As for previous articles in this series, I will attempt to put together a quality team for each NRL club made up solely of players since 1980 who never went beyond club level.
The criteria for selection is:
– No representing at senior level: internationals, State of Origin, Prime Ministers XIII, City vs Country or All Stars.
– Current players are excluded.
– Players are only eligible for the club they played the most first grade games for.
– For players who straddle the 1970s and 1980s, 30 games after since 1980 is generally the cut-off to qualify.
With a larger pool of players to call on from both legacy clubs as well as the joint venture, there is some top quality here, especially in the centres and at hooker.
Both sides of the joint venture seemed to specialise in solid, 100-plus-game, club players. In fact, two such stalwarts missed the cut for this team.
Glenn Burgess (66 matches) – 1983-1987. 38 wins 24 losses. 10 tries. 3 finals 1 win.
Glenn Burgess spent five years with the Dragons, his best season being 1985 when the club made it to the grand final. The story of the match was Canterbury’s relentless tactics of bombing the opposition try line and fullback Burgess played a great hand defusing everything thrown at him.
It was not long after that the rules were changed to allow a clean catch in goal to take a 20-metre tap rather than be forced into a goal line drop out.
Burgess later spent two seasons with the Gold Coast as they entered the competition.
Michael Sorridimi (86) – 1975-1982. 45 wins 39 losses. 31 tries. 1 final 1 win.
As kid growing up the same Michael Sorridimi always caught my eye for some reason. “Zorro” played on the wing for the Dragons from 1975 but only really cracked the first grade team in 1978. He appeared in the Dragon’s 1979 grand final win, his only finals appearance, but suffered a serious knee injury during the match.
This ruined his next season, but Sorridimi finished off with two productive years in 1981-82. Sorridimi stuck around the club, later helping to managed the junior squads.
Shane McKellar (62) – 1980-1983. 21 wins 40 losses. 35 tries 6 goals.
Before Josh Addo-Carr, there was “The Fox”: Shane McKellar.
Most players to come into this side from both sides of the joint venture have done so from the late 1990’s when the St George and Illawarra came together.
McKellar comes into this side courtesy of a season with St George in 1980 and then being part of Illawarra Steelers first two seasons in the NSWRL from 1982.
After a handy debut year for St George, where McKellar played 15 games, he joined Newtown in 1981 and that got him a grand final appearance from the bench. He then moved to Illawarra along with other Newtown premiership players Brian Hetherington and Barry Jensen.
McKellar played in their first ever match and scored 31 tries in just 47 games across their first two seasons, which is good going considering the club only won 12 games during that time.
McKellar left the Steelers in 1984 and spent a final couple of years with Easts, finishing his career just shy of 100 first grade games and 50 tries. He was only 26 when he retired.
McKellar later served on the Illawarra board, and is a life member of the club.
Jeff Hardy (248) – 1985-1998. 111 wins 131 losses. 35 tries. 13 finals 7 wins.
Jeff Hardy played the 2nd most first grade games that I found during this entire series without ever donning a representative jumper. In today’s environment he would obviously have represented the Indigenous All Stars with distinction.
Hardy is also another that represented both Illawarra and St George, playing 89 games for the Steelers, before moving to the Dragons for another eight seasons. He also found time to play over 120 games in England, both during and after his NRL career.
Hardy’s career was highlighted by back to back grand finals for the Dragons in 1992 and 1993, plus another in 1996. The versatile Hardy played in a different position in each decider, firstly as a lock, then coming on from the bench as a make shift prop, before finally as a hooker.
Hardy played in the Dragon’s final match as a stand-alone club. After retirement Hardy spent some time on the judiciary panel.
“I always hoped to play for the Dragons. As a kid I would go and watch the games at Kogarah Oval and dream of playing out there one day… It was an awesome chapter in my life as every time you put on the red and white jumper is a moment to be cherished.”
Michael Beattie (211) – 1980-1992. 111 wins 91 losses. 62 tries. 11 finals 5 wins.
The Dally M Captain of the year played for the Red V for thirteen years, highlighted by grand final appearances in 1985 and 1992.
Beattie’s final year was probably his best, playing 26 games, scoring 10 tries in a season for the first time in his career, potting over a field goal and leading his team to within one match of a premiership, before hitting an all-time great Brisbane team and unfortunately not having his best day in the grand final.
Beattie also played a season with Castleford in 1987/88, losing the Yorkshire cup final in a replay.
In retirement Beattie worked in radio, did some coaching. He is a life member of St George.
