s Test and tour selection at national level, the club’s first (official) Test player. He was also named Dally M Winger of the Year.
- Wishart also achieved the First Grade record for the number of goals in a single match when he kicked eight goals against Canterbury.
- Alan McIndoe (19 tries) established a Club try-scoring record for a season as well as being the top try-scorer for the Winfield Cup premiership, the first Illawarra player to achieve the honour.
- Ryan Girdler equaled John Dorahy’s record for points scored in all grades in one season, with 175 points. He also equaled Brett Rodwell’s President’s Cup record of seven goals (versus Canberra).
- Neil Piccinelli broke the First Grade and all grades tackle count when he completed 57 tackles against Wests.
- Ian Russell equaled Chris Walsh’s feat by winning consecutive BHP Medals.
- Off the field, records tumbled at the turnstiles with a match record crowd of 15,426 watching the Steelers inflict their first win over the Broncos.
- The victory completed wins over every first grade team in a premiership match, following a first time win over Newcastle also.
- A record 135,000 attended 11 “home” matches at Wollongong Showground (up 20,000 on previous year) for a record average of 12,182.
1992: A Season Surpassing All Others
The Steelers had sweet revenge in the 1992 pre-season Tooheys Challenge, defeating Brisbane 4-2 in a tryless final at Dubbo to win their first and only trophy and sparking their successful Winfield Cup campaign, going one game from the Grand Final.
Under Coach Graham Murray, Illawarra finished third and became the first club since Cronulla in 1973 to win a semi-final at their first attempt after holding off St George 18-16.
Late season injuries took their toll and a disappointing 22-12 loss to Brisbane in the next semi-final saw Illawarra again front St George for their last chance to make the Grand Final, but they lost 4-0 in a controversial and bitter end to their successful season.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1992:
- The opening of the new Merv Nixon Southern Grandstand and re-vamped concourse at the newly named Steelers Stadium.
- The Club established new season aggregate and home average attendances – a total of 151,000 attended 11 matches, averaging 13,750 per match.
- Ground attendance records were established at consecutive home games – 16,058 against Wests followed by 17,469 against St George.
- The first international Rugby League match in Wollongong in 11 years with the Steelers playing Great Britain.
- Record Steelers representative selections, including Australia (Rod Wishart); NSW and Country Origin (Wishart, Paul McGregor and John Simon); Sydney Firsts (John Cross); and Australian under 17 “merit” team, (Michael Cross).
- The team’s third placing was their best result in the First Grade premiership rounds ever – by five placings (previous best was eighth in 1991).
- Murray was named Dally M Coach of the Year; and Ian Russell was awarded Dally M Lock Forward of the Year.
- The Club’s Annual Dinner and BHP Medal Presentation Dinner received overwhelming support (over 560) and had to be transferred to Wollongong Town Hall.
- Front-row forward Steve Waddell was named BHP Medal Winner; and Jonathan Britten was named Rookie of the Year.
- Neil Piccinelli and Dean Schifilliti took the Steelers number of “Centurions” to 20.
1993: Expectations Hampered by Injuries
A spate of injuries ruined the Steelers hopes of building on their 1992 success and they finished outside of the final five in seventh place – the Club’s second highest placing in the 12 seasons since inception.
A record number of players were selected in senior representative teams and crowd records continued to fall, as the Club’s success on and off the field continued.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1993:
- Spectator support was excellent, with the home ground record broken again with an attendance of 17,527 against St George.
- Recorded first First Grade away victory over Parramatta; and first Reserve Grade away win over Brisbane.
- A record winning streak of four successive victories in First Grade, beating Balmain, Penrith, South Sydney and Gold Coast in rounds 14-17.
- The First Grade defensive record was second only to Manly, conceding less points “against” than in the record-breaking 1992 season.
- The Steelers also scored over 50 points more than in 1992 and won more away games than ever before.
- Among the disappointments included losing a large number of close matches that ultimately cost a semi-final berth; injuries to strike players; and a poor home record, losing five of the 11 matches at Steelers Stadium.
- Membership of the licenced leagues club exceeded 10,000.
