When the Illawarra Steelers were given the green light to enter the NSWRL premiership 40 years ago today it represented the culmination of a long battle by local officials.
The Illawarra and south coast districts had long been strongholds of the game but their previous attempts to join the elite competition had been repeatedly thwarted. But the endless stream of champions who emerged from the nursey of the Wollongong area – the likes of Keith Barnes, Graeme Langlands, Bob Fulton, Michael Cronin, etc – finally persuaded both the NSWRL and Country Rugby League that the time was ripe.
The Steelers made their premiership debut on February 28, 1982 against Penrith at Wollongong Stadium, and although they lost 17-7 their team featured greats including skipper John Dorahy, NSW centre Brian Hetherington and a host of keen young locals.
In their seventeen seasons in first grade the Steelers produced legends including Rod Wishart, Bob Lindner, Alan McIndoe and Paul McGregor who all went on to represent Australia.
Equally popular were local heroes Michael Bolt (who played most first grade games for the club), Ian Russell, John Cross, Neil Piccinelli and Dean Schiffiliti, Brett Rodwell, John Simon and Trent Barrett who all wore the scarlet and white jersey with distinction.
Although the Steelers nearly pulled off one of the great upsets in modern times when narrowly beaten by the star-studded Brisbane Broncos in the 1989 Panasonic Cup final the club’s stellar season came in 1992. That year they claimed the Tooheys Challenge pre-season title and went within a whisker of qualifying for the Grand Final.
Since the merger the Steelers brand remains strong as a standalone identity in the Harold Matthews and SG Ball Cup competitions, winning their third SG Ball in 2019 and they continue to serve as a rich nursery for the Dragons NRL side.