Tony Smith (88) – 1987-1995. 49 wins 38 losses. 13 tries. 7 finals 4 wins.
Tony Smith played 88 matches for Illawarra and then St George, highlighted by appearances in St George’s back to back grand final losses to Brisbane in 1992-93.
Smith did pretty much play wherever older brother Brian was coaching, but he had skills too. Unfortunately a snapped achilles tendon ruined his 1994 and he only played a few games after that.
After a short stint with Workington Town in the English league, Smith joined his brother in the coaching ranks, firstly with him as an assistant at Parramatta and then in England in his own right, winning the Super League and the world Club Challenge in his first season with Leeds in 2004 (sorry Brian!) and being named coach of the year in 2007 after a second title. He has since coached over 470 first grade games in England, winning three Challenge Cups with Warrington.
Smith also coached Japan for three matches in 2000 and more importantly, England from 2007 to 2009.
Steve Linnane (100) – 1984-1990. 54 wins 42 losses. 23 tries. 2 finals 1 win.
1985 grand final halfback Steve Linnane will steer this team around. Linnane burst onto the scene that year, scoring a competition leading 17 tries and being name the competition’s Rookie of the Year. He scored a try in the club’s major semi final win but they fell just one point short against Canterbury in the grand final.
The next few years were not as successful for Linnane although he remained a first choice half for the club. He spent a final season with Newcastle in 1991 before heading to country football. After that 17 try season, Linnane never scored more than 2 in any other season.
After leaving the NSWRL, Linnane was captain-coach of Kurri Kurri, who won three titles in a row between 1993 and 1995 under his leadership. He later coached in the English super League at Halifax and Hull Kingston Rovers.
There was also the small matter of a 20 week suspension in 1987 for eye gouging Greg Alexander.
Jason Hooper (90) – 1997-2002. 41 wins 46 losses. 26 tries. 4 finals 2 wins.
Jason Hooper started his career with one appearance for Illawarra in 1997 (breaking his cheekbone). In 1999 Hooper moved to the merged club and finally broke into first grade in 2000, playing three 20 plus game seasons in a row. He played in the club’s 2001 and 2002 finals campaigns.
Hooper left the NRL in 2003 at just 24 years old and joined St Helens in England. He played over 100 games for the English club, winning a Challenge Cup in 2004 at five eighth and the Cup – Super League double in 2006 as a lock.
Neil Piccinelli (145) – 1986-1996. 67 wins 73 losses. 28 tries 21 goals. 3 finals 1 win.
Steelers legend Neil Piccinelli was part of the “spaghetti brothers” with Dean Schifilliti and formed the backbone of the Illawarra club during the early 1990s. The highlight for both player and club was the 1992 finals series where Illawarra finished one Ricky Walford try away from a grand final.
Piccinelli played the fourth most career games for the Steelers before getting a well-deserved Hunter Mariners pay day in 1997 during Super League. He finished with a solid season for Newcastle in the combined competition in 1998, playing finals with the club.
Piccinelli was named in the second row for the Illawarra 25 years “Team of Steel” and is considered one of the better players to have never received a representative jumper.
Andrew Hart (104) – 1997-2001. 50 wins 50 losses. 11 tries. 3 finals 1 win.
Wollongong local Andrew Hart was another who played firstly for Illawarra and then continued with the merged St George Illawarra club in 1999. Hart played 37 matches for the Steelers from 1997, including from the bench in a 1997 final lost to the Gold Coast.
Hart missed the 1999 finals series after playing most of the season from the bench, but broke into the starting line-up in 2000. He finished his time with the Dragons in 2001 after appearing in their finals series that year.
Hart then spent a couple of seasons at Souths before finishing with a year in England at the London Broncos. After footy Hart spent some time coaching the Bingara Bullets in Group 19 and raising cattle.
Hart’s other claim to fame was being fined in 2000 for getting into a fight with Lance Thompson at the St George leagues club (Thompson later apologised for the incident).
Tony Priddle (103) – 1990-1995. 61 wins 40 losses. 11 tries. 7 finals 4 wins.
Tony Priddle was in the engine room for St George’s back to back grand finals in 1992 and 1993. These were his two best seasons across a six-year career at the Dragons, the only seasons where he played more than 20 first grade games.
After just over 100 games, Priddle left the Dragons during the super league war, tripling his salary. He played three reserve grade games at Canterbury and a season for Burleigh in the QRL on $200,000 for the season. He stayed on with Burleigh after that, winning a QRL premiership in 1999.
