How did the Illawarra Steelers fare on the wild frontier of Rugby League expansion, which saw one-third of new ventures fail, and led to anomalies such as the Illawarra heartland being represented by a Sydney joint venture? Was the chaos inevitable?

NSW Rugby League Preliminary Final, 1992

The playoff for the second berth in the Grand Final saw the Illawarra Steelers, down 0-4 at half time, throw everything at future merger partners St George.

Playing in their first Finals series after 11 years of existence, and having beaten St George 18-16 two weeks earlier, they had three tries disallowed for forward passes.

I have blurring memories of watching this match, but I recall feeling Illawarra would breakthrough from 0-4, and go on to take it to the Brisbane Broncos. It felt like their “time”.

The 80 minutes counted out. The points didn’t come, and history showed that to be the peak day of the Steelers’ 18 years as a standalone club.

Was it ever Illawarra’s “time”?

The Steelers faced the early struggles many new sporting clubs. Growing from the Sydney-based NSW Rugby League, there were 12 single-city expansions clubs from 1982 to 2007, as the game grew into the current National Rugby League (NRL). A third of those clubs folded.

Sporting memories are coloured by our passions. We remember moments of matches, players and personalities. We sometimes remember what we wanted to happen as much as what did. Memories are not always factual.

I seem to have a fairly good memory, I have no gauge on this but I find I can recall events and details relatively well. However, my research for this article shook my overall believe that the Illawarra Steelers “came good” in the ‘90s. I’d held a view that they were close to breaking through to a great dynasty, but for events and some bad luck that held them back.  They did improve, but…

Illawarra only won 60% of their matches in a single season: 1992

The 1980s were a miserable period for Illawarra.  If you have a spare 45 minutes, it’s all summed up quite well in this doco.  At the least, Ken Boothroy and the disco training music at 4 minutes is worth a look.

While Illawarra struggled to three wooden spoons in the ’80s, expansion partners the Canberra Raiders gained traction, and won their first title by 1989.

But the Steelers were finally in the thick of things in 1992, first winning their only club trophy, the pre-season “Tooheys Challenge Cup” – beating eventual 1992 Premiers Brisbane, 4-2.

Illawarra had a solid season, which led to that fateful Preliminary Final. 1992 stuck in my mind as “the year that got away”. I don’t think I noticed that they only won 61% of their matches. This seems low for 3rd in a 16 team competition.

How did that happen?

1992 was an unusual year

The season is remembered for a number of famous low-scoring matches, including the Steelers’ two mentioned above (4-2 and 0-4). The week before the Preliminary Final, St George beat Newcastle 3-2. Since 1983, during which time the scoring system has been consistent, the average combined score per match has been 34.5.

The season was characterised by a bunched table and a few outliers. The 1992 Steelers, marked below with a star, finished just above the “middle pack”. As shown by the horizontal dotted line, their 61% win rate would only have been good enough for 5th or lower in many of the seasons either side.

The Super League War was emerging in the numbers

Looking at 1992 more closely shows Illawarra clearly trailing St George… and everyone trailing Brisbane.

1992 also saw the renewal of the successful blue-collar anthem Simply the Best from the late ’80s. This marketing mirrored the situation of the competition. There was a “best” team. It wasn’t the Steelers.

Entering the competition in 1988, in the second wave of expansion, the Brisbane Broncos had the advantage of representing Australia’s second Rugby League capital.

Brisbane won 18 of their 22 matches in 1992, scoring 506 match points to 311 conceded. They saw off Illawarra 22-12 in their only Semi-Final, and went on to humble St George 28-8 in the Grand Final.

The post-match celebrations became infamous for halfback Alan Langer singing “St George can’t play”, something that became synonymous with Sydney-centric jealousy of the player-stocked, commercially-driven Broncos.

In the years that followed, the Broncos would be pivotal in the Super League movement, which sought to disrupt the game in favour of a smaller number of high-value clubs. The nature of season 1992, and the imbalance in the competition table, said a lot about the showdown the competition was heading for.

The Steelers weren’t in the Broncos’ (Super) League

There are a couple of similarities in the origins of the Brisbane and Illawarra entries. Both represented large cities in Rugby League heartlands. Both were considered inevitable expansions years before they eventuated.

This is where the diversion begins, with attempts to establish an expansion club in the Illawarra region as early as the 1950s, and again in 1967. The Country Rugby League (CRL) used its votes on the NSWRL Board to block the expansions.

The CRL impasse was overcome with a constitutional change, and the Steelers finally entered in 1982. However, in those lost years, many talented players from the Illawarra and South Coast systems found success in big Sydney clubs.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Rugby League (QRL), the second major competition in Australia, retained most players in its region. The NSWRL hadn’t yet gained the national ascendency it later did. So the Broncos were able to draw on this QRL base to form a formidable entry to the NSWRL.

The Broncos are now the most successful expansion club, with 6 Premierships since 1992. Illawarra never won a Premiership as a standalone club, and only one since they merged with St George in 1999.

