Shaun Timmins still remembers the moment everything changed for the Steelers.
It was just as rugby league was going full-time professional in the mid-1990s and Timmins, still a teenager, was used to coming straight from the job site to training with the first-grade side.
So were most of his teammates, in fact, so when it was time for tools down and Steeden’s up, they did what they always did when they went to work.
“One of the first training sessions after we went full-time, I’ll never forget it, blokes were showing up with their eskies like we were on the job site, packed with sandwiches and maybe a couple of beers,” Timmins said.
“We’d train, then sit on the eskies between sessions like it was smoko. It was all we knew.”
When the story is retold on Sunday, as every Illawarra Steelers old boy you’d care to name rocks up to Wollongong Showground to celebrate the club’s 40th anniversary when the Dragons take on the Raiders, expect that yarn to be embellished.
By Sunday arvo, the boys will have been brushing coal off themselves after coming straight up from the mines, and those eskies will have been filled with Kaiser Stuhl port courtesy of their long-forgotten sponsor.
Maybe Stanley the Steel Avenger, the club’s cult hero mascot who was once sent off by a referee after getting involved in a brawl during a match against Balmain, was there to share in a couple of cold ones.
In hindsight, the day rugby league went full-time was the beginning of the end of the Steelers as a standalone club.
From the day they entered the league in 1982 until they merged with St George at the end of 1998, the coffers were never overflowing.
Success on the field was also hard to come by – the Steelers only made the finals twice, and apart from 1992 they were never a real chance of bringing a premiership back to Wollongong.
But with Illawarra proving to be a breeding ground for some of rugby league’s best and brightest, both before the Steelers entered the league and after, the club were vital in opening a pathway to one of the game’s richest lines of talent – players like Timmins, who grew up just down the way in Kiama and ended up representing New South Wales and Australia.
“It was somewhere we could play in the best comp in the world without leaving home. I didn’t have to leave Kiama if I didn’t want to,” Timmins said.
“I’m so fortunate the Steelers made that call 40 years ago, and so are a lot of other blokes, because so many of us came through the ranks.
“We didn’t have to leave and go to Sydney to chase our dreams, we could do it at home, in front of all our family and friends. There’s nothing like that.
“It’s always been a great area for rugby league, it produced plenty of quality players for years before my time – there were Immortals who came from here, like Graeme Langlands and Bob Fulton, then years later there were the guys I looked up to like Rod Wishart and Paul McGregor and John Simon.
“They were always underdogs, the Steelers, they were always just a tough, working-class side. I was 13 or 14 and seeing them make it one game away from the grand final, and seeing how close they came – it lit a fire in me.
“To see them go and play rep football, it gives a young kid a dream, a possibility that you can do it from Illawarra.”
Timmins was just 17 when he debuted with the Steelers in 1994 as one of the youngest players in the club’s history and became one of their brightest stars in their final years as a standalone club.
Even now, when the Steelers have been part of the merger longer than they were a standalone club, there are still some holdouts who yearn for an independent Illawarra team, but Timmins is circumspect about the club’s second life.
“It was a perfect marriage, and it had to happen at the time because it looked like we were going to lose rugby league in the Illawarra. It was a must-do, and I was fortunate enough to be part of the new club, so it was special to be part of the merger and part of history,” Timmins said.
“What was important was local kids, south coast kids and Illawarra kids, that they still had a pathway to rugby league. We still train in Wollongong, we still have games at WIN Stadium, that path is still there and those links are still strong.
“Local kids coming through and having that dream, and not having to leave town to land an NRL spot, that’s what’s really important.”
The Steelers are still active in the junior grades, where they won the 2019 SG Ball grand final and narrowly missed out in last year