- Seven Steelers players were selected in senior representative teams – Bob Lindner (Aust, Qld); Rod Wishart, Paul McGregor (NSW Origin and Country Origin); Brett Rodwell and John Simon (also Country Origin); and John Cross and Neil Piccinelli (City Firsts).
- Made the semi-finals of the Tooheys Challenge Cup and the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola World Sevens.
- Club talent scouts were rewarded when Nigel Roy was selected to represent City 19s and NSW 19s and was named in the Australian U19 “merit” team.
1994: 13th Season Best as Club
The number 13 did not prove to be the “lucky” charm desired, but season 13 did produce the best combined grade performances as an overall Club, as well as the highest position on the Club Championship.
All grades finished higher on their respective points tables than in 1993. Early season injuries to top players weakened both First and Reserve Grade but both finished strongly to just miss out on the play-offs; with the Under 21s third.
Next year’s First Grade premiership moves to a 20-team Australasian competition, while speculation still looms of a Super League competition of the future.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1994:
- The second best year of First Grade on-field performances in the Club’s history, narrowly missing the semi-finals, finishing in 6th place.
- Reserve Grade only lost one of their last nine matches to finish 8th.
- Six players were selected in rep teams: Paul McGregor (Aust, NSW Origin, Country Origin); Darren Fritz (Qld Origin); Rod Wishart (Aust, NSW Origin, Country Origin); John Simon (Country Origin); Michael Cross (City and NSW U19); Brett Cox (City, NSW and Aust U19).
- Wishart and McGregor became the Steelers first Kangaroo tourists.
- Illawarra qualified for their fifth semi-final in the past six years in the Tooheys Challenge Cup, losing 14-0 to Brisbane in Alice Springs.
- Illawarra won the inaugural pre-season Caltex Community Cup 18-10 against Cronulla; and made it a hat-trick of wins for inter-club sponsor trophies, retaining Carlton’s Resch’s Real Cup against Wests; and the MMI Cup against Brisbane.
- John Simon overcame an horrific foot injury from the previous season to scoop the awards, winning the Steelers BHP Medal, Country Origin Player of the Year.
- He was the highest polling Illawarra player at the Rothmans Medal, finishing 5th.
- Steelers Rookie of the Year was Shaun Timmins.
- Brett Rodwell and Neil Piccinelli took to six the number of players to reach the 100 First Grade premiership appearances; while David Walsh and John Simon joined a list of 24 “All Grades Centurions”.
1995: Rugby League’s “Civil War” Erupts
This season proved to be the most traumatic year in the code’s history – for both Rugby League and the BHP Illawarra Steelers. Super League surfaced soon after the launch of the new 20-team Australasian competition. Loyalties were challenged as the game’s future was played out in the Court Rooms.
Steelers First Grade captain John Cross, best summarises Season 1995:
“No player, administrator, sponsor or supporter could have forecast what happened. We did not know how to handle the situation but we stuck as a club and came through. A lot was learned … if there was ever a repeat, we’d handle it differently. We will be a better club for the experience.”
On the field, the Steelers finished 12th after 22 rounds, which was disappointing after being tipped in all quarters as a top eight certainty.
The dismissal of Super-League bound coach Graham Murray after only four premiership matches made for a rocky start. Allan Fitzgibbon, the Steelers initial coach in 1982-83, answered the call to take over from Murray.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1995:
- Staging the City-Country Origin match at Steelers Stadium. A record five reps in the Country Origin team – Rod Wishart, Paul McGregor, Brett Rodwell, John Simon and John Cross.
- Wishart, McGregor and Rodwell went on to represent NSW in the State of Origin.
- Wishart again represented Australia in all three Tests against New Zealand and, along with McGregor, played in the successful Australian World Cup team.
- Wishart established a Steelers individual points scoring record for a season when he registered 176 points (previous, John Dorahy 1984).
- Cross, Shaun Timmins and Wayne Richards played all 22 First Grade premiership matches.
- Timmins was chosen to tour NZ with the Junior Kangaroos and was captain on one match.
- Wishart’s great season was capped off by winning the BHP Medal; Timmins was named the Best Player from the Junior Steelers.
