The are an Australian rugby league football club based in the city of Wollongong, New South Wales. The club competed in Australia’s top-level Rugby League competition from 1982, when they, along with the Canberra Raiders, were admitted into the then New South Wales Rugby Football League premiership until 1998 when they formed a new joint venture team, the St. George Illawarra Dragons with the St. George Dragons in 1999. Over those seventeen seasons the club received three wooden spoons, made the play-offs twice and had a total of three of its players (two New South Wales Blues and one Queensland Maroon) selected to don the green and gold for Australia.
Illawarra still field stand alone teams in the NSW Cup (as the Illawarra Cutters), and in the SG Ball (under 18’s) and Harold Matthews (under 16’s) competitions as the Steelers. Their mascot from 1982 to 1998 was the popular Stanley, the Steel Avenger (commonly referred to as Stanley the Steeler).
Illawarra made several attempts to enter the NSWRL competition, the first major attempt was in the 1950s. The Illawarra Rugby League made a much more serious attempt for entry into the 1967 season but were blocked by the Country Rugby League (CRL) who used their constitution to prevent Illawarra’s plans of playing in the Sydney competition. This was a crucial moment in the emergence of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, as it was after Illawarra were blocked and the NSWRL wanted a second new club to enter with Penrith, preferably in the South of Sydney due to continued success at that time of the St. George Dragons, to avoid the need for a bye that “the shire’s” submission was successful.
In this unsuccessful bid, Illawarra were to be backed by the then wealthy Illawarra Leagues Club in Church Street, Wollongong. The club is the second oldest leagues club in the world. It was originally established to financially support top class rugby league and soccer in the region.
On 13 December 1980, the NSWRL voted almost unanimously for Illawarra to enter in the 1982 season. Only three dissenting votes were counted, which were the three CRL representatives present. Illawarra’s organiser Bob Millward told those at the meeting that rugby league in the region depended on this bid getting the go ahead. Interest in the region had turned away from local football to the Sydney competition. The Illawarra Mercury daily newspaper was increasing its coverage of the Sydney premiership and Illawarra’s inclusion was viewed as the best way of reviving the local league.
Illawarra entered the competition in 1982, with financial backing from many of the local leagues clubs. Their first captain was star fullback John Dorahy, and first coach Allan Fitzgibbon. Unfortunately, the recession hit hard and the leagues club money dried up and the Steelers were a new club in desperate financial trouble. In 1984, BHP Steel saved the club, signing on as the major sponsor. BHP stayed with the Steelers until they left the NRL at the end of the 1998 season.