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The rugby league club graveyard: The Dragons disappear in the first merger (Part 6)

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Roar Guru
12th January, 2022
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This is the sixth article in the series begun last year where we’ll have a look at the 17 rugby league clubs that have come and gone in the last 113 years.

Who were they, what happened to them, who were their best players, what legacy did they leave behind, and what did they achieve?

With so many defunct teams to get through, we’ll work through them in the chronological order in which they departed the competition. In Parts 1 to 5 we looked at 11 clubs that disappeared from view up to 1998. Today, we’ll look at the St George Dragons, a famous club that disappeared in the first NRL merger.

St George entered the competition in 1921 and departed at the end of 1998.

St George did their best to be one of the foundation clubs but their efforts were thwarted when pressure from the local rugby union club stopped sufficient players making the switch to league. They did, however, enter teams in the lower grades from 1910 and accordingly built a strong junior base.

The Dragons’ ongoing attempts to join the league were rejected for a number of years, but their chance finally came in 1921 following the departure of Annandale at the end of the 1920 season.

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They played their first game in April 1921 against Glebe who were led by the superstar Frank Burge, and were narrowly defeated 4-3. Dual international centre Herb Gilbert was captain-coach of St George at the time, a position he retained for two years before retiring from playing but continuing as coach, and they went on to win only two games from eight rounds in the premiership that year, and one from eight in the City Cup.

Like most new clubs, St George struggled in the early years, and could best be described as just making up the numbers, picking up the wooden spoon in both 1922 and 1926 and hovering around the bottom of the table every other year.

Things changed dramatically in 1927, however, with the arrival of the great Burge, who became their captain-coach. St George made it into the finals for the first time. They easily accounted for Eastern Suburbs in the semi-final, running out winners 26-11, scoring six tries to Eastern Suburbs’ one, with St George centre George Carstairs crossing for three.

They met reigning premiers South Sydney in the grand final and Souths proved too strong, taking the title with a 20-11 victory.

Steeden football on the tryline

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

For the rest of the 1920s, and throughout the next decade, St George remained very competitive, finishing in the top four every year except for 1932, 1935, 1936 and 1938, the year they won their third and last wooden spoon. They finished runners up in 1930 and 1933 but a premiership still eluded them.

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The Dragons began the ’40s with a semi-final berth in 1940 before breaking through for their first premiership in 1941 under captain-coach Neville Smith, defeating Eastern Suburbs 31-14 in the final in front of a crowd of 40,000.

They made the semi-finals every other year in the ’40s with the exception of 1945, were runners-up in both 1942 and 1946, and won their second premiership in 1949 when Johnny Hawke led them to a famous victory over Clive Churchill’s South Sydney team.

They continued their good form in the early ’50s, making the semi-finals each year from 1951 to 1955, and finishing runners-up again in 1953. 1956 then saw the Dragons win their third premiership when they defeated Balmain 18-12.

At this point, no one could have seen the significance of this victory, or suspected that they would go on to win every year for the next ten years, establishing a record of 11 consecutive premierships that surely won’t be beaten.

Some of the best players the game has ever seen appeared for the Dragons during their 11-year reign, not only their many juniors, but also players recruited from far and wide using the financial power of the St George Leagues Club.

Players like Johnny Riley, Ken Kearney, Billy Wilson, Harry Bath, Bobby Bugden, Dick Huddart, Elton Rasmussen, Monty Porter, Ian Walsh, Barry Beath, Billy Smith, Bryan Orrock, Eddie Lumsden, Brian Clay, Merv Lees, Johnny King, Peter Provan, Kevin Ryan and Brian Graham were superstars of the game and all contributed to the club’s success.

And let’s not forget the greatest Dragons of them all, their four rugby league immortals – Norm Provan, Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper and Graeme Langlands.

Norm Provan

Norm Provan (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

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Apart from Norm Provan, the man most responsible for St George’s domination in the mid-’50s and mid-’60s was club secretary Frank Facer, who wrote the book on both how to build a strong and successful club, and a continually re-generating playing roster.

By comparison to Facer, many of the club secretaries and football managers that came after him look like glorified car park attendants.

St George didn’t have things all their own way during their record run, though, and Western Suburbs in particular were hot on their heels in the early ’60s, with St George just scraping home once or twice in games which were as brutal as they were controversial. St George met Wests five times in the grand final during their 11-year run, winning by just 9-6 in 1962 and 8-3 in 1964.

