After 40 years, Illawarra rugby league still gives a lot of steel

Shaun Timmins still remembers the moment when everything changed for the Steelers.

It was like rugby league turned full-time pro in the mid-1990s and Timmins, still a teenager, was used to coming straight from the field to train with the first-class squad.

So did most of his teammates, so when it came time for tool down and Steeden up, they did what they always did when going to work.

“One of the first training sessions after we went full time, I’ll never forget it, guys showed up with their eskies like we were on a construction site, full of sandwiches and maybe a few beers,” Timmins said.

“We trained and then sat on the eskies between sessions like it was smoko. It was all we knew.”

A man seems to fit in during an NRL match
It’s been 40 years since the Steelers entered the major leagues. Getty Images

When the story is told on Sunday, as any old Illawarra Steelers boy you’d like to call rocks to Wollongong Showground to celebrate the club’s 40th anniversary when the Dragons take on the Raiders, expect that to be yarn embellished.

By Sunday Arvo, the guys will have brushed coal off themselves after coming straight out of the mines, and those eskies will be filled with Kaiser Stuhl gate courtesy of their long-forgotten sponsor.

Perhaps Stanley the Steel Avenger, the club’s cult hero mascot who was once ejected by an umpire after getting involved in a brawl during a match against Balmain, was there to share in a few cold ones.

In retrospect, the day rugby league went full-time marked the beginning of the end of the Steelers as a standalone club.

From the day they entered the league in 1982 until they merged with St. George in late 1998, treasuries were never overflowing.

Success on the field was also hard to come by – the Steelers made it to the finals only twice and apart from 1992, they never had a real chance of returning a premiership to Wollongong.

But with Illawarra proving to be a breeding ground for some of the best and brightest rugby leagues, both before the Steelers entered the league and afterwards, the club was vital in opening a pathway to one of the richest talents in the world. game – players like Timmins, who grew up in Kiama and eventually represented New South Wales and Australia.

A man runs the ball during an NRL match
The Steelers created a path for one of the best nurseries in the rugby league. Getty Images

“It was a place where we could play in the best league in the world without leaving home. I didn’t have to leave Kiama if I didn’t want to,” said Timmins.

“I’m so lucky that the Steelers made that call 40 years ago, and so are a lot of other guys, because so many of us came through the ranks.

“We didn’t have to leave and go to Sydney to chase our dreams, we could do it at home, in front of all our family and friends. There is nothing like that.

“It’s always been a great area for rugby competition, it has produced many quality players years before my time – there were immortals who came from here like Graeme Langlands and Bob Fulton, and years later there were the guys I looked up to. Rod Wishart and Paul McGregor and John Simon.

“They were always underdogs, the Steelers, they were always just a hard, working class. I was 13 or 14 and saw them one game away from the grand finale, and when I saw how close they got — it lit a fire in me .

“To see them play football gives a young child a dream, a possibility that you can do it from Illawarra.”

Timmins was just 17 when he debuted with the Steelers in 1994 as one of the youngest players in the club’s history, becoming one of their brightest stars in their final years as an independent club.

Even now, with the Steelers part of the merger longer than they were a standalone club, there are still some holdouts yearning for an independent Illawarra team, but Timmins is cautious about the second life of the club.