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Late in 1997, the National Rugby League formed as part of a peace deal between the ARL and Super League. Little did Dragons or Steelers fans realise, their independence was coming to a close.
During the 1998 season, the St George Dragons and the Illawarra Steelers negotiated a joint venture. The Steelers had plenty of talent but struggled financially and despite having some solid seasons they never climbed the heights of the game from their inception.
The Dragons, on the other hand, were the opposite. They had achieved what was considered impossible. They were a club that made history. Unfortunately, they were not wealthy, and though they had a junior nursery it was shrinking and continues to do so.
The two clubs saw a means to their survival. That survival required them to merge.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I am not a Dragons fan but thought it was a sad day for them to fold as an independent outfit. I also believed that we needed a club in the Illawarra region and so too was sad to see them disappear.
Obviously, the merger has worked to some level. The two teams share the same colours. The club splits their games between Sydney and Illawarra. They had success early making the grand final in their first season. Though it took some time, the club managed to get a title – the joint venture’s first in 2010.
However, the days have been cold since and the club has struggled financially of late. Moreover, the organisation still suffers from an identity crisis similar to that of the Wests Tigers.
The club has two homes. One in Sydney and one in the Illawarra. Moreover, it has struggled with how to incorporate its past into the future. By this I mean, we had an Illawarra team enter the NSW Cup playing with the colours of the Steelers but known as the Cutters.
The team in the 2017 season, played under the badge of St George Illawarra. Yet, the badge worn by this outfit and by the NRL team is the same as the old badge worn by the St George Dragons – with only the Illawarra wording added to the bottom.
What does this have to do with anything you ask? It seems that the Dragon side of the marriage refuses to accept that the wedding took place. Go to the Dragons homepage, and they claim to have won 16 titles. “So what?” scream the Dragons fans, “It’s true.”
Hmm, really? Think about it. I don’t hear the Wests Tigers fans saying they have won five or 12 (Wests Magpies four titles/ Balmain 11 titles) since they won their first title as a joint venture in 2005.
Don’t get me wrong. The St George Club was a mighty one. Formed in 1921, they were formidable opposition. The eleven straight titles will go down in history as one the greatest sporting feats ever. They were so successful the game changed the rules.
The club produced excellent players and had a huge passionate fan-base. Their 15 titles are second only to the great South Sydney club.
The Illawarra club was young. For years they had produced the talent for Sydney clubs before coming into the competition in 1982. They were not successful by any real means. They came close in the 92 and 93 seasons. Despite this, their fans although much smaller in number were equally passionate.
These two clubs would ideally be standing on their own two feet today. However, history shows us this is not the case. When they merged, they formed a new partnership, but have struggled with this ever since. Now, I get it. I’m not a St George Illawarra fan – I wasn’t a Dragon or Steeler for that fact either – so, you probably do not want to hear my suggestions.
Regardless, this is what I think could secure the club’s long-term viability.
Firstly, location: Choose a home. Personally, I would like to see all training and football operations occur out of the Illawarra region. This move doesn’t mean you have to play all of your games out of Win Stadium.
I recognise that the Dragons brand is massive and so still competing against the Dogs, Eels, Tigers and Souths in Sydney would draw much bigger attendances than they would in Illawarra, but I do think apart from these marquee games, stay in and make the Illawarra region your permanent home.
Secondly, club affiliation. Unless, the NRL comes out and declares a change to history, St George Illawarra was a merger and not a take-over. The club’s first season was in 1999, not 1921 or 1982. However, this does not mean we need to lose these two teams identities.
Bring back the Illawarra Steelers (playing out of Win Stadium) and the St George Dragons (playing out of Kogarah) and have them operate as feeder teams in the NSW Cup for the main outfit. Both sides would keep their original emblems, uniforms and history.
When the merged entity came into being, the new club should have developed a new crest. Before you wail in protest, I would have done this while maintaining a stronger link to both teams – not just the St George team – that currently is shown.
Finally, at board level, it would be good to see genuine independence. Board members not representing the old Dragons club or the Steelers club, but the merged club and embracing this new young club.
The merged team has failed to capitalise on its popularity. By the end of 2017, the club held 18,732 members. This number is weak considering that this club should be a giant of the sport. It needs to grow its member base; otherwise, the financial issues that have plagued the club will continue into the future.
If the club engages with its fans more, then its future will be secure. Until then, the merged club will be forever chasing the past.
Club: St George Illawarra
First Season: 1999
Titles: 1 (2010)