In between Priddle also spent a season with Paris St Germain in 1997. He scored just three tries in 18 appearances in England, but they were all in the same match! And they lost!
These days Priddle is a life coach.
Chris Leikvoll (115) – 1997-2003. 59 wins 54 losses. 3 tries. 7 finals 4 wins.
Chris Leikvoll started at Illawarra and played in their last ever NRL game as a standalone club before moving to the new joint venture. All up Leikvoll played 7 seasons with the club and was in the front row for the Dragon’s last gasp grand final loss to Melbourne in 1999.
Leikvoll later spent four seasons with Warrington in the English Super League, before returning to Illawarra to work in the mines and stayed involved in rugby league with the Dapto Canaries. His son Callum played for the Illawarra Harold Matthews squad in 2021.
Nathan Brown (172) – 1993-2000. 93 wins 77 losses. 32 tries. 12 finals 7 wins.
Well this was actually a bit of a surprise. Newly unemployed coach Nathan Brown never got a rep jumper despite playing in three grand finals and starring for St George for eight seasons.
Unfortunately for Brown he never got an elusive premiership, losing grand finals in 1993 to Brisbane, 1996 to Manly and 1999 to Melbourne, the last as club co-captain.
The consistent Brown scored at least one try and played at least 16 games in every season of first grade. He was also named Clubman of the year for three years running from 1995 to 1997.
He retired in 2001 due to a neck injury and has been in the coaching ranks pretty consistently since then, enjoying 18 seasons as a first grade head coach (almost 500 matches), albeit with a slightly lower winning percentage than in his playing days. He did win a title in England with St Helens in 2014.
David Walsh (114) – 1990-1998. 61 wins 49 losses. 6 tries. 3 finals 1 win.
Wollongong local David Walsh played 8 seasons for the Illawarra Steelers throughout the 1990’s, including appearing from the bench during the club’s 1992 march to a preliminary final. Walsh alternated between the bench and front row.
Walsh retired after playing in the Steelers’ last ever match as a stand- alone club in the NRL. Like many retired players, Walsh did some country rugby league coaching, for Shellharbour and Dapto.
Dean Schifilliti (102) – 1989-1993. 44 wins 54 losses. 16 tries. 3 finals 1 win.
Dean Schifilliti played his first five seasons at NRL level with the Illawarra Steelers, replacing original hooker, Michael Bolt. Schifilliti played at least 20 games in all but one of his seasons with the club, and was captain from 1991, including during their 1992 finals campaign.
Schifilliti was named in Illawarra’s 25 Year Team of Steel.
After leaving the Steelers, Schifilliti played at each of Souths (captaining them to a pre-season cup win), North Queensland, Adelaide and Parramatta, Showing his versatility by playing halfback, five-eighth, lock and second row as well as his favoured dummy half position. He finished with 184 first grade games over 12 seasons.
After scoring a try in each season at Illawarra, Schifilliti didn’t cross the line for 5 years after leaving the club, finally breaking through for Adelaide in 1998.
The Under 8’s carnival in North Queensland is called the Dean Schifilliti Shield. The man himself often turns up to watch the kids and sign autographs.
Schifilliti did represent Italy at the World Nines in 1996, but never did in the 13 a side game as far as I can tell.
Perry Haddock (97) – 1984-1989. 50 wins 44 losses. 18 tries. 5 finals 2 wins.
After commencing his career at Cronulla, Perry Haddock represented both St George and Illawarra as stand-alone clubs for 6 seasons. He was halfback as St George lost a preliminary final in 1984 by a single point to Parramatta and was there again the following year as the unlucky Dragons lost the grand final also by one point, this time to Canterbury.
At just over 1.6 metres tall, Haddock was one of the shortest to play the game in my memory.
In 1992 Haddock invented Oztag as a coaching drill for the St George under 20’s side.
John Jansen (111) – 1976-1983. 66 wins 41 losses. 21 tries. 9 finals 5 wins.
John Jansen is best known for his heroics in the Dragon’s 1977 grand final, but 48 games played after 1980 gets him a spot here. Jansen first played for the Dragons in 1976, after representing Illawarra against the touring Great Britain team in 1974 (losing only 26 to 22) and playing for Country Seconds. In just his second year he was a part of “Bath’s Babes”, scoring the opening try in the grand final replay (off an allegedly blatant forward pass).
In his final year in 1983 he captained the Dragons in their finals series, after an injury to Craig Young.