The unlimited tackle rule, which suited the Dragons’ style of play to a tee, came to an end in 1967, and although they finished minor premiers that year, they were eliminated by Canterbury-Bankstown in the preliminary final by 12 points to 11, and their reign was finally over.

They remained competitive for the next ten years, finishing as runners up in both 1971 and 1975 and only missed the semi-finals twice, in both 1974 and 1978, but their golden era was behind them.

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1977 saw them bounce back to win their 14th premiership, and their first in 11 years, in unusual circumstances. After finishing second on the table behind Parramatta, the young Dragons coached by Harry Bath met the more experienced Eels team in the grand final. It was a titanic struggle from start to finish, and the teams couldn’t be separated even after 20 minutes of extra time, and finished locked in a 9-all draw.

The match was replayed a week later, and in a brutal encounter, the Dragons were victorious, defeating the Eels by 22 points to 0, with Rod Reddy creating his own special brand of mayhem as he took the Parramatta pack on with assistance from both Barry Beath and Craig Young, the latter winning the man of the match award.

Fast forward two years to 1979 and they finished as minor premiers and were in the grand final again, this time against Canterbury-Bankstown, who had just snuck into the semi-finals.

St George got away to a fast start and led 17-2 at halftime but the Dogs fought back to eventually go down 17-13, with the difference being George Grant’s goal kicking. Reddy forgot all the rules once again and waged a one-man war against the Bulldogs’ pack, while half Steve Morris was judged man of the match.

St George only made the semi-finals four times during the 1980s, with their best effort finishing runners up to Canterbury-Bankstown by just one point in 1985 after some unusual refereeing by Kevin Roberts. It was another six years before they made the finals again, this time under coach Brian Smith, and they lost back-to-back grand finals in 1992 and 1993 to the Broncos.

Their last chance at a premiership then came in 1996, when they made it as far as the grand final after finishing in seventh place, but couldn’t overcome Bob Fulton’s Manly side. They finished tenth the following year and then made the semis in 1998, their final year as a club.

1998 was the first year of the NRL competition following the end of the Super League split, and the game’s organisation was still relatively fluid, and subject to the competing interests of clubs and factions.

St George had been toying with the idea of a merger for several years, most notably with Sydney City Roosters back in 1995, and there was also a proposal for St George, Illawarra and Cronulla to merge at one stage, but none of that sat too well with Dragons supporters.

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Come the end of 1998 and the perfect ‘merger’ storm appeared on the horizon.

•The NRL wanted to rationalise the competition and reduce the number of teams.
•St George were financially successful but changing demographics in their area meant that both their fan-base and junior talent pool was shrinking.
•Illawarra had a rich mine of local talent but were facing financial ruin and battling for survival.

The deal was done and was seen as mutually beneficial for both clubs as their survival, at least in merged form, could be assured for the foreseeable future. There’s no doubt that St George got the better end of the merger stick, keeping the Dragons name and the famous Red V jersey, but the old club, and its history and achievements, was gone.

Should they have knocked back the merger and toughed it out on their own? I think so, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Some St George Dragons fun facts:

•They were initially known as either the Saints or the Dragon Slayers before becoming the Dragons.

•Their colours have always been red and white, initially with hoops before transitioning to the famous red V.

•In 1935 they defeated newcomers Canterbury-Bankstown by the record score of 91-6, scoring 19 tries to nil.

•Their first home ground was Hurstville Oval before relocating Earl Park at Arncliffe in 1925, then returning to Hurstville Oval in 1949 and then settling at Kogarah Oval in 1950.

•In 1959 they went through the season undefeated, scoring a total of 550 points and conceding just 90.

•Norm Provan holds the record for most games with 256.

•Graeme Langlands holds the point scoring record with 1554 points.

•Johnny King holds the try-scoring record for the club with 143, including tries in six consecutive grand finals.

•Four of the 13 rugby league Immortals are from the Dragons, five if you want to count Frank Burge, who joined the club for his final season in 1927.

•St George are equal second with Eastern Suburbs on the list of premiership winners with 15 premierships each.

Next, we’ll look at the other club to disappear in the first merger: the Illawarra Steelers.

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