To those who steel believe

Scarlet success: The Illawarra Steelers celebrate winning the 1992 Tooheys Challenge competition.

Scarlet success: The Illawarra Steelers celebrate winning the 1992 Tooheys Challenge competition.

WHEN the Dragons established their own NSW Cup feeder club in 2012, the sentimental push inevitably came to call them the Steelers.

However, the NRL club capitalised on a financial windfall through Illawarra Coal’s sponsorship and the Cutters were born.

It’s somewhat fitting, given the generational change of the region’s powerhouse industries and the number of rugby league players employed in the mines.

Since then, like most second-tier teams, they’ve had their own identity crisis. Partly a team for Wollongong to call its own, partly a hunting ground for fringe or axed NRL players and ambitious youngsters.

Of course, the half of South Coast rugby league fans who do support the Dragons were in raptures when they claimed the drought-breaking NRL title in 2010.

Those of an older vintage still talk of the Steelers being ‘alive in the five’ in 1992 as an all too brief era of top-level success.

On Sunday, the Cutters venture to Parramatta’s Pirtek Stadium as underdogs, as is the Illawarra’s way.

Taking on the Canberra Raiders-backed Mounties, it also doubles a farewell to the venue before it is redeveloped.

It was something of a graveyard for the Steelers in their 17 seasons of the NSWRL,ARL and NRL competitions.

They won just two of 11 games at Parramatta, including a 25-14 finals loss to the Gold Coast in a sixth versus seventh playoff.

Adding to the pain, the Steelers lost the mid-week Panasonic Cup final in June 1989 against the Broncos.

Trailing 16-0, the Steelers stormed back but were eventually beaten 22-20.

The NSW Premiership competition may live in the NRL’s lengthy shadow, but has gained considerable credibility in recent times, as the under 20 concept fell away as a genuine pathway.

Some are blessed, but most have precious few opportunities to win a premiership. Those who have worn scarlet-and-white know it better than most.

The Steelers lost what is now the preliminary final in 1992, a tense 4-nil battle against St George, where Illawarra were denied by multiple forward pass calls.

Their lone triumph came in the dark at Apex Park, Dubbo, when Chris Walsh lifted the pre-season Toohey Challenge in March 1992, after beating Brisbane 4-2.

Dragons coach Paul McGregor, John Simon and a young Ryan Girdler were among the victors.

“Even though the scoreline might suggest it, it certainly wasn't a dour affair,” the late, great Steelers coach Graham Murray told the Mercury several years ago.

“The Broncos were hailed as a tremendous attacking football team going into that season and I remember it was quite open football.

“It was late in the afternoon in Dubbo, it was quite humid and we were hanging on for dear life.”

Mounties, featuring Raiders’ talent Brenko Lee, Shaun Fensom, former Dragons playmaker Sam Williams, finished four game clear of the Cutters atop the ladder.

But as well as the NSW Premiership crown, the carrot dangles for the Cutters to stand on rugby league’s biggest stage next week.

Sunday’s winner will play on the undercard to the NRL grand final against the Queenland Cup winner next week.

It’s a mighty lure, as well as a great source of sentiment for those who know what it means to give them a taste of steel. Or coal, at least.

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