1996: Best “Club” Season … But First Grade Fails
Off-field the dramas continued for Rugby League, and with the game in disarray with Court appeals, injunctions, a threatened players’ strike and clubs forfeiting premiership matches, the 1996 pre-season competition was eventually cancelled.
The Steelers remained aligned and loyal to the New South Wales and Australian Rugby Leagues in the Optus Cup, but the game’s “civil war” appears headed for two premierships in 1997. The News Limited backed Super League’s only interest in Steelers was to form part of a Southern Sydney franchise with St George and Cronulla.
Under new Coach Alan McMahon, the Steelers had an impressive pre-season, giving supporters high expectations for a successful season – playing five trial fixtures and winning all five – but had a disastrous start to the Optus Cup, winning only one of the first six matches.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1996:
- The First Grade side won only eight of the 22 premiership rounds, but every Steelers team from under 15s (Harold Matthews) to Reserve Grade qualified for at least their respective finals.
- Except for First Grade, it was the Club’s best season in its 15-year history.
- Won the NSW Rugby league Junior Club Championship for the third time in 15 years.
- Rod Wishart retained his international rating with Australian Test selection against Fiji and PNG.
- Three rising stars – Trent Barrett, Scott Cram and Terry Lamey – gained selection in the Junior Kangaroos (Australian U19s) to tour Fiji.
- First Grade captain John Cross became the 10th player to play 100 First Grade games; while Glen Air, Scott England and Craig Simon joined the list of “Grade Centurions”.
- Brett Rodwell and Shaun Timmins were the only First Graders to play all 22 premiership matches.
- Optus Vision sponsorship enabled the Steelers to start a financial recovery from the damaging two previous seasons.
- Wishart won the BHP Medal for the second consecutive year; while Trent Barrett was voted the Best Player from the Junior Steelers.
1997: Steelers Remain Loyal
For the first time in the code’s 90-year history there were two major Rugby League competitions, with the rebel Super League clearing legal barriers to start up in opposition to the Australian Rugby League’s Optus Cup Premiership.
The Steelers Board’s decision to remain loyal to the ARL was vindicated, with the ARL competition a huge success at all levels of the game.
However, Rugby League incurred a great deal of damage which will take some time to repair.
While speculation and financial pressures continue, the Steelers stand alone and expect to be one of the 20 clubs participating in a united National Rugby League competition in 1998.
The Club is confident of meeting any challenges if forced to re-visit their options in the future.
Despite the unique season, the Steelers teams wrote another chapter in the club history, by qualifying for the finals in all three major grades – Firsts, Seconds and Under 20s.
Here are some highs and lows of Season 1997:
- Coach Andrew Farrar helped the Steelers to finish the First Grade minor premiership in sixth place, again qualifying for the Finals series, after strong wins in the final two games of the season over Wests (34-10) and the Gold Coast (28-6).
- Unfortunately they bowed out in the first week of the semi-finals, with a disappointing performance against the Chargers, losing 25-14 despite the sparkling work of rising playmaker Trent Barrett.
- Barrett, aged 19, was touted as the “find of the season” after his outstanding First Grade debut in which he played 21 First Grade games and gained NSW Origin selection.
- The introduction of young Illawarra junior rugby league products into First Grade – Scott Cram, Chris Leikvoll, Terry Lamey, Andrew Hart, Brendon Turnbridge and Craig Fitzgibbon.
- Cram became the first Steeler to win the ARL’s “Rookie of the Year” award after playing all 23 First Grade games in his debut season.
- Brad Mackay’s return to his best form and season-long consistency earned him the BHP Medal.
- Brett Rodwell, playing his ninth season with the Steelers, equaled Michael Bolt’s long-standing record of 153 First Grade Premiership appearances.
- Paul McGregor and Jonathan Britten became Centurions.
- Rep honours went to: Paul McGregor (Country Origin, NSW and Aust v ARL’s “Rest of the World”); NZ-born Craig Smith (QLD Origin; ARL’s “Rest of the World” team); Rod Wishart (NSW Origin – then sidelined for season with shoulder injury); Trent Barrett (NSW Origin).
- Steelers Stadium attracted sponsorship for the first time through WIN TV and Radio i98FM and is now known as WIN Stadium.
- The Stadium’s new TV standard lighting system was switched on in April.
1998: The Last Stand
Rugby League was re-unified in 1998 with all 20 clubs competing in the inaugural National Rugby League premiership, following a “peace deal” on December 19, 1997, to rationalise the NRL to 14 teams by 2000.
The pressure for survival was on from that date for all clubs. Survival to 2000 would be determined by success in three key categories – performance on the field; and off the field, in terms of the size of home crowds and maintaining financial viability.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the desired results were not achieved in all three categories.
While all age teams (Presidents Cup down to Harold Matthews) qualified for the finals series, the First Grade finished just three points out of the play-offs with 23 points from 11 wins, 12 losses and one draw.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Season 1998:
- Injuries and suspensions again restricted Coach Andrew Farrar’s team preparation.
- However home ground results were the worst in the Club’s history with four victories compared to seven and a draw away.
- Talented local youth dominated the First Grade squad – Luke Patten, Shaun Timmins, Craig Fitzgibbon, Terry Lamey, Andrew Hart, Chris Leikvoll and Scott Cram.
- They missed the leadership of internationals Paul McGregor, Brad Mackay (injured) and Craig Smith (suspended) in the final rounds.
- 20-year-old Trent Barrett was the stand-out player of the season, top scoring with 18 tries and winning the BHP Medal.
- Craig Fitzgibbon was the top points-scorer – two tries and 38 goals for his 84 points – and he won the Rookie of the Year award
1998-99: The Merger
After nearly two years of exploring every possible option, the Steelers Board of Directors was faced with the most critical decision in the Club’s 17-year history.
While continuing as a stand-alone club was the preferred option in 1999, Group Chief Executive Officer Bob Millward explained that in doing so, the Steelers then faced almost certain extinction in 2000.
The Directors looked to the Club’s original charter – “To bring world-class Rugby league to Illawarra” - and stepped up to the task of fulfilling that charter through a joint venture team … not a merged team.
While there were other clubs willing to take Illawarra on board, on their terms, historically and geographically St George Illawarra was always right for both clubs.
The Dragons bring 77 years of tradition and historical Rugby League achievements, coupled with financial stability and a flourishing Leagues Club … and St George carries the most famous brand name in the Game.
The Steelers offer the best development area in the Rugby League world and a sports stadium that, when completed, will meet all NRL criteria requirements.
The right decision was made for the future of Rugby League in the Illawarra region.
And so ends and begins another chapter in the history of Rugby League in the Illawarra.
Jersey and Colours
The original Steelers jersey was all scarlet with two white stripes on each sleeve. The alternate design was the same colours in reverse.
The club kept this design until 1997, adding a third stripe on each sleeve and three hoops around the middle of the jersey.
The Steelers simplistic design compared well with the many "space-aged" designs of several other clubs that came and went each season.
In 2005, the Dragons wore an Illawarra heritage jersey, which was the same as the original Steelers jumper, on Steelers Annual Heritage Day, proving popular among former Illawarra fans.
Many of the current NRL clubs are reverting to more simplistic jerseys, such as Illawarra's fellow 1982 entrants Canberra.
The colours scarlet and white were automatically chosen as they were long worn by Illawarra representative teams in several sports. Local miners uniforms in the early 20th century were scarlet and some associate this with the reason for it becoming the region's sporting colours. It is also the colour of the Illawarra Flametree, another symbol of the region.
The name "Steelers" was chosen in reference to the local Port Kembla Steelworks, which was the Illawarra region's largest employer. Other names considered were "Lions" and "Steelies".
The Illawarra Steelers played all of their home games at the Wollongong Showground (currently named WIN Stadium). The ground for many years was also named Steelers Stadium, which many still affectionately call it.
Allan Fitzgibbon 1982-1983 and 1995
Brian Smith 1984-1987
Terry Fearnley 1988
Ron Hilditch 1989-1990
Graham Murray 1991-1995
Allan McMahon 1996
Andrew Farrar 1997-1998