However, as I will explore here, the Steelers’ performance in their time was not inconsistent with the early years of some clubs that arrived later, and it is arguable that they could have found their feet with more time.

Premierships come from sustained performance

Winning a season Premiership is a fickle measure of a sporting club’s success. In Rugby League, you have to “win” the Finals knockout mini-tournament. Most sporting folklore will say a club doesn’t truly come of age until it wins a title. Which means getting to the “last dance”, and winning on the day.

A 60% win rate in any competition sport is a “fair” season, but anything can happen in the finals. A sustained 60% match win rate per season is a target threshold for clubs to be in the window to reach a Finals series and breakthrough. Only 2 of 112 Premierships in this competition have been won from a regular-season win rate of less than 60%. To a degree, this is logical, as it’s hard to make the finals below that, so it’s the target we’ll use to classify a strong season.

119 years of records show that when clubs pass through a period of sustaining win rates over 60%, these periods bear fruit in winning titles, albeit sometimes only a few.

While a single Grand Final match can swing in the wind, the balance of probabilities says a sustained period of strong performance over a number of seasons bags titles. Builds legacies. Even if the titles don’t come, you’re in the better part of the table and keeping your fans engaged.

As can be the case in many professional sports, strong periods can be the exception rather than the rule. Many clubs, such as Illawarra, never entered a strong period.

Sporting clubs are not created equal

Taking the threshold of winning 60% of matches as a “strong season”, to qualify for finals and compete for titles, there is daylight between Illawarra and Brisbane.

The Steelers had no period of sustained performance over a sequence of seasons, even in the ’90s. 1992 was more of a “blip”.

It wasn’t what I “felt” really happened. I moved to Sydney in 1994 and remember going to games there and in Wollongong, and they had a habit of winning.

It is also striking to compare the Steelers’ fortunes to their expansion counterparts, the Canberra Raiders.

Canberra had won three Premierships by their 13th season (1994), and went within 8 meters and (some say) a refereeing blunder, of winning a fourth in 2019, having started to accumulate strong seasons again.

More than just out-performing the Steelers, Canberra established a great modern dynasty of Rugby League, with many of its players now coaching at club, state and international level. The Raiders’ legacy is to have literally defined the modern Rugby League club in the 80s and 90s, Brisbane and Melbourne following their lead.

What if the Steelers’ chart had started earlier, say 1967, or in the ‘50s, from the earlier bids? More time to ramp up, and capture some of the wealth of talented players from the region in the ’70s and early 80’s – Steve Roach, Mick Cronin, Steve Morris and Craig Young, to name a few.

Now let’s consider a more comparable expansion club

… One that has had more time: the North Queensland Cowboys.

Entering in 1995, based in the regional city of Townsville, the Cowboys had a very similar slow ramp-up.

The historical similarity is heightened by aligning their starting years, to show the number of strong seasons from each club’s inception at their “year zero”.

North Queensland took longer than Illawarra to hit a 60% season (their 13th season vs Illawarra’s 11th). But they sustained, and won a Premiership over the Brisbane Broncos in 2015 (season 21), in one of the greatest Grand Final finishes. To have cemented their own legacy with that of Jonathan Thurston is enough said.

It’s also notable that the Cowboys’ and Steelers’ regional base cities had populations of 210,000 and 232,000 (respectively) in their years of entry.

Were the Steelers just a regional city club in a phase of long-term development, that was cut short?

How did the other expansion clubs fare?

The complexity of Rugby League expansion, since the NSWRL first added Illawarra and Canberra, has been haphazard.

Let’s define an “expansion club” for this discussion as a club that was established in a city outside of Sydney, with no existing team there. This precludes the South Queensland Crushers, who were effectively a second Brisbane club.

As mapped, 4 of these 12 expansion clubs have exited, and Illawarra merged. The other 7 remain intact. The Gold Coast and Newcastle both had two earlier franchises that did not overlap with the current.

The overall picture is more complex. There have been no less than 33 distinct franchises playing in the competition since 1908 (not including name changes).

This collection of Rugby League clubs is like the bag of lollies the kids bring home on Halloween – The traditionals, like South Sydney, the fizzy, colourful ones that dissolved quickly – the Gold Coast Chargers, Western Reds (Perth). Throw in the “liquorice allsorts” (Penrith Panthers) and it’s a tasty but confusing mix.

Adding the other expansion clubs to the earlier chart…

…and aligning each club’s starting season to zero, shows their comparative ramp-ups. Think of this like the COVID-19 chart that aligns countries’ case rate from their first case.

The clear stand-outs are Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra. These three achieved sustained periods of success.

The four clubs that no longer exist do not figure on the chart, as having no sustained record to appear.

Melbourne won their first title in their second season, beating the newly-merged St George Illawarra in 1999. This was yet another kick for the Illawarra contingent, as winning the Premiership in their first year of the merger would have been some vindication of their struggles. But it was scooped off the table by one of these top 3 “glamour clubs”, who have won 12 of the 31 Premierships since 1989.

Newcastle (twice) and North Queensland (once) have also broken through. The Warriors have had some strong seasons, but their lack of a Premiership remains a hallmark of another club that has never converted their strong base into success.

The St George Illawarra joint venture lifted the trophy in 2010. This was a vindication and a genuine Premiership win for St George and Illawarra, but winning solely on behalf of the Illawarra region was not achieved. The trophy was taken back to Kogarah on Grand Final night, and down to Wollongong the next day.

Why wasn’t a sole presence retained in the Illawarra?

The 1999 merger with St George created a unique cross-city venture between the Kogarah area of Sydney, and Wollongong. There are still too many teams in Sydney: 9 out of 16, and one of those is merged with Illawarra. Go figure.

St George Illawarra was not a balanced deal, with St George retaining much more of its visible identity, including the main jersey design and mascot. St George had won 15 Premierships, including a record 11 in a row in the 1950s and ’60s.

Arguably the biggest driver of the game’s structural complications was the “Super League War” of the 1990s, which saw a power struggle between rival factions, and drove an over-expansion to 22 teams.

This occurred at the worst time for Illawarra. The events precluded any rational and strategic expansion of the game. The contractual requirement of the “peace agreement” between the Australian Rugby League and Super League, to reduce from 22 to 14 teams by 2000, meant protections like ensuring a single club presence in the Illawarra were low on the priority list. And the Steelers were struggling on and off the field.

The analogy to the North Queensland Cowboys revealed by the analysis suggests the Steelers’ record was not “terminal”. History has shown a club can sustain a legacy from a slow start. Long, bleak periods are part of the deal for clubs. But the Super League wave swamped them.

So, did the Illawarra Steelers have a fair go?

I’ll say again – Sporting clubs are not created equal.  Rugby League is a business.

In terms of results, stifled entry bids, and the forced merger, the Steelers had a lot working against them, and could not establish themselves as a standalone club in the Illawarra.

Their need to merge related to other struggles, such as match attendance and revenue, which caused them to fall below the line in the NRL’s sustainability criteria.

This same criteria saw South Sydney excluded for two years, and nearly erased, save for a public campaign and legal action. Whether such forces could have saved the Steelers if they’d held firm is debatable. Unlikely.

A final factor to acknowledge is the Steelers’ strategy to stay with the Australian Rugby League, despite anecdotes that they could have joined Super League had they chosen to. Coach Graham Murray was reportedly fired over the affair. There are anecdotes that Illawarra could have sought protection from Super League, as being a desirable single-city club. Whether this is true is beyond the scope of my analysis. This was addressed recently in a Rugby League Digest podcast series.

As noted, the Steelers are far from the only club to struggle early on, and building performance can take decades. The Cronulla Sharks took 50 years to win a Premiership, but already had their own identity and place in history. Such is life.

The competition is again looking to expand, and again, any consideration of a standalone team there is not on any radar. The St George Illawarra Dragons have been operating for 21 years. The Illawarra Steelers paid off its debts following the merger, and in 2018, sold its remaining 25% share of the joint venture to WIN Corporation. The merger solved a lot of problems. Things have moved on.

Success: Adding their page in Rugby League history

There is a mystique about the Steelers’ team of the early 1990s. It was a good side. I was a fan.  In fact I ditched Parramatta for them in 1991.  I felt they were coming good.

The BHP Steel jersey the teams wore over many years is one of the recognisable “old jerseys”. If you speak to long time Rugby League followers, you would go a long way to find someone who disliked the Steelers. This may in part be because they never spoiled any big party, never pinched a Premiership from under the nose of an old club as many other expansion clubs did.

Rugby League thrives on arbitrarily hating clubs, and States, for all the large and small reasons one can find. People will say Illawarra were never their first or second team, but that they like them, and will recall the names that were synonymous with it – Paul McGregor, Rod Wishart, Alan McIndoe, the Simon brothers. Great players.

Adding a short but unique chapter to the long history of the game is a success, even if the numbers aren’t too kind.

A note on current expansion plans

There has been discussion for some time about adding 17th and 18th clubs to the competition.  Whether the recent impacts of COVID19 will impact this is to be determined, the game may have dodged the bullet that could have led to a contraction. 

However, the fortunes of past expansion clubs such as Illawarra, must factor into boardroom discussions.  Candidates in the more “greenfield” expansion options, such as Perth, could consider the history of chaos as a detractor, and may seek some protections that might be untenable to the league. 

That said, the Super League War was the main driver in the chaos.  Administrative stability will be essential to any future steps.

Note: This exercise started as a narrative for Sport Tech Daily on a Tableau Public dashboard I built last year about the history of the Illawarra Steelers.  Interactive versions of Tableau Public charts below can also be found here.

I may never write about the Steelers again

I’ve probably exorcised all my demons and done the topic to death. That said, in data there is always more to find, so who knows.

As happens, I found myself debunking some of my own views of things, particularly their performances of the 1990s. The exercise quickly expanded into a post mortem on Rugby League expansion.

Author: Paul Thoms thomspr@gmail.com

Charts built in: Tableau Public free software

Data Source: The Rugby League Project

Rugby League Analytics with ‘CTO’

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