After the St George District Rugby League Football Club was formed at a meeting at Rockdale Town Hall in 1908, but failed to develop due to lack of numbers who were willing to sign up, St George made its official entrance into rugby league in 1921.
St George played their first premiership game on April 23, 1921 as the “Dragon Slayers”. The records show that St George lost 4-3 to a Glebe side that included the great Frank Burge, and it was winger George Carstairs who scored the first St George first grade try.
In their fourth premiership match Herb Gilbert’s men were triumphant 9-6 over Newtown and registered the club’s first ever win. The team included two Australian representatives in Herb Gilbert and Rick Johnston.
In 1925, Saints finally settled on a home ground and headquarters – Earl Park - and in that year played 12 games with a record of five wins, six losses and a draw.
It was Australian representative “Snowy” Justice who in 1927 persuaded Reg Fusedale to lure Frank Burge to move away from Glebe and join St George as a “coaching player”. He took Saints to the final in 1927, semi-finals in 1928-29 and final in 1930. Frank returned to the club to coach again in 1937. His influence on the club was enormous.
1928-29 will be remembered for two historical events. The first being the riot of Earl Park after a St George V Balmain game, where the crowd invaded the ground after the spiteful match. Secondly, the change in playing strip, which saw St George adopt the distinctive Red V on a white jersey with a stencil badge in the middle of the V, for the first time.
Records crumbled in 1935 when Saints beat newcomers Canterbury 91-6 on Saturday, May 11. The victory broke numerous records including the greatest points total for a first grade team, the highest try tally in a game, the highest winning margin and Les Griffin’s tally of 36 points surpassed Dally Messenger’s 32 points, playing against Queensland in 1910.
In 1938 the first club premiership was secured by St George reserve grade, where Saints beat Balmain in the grand final. The highlight in first grade was a 21-10 win over the powerful Eastern Suburbs side at Earl Park.
Saints secured its first Club Championship in 1940, with first grade bowing out in the semi-finals, reserve grade being beaten finalists but third grade won the premiership. Earl Park was also replaced as the Saints home ground, as the move was made back to Hurstville Oval.
It was on August 30, 1941 that the first grade premiership drought was finally broken. St George defeated Eastern Suburbs 31-14 in the decider at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of 39,957 fans. There were eight Saints juniors in the team, including the sons of the first Saints captain Herb Gilbert – Jack and Herb Junior. The team was led by captain-coach Neville Smith.
The dream of consecutive premierships in 1942 was destroyed by Canterbury, a year in which all three grades made grand final day, but only third grade were triumphant. A decision was taken to sign Herb Narvo to be captain-coach in 1946 resulting in another Club Championship and an inaugural Minor Premiership was the result. But to this day St George men will tell you that the 13-12 grand final loss to Balmain was a game in which Saints were “robbed”, by controversial referee George Bishop. The match was also famous for the return of Australian fast bowling legend Ray Lindwall for the Grand Final.
Frank Facer became a Saint in 1947, and after losing to Balmain at the business end of 1948, the Saints grabbed their second premiership in 1949, defeating South Sydney 19-12 at the SCG. It completed a year which President Clem Madden described as “unprecedented in the club’s 29 year history”. St George were first and third grade premiers, Club Champions, had four players in the Australian side to tour New Zealand and enjoyed record attendances.
In 1950, Saints left behind 10 years at Hurstville Oval, to embark on a rich history with Kogarah Jubilee Oval, Carlton.
Ken “Killer” Kearney joined St George from rugby union in 1952 and went on to be a dual international. In 1954, Kearney became captain-coach of St George in a year that Saints made the final and both he and Norm Provan would travel to France to play for Australia.
At the end of what was an exciting year for St George in 1955, there was significant change at the club as Norm Tipping replaced Ken Kearney captain-coach as first grade coach, and in 1956 as Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games, Frank “Fearless” Facer became secretary of St George. Rated as one of the most effective of all club secretaries this appointment would be the foundation of success for St George. In front of 61,987 fans at the SCG St George won a third premiership by defeating Balmain 18-12 on September 8, 1956.
Kearney was again appointed captain-coach in 1957. Saints beat Manly in the grand final in what was the first successful title defence and a third successive Club Championship, premierships in first grade (only losing three games all year) and third grade, and were runners up in reserve grade. A signing masterstroke took place, when discussions between selector Laurie Doust and Ken Kearney resulted in Saints signing Harry Bath.
St George Rugby League Football Club went on to achieve an amazing run of success, winning 11 premierships in a row, which is now referred to as “never before and never again”. Of these 11 straight premierships the records show:
• 1956 V Balmain (18-12)
• 1957 V Manly (31-9)
• 1958 V Western Suburbs (20-9)
• 1959 V Manly (20-0)
• 1960 V Eastern Suburbs (31-6)
• 1961 V Western Suburbs (22-0)
• 1962 V Western Suburbs (9-6)
• 1963 V Western Suburbs (8-3)
• 1964 V Balmain (11-6)
• 1965 V South Sydney (12-8)
• 1966 V Balmain (23-4)
The tremendous era included an undefeated season in 1959, which was also the year that two future rugby league “Immortals” played first grade with the club, in Johnny Raper and Reg Gasnier.
A premiership for all three grades was achieved in 1963, which coincided with the introduction of another future “immortal” in Graeme Langlands from Wollongong and “The Little General”, Billy Smith.
The image of Norm Provan and Arthur Summons known as “The Gladiators,” that was captured after the grand final in 1963 will go down in rugby league folk lore as one of the game’s most famous images and is synonymous with mateship and the game.
After defeating Balmain in the 1964 grand final, 1965 was a year that saw a world record 10th consecutive premiership and Johnny King scored a grand final try for the sixth straight year, setting up a remarkable stage for the retirement of the great Norm Provan. At the SCG, with a ground capacity of 65,000, a crowd of 78,056 fans packed in to witness the match. It was the only year that Saints were unable to do a lap of honour due to the amount of people at the ground.
In 1966, even though St George lost their first match in 12 years at Kogarah Oval, Saints went on to record their 11th straight grand final led by captain-coach Ian Walsh.
In 1972 Graeme Langlands took over as captain-coach, a position he also held at Australian level, being the last captain-coach of Australia in 1973. St George made the semi-finals, but missed out in 1974 for the first time in 23 years.
The next year Saints returned to the grand final stage only to be humbled by Eastern Suburbs with Langlands having a pain killing injection for a groin injury. He lost control of his leg, which shattered Saints hopes, all while wearing his infamous white boots.
The following year, with “Changa” Langlands retiring, Saints were bundled out in the semi finals.
In 1977, led by a new young crop of talent and coached by Harry Bath, “Baths Babes” won the premiership defeating Parramatta 22-0 in a replay, one week after the initial grand final ended in an historic 9-all draw.
An appearance in the mid-week Amco Cup competition grand final erased the disappointment of missing out on the semi-finals trying to defend their title in 1978, the great Frank Facer and Arthur Justice also passed away that year. In 1979 Saints, buoyed by the arrival of young stars including Steve Morris, Brian Johnson and Graeme Wynn won St George’s 15th premiership.
In 1981 Johnny Raper and Reg Gasnier were inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame as “Immortals”, Graeme Langlands followed suit 18 years later. The 1982 season proved to be disappointing, but saw the introduction of two new teams, including the Illawarra Steelers, who made their long awaited debut in the Sydney Rugby League Premiership. The struggle to gain entry into the “big league” had taken three decades. The traditional Charity Shield against South Sydney also started that year.
A late semi-final try to Parramatta in 1984 starved the Dragons of grand final experience that would have been invaluable in 1985. The club had managed to secure the minor premiership in all three grades, hence another club championship, and went on to compete for the title in all three grades. The reserve grade and under 23s were victorious that year with the first grade falling one point short (7-6) of making 1985 a mirror image of that great year for St George in 1963. Hooker Chris Guider played in all three grand finals.
St George had been based at Kogarah Jubilee Oval since 1950, but in 1986 decided to move to the SCG as a home ground. They found the going tough, missing the semi-finals in all three grades after making the grand final in all three the year before.
A National Panasonic Cup (mid-week) victory and an historic victory over Eastern Suburbs in the first game played on the new Sydney Football Stadium, were the highlights of season 1988. This was the last season for captain Craig Young who was announced coach for the 1989 season as St George also settled on a new secretary in Geoff Carr and a new captain in Brian Johnston. But before the season started it was soured by the news of the death of promising young back rower Geoff Selby in a car accident. A return to Kogarah Oval was exciting for locals of
the St George District.
A new grandstand at Jubilee Oval and individual milestones were the highlights in 1991, as Brad Mackay made a sparkling test debut for Australia, Scott Gourley became a dual international and Michael Potter was named Dally M Player and Fullback of the year.
Premiership glory eluded St George in the grand finals of 1992 and ‘93, going down on both occasions to the Brisbane Broncos. After the 1993 grand final Brad Mackay was the club’s first recipient of the Clive Churchill Medal.
Without a doubt the Illawarra Steelers most successful year was 1992. It started at Dubbo with victory in the Tooheys Challenge – the club’s maiden first grade title – and concluded with a numbing 4-0 loss to St George in the preliminary final.
A major rumbling in the game, “Super League”, also came to fruition in 1995, and players were torn between two establishments within the game. In 1996 the Dragons had a new CEO in Brian Johnston, a new coach in David Waite. Saints made the grand final but were beaten 20-8 by Manly. That week Ricky Walford retired, joining the exclusive “200 club” and the Federal Court awarded Super League the right to run a separate competition in 1997.
In 1998, Saints were eliminated from the competition in the first semi-final played at Kogarah Jubilee Oval. This match bought down the curtain on 78 seasons of stand alone competition as the St George Dragons became the St George Illawarra Dragons for the 1999 season.
The opening for the St George Illawarra Dragons’ first season in 1999 saw the Dragons take on Parramatta at the christening of Sydney’s Olympic Stadium in front of over 104,000 fans. Backrower Darren Treacy was the first try scorer for the new club, but the first victory did not come until round three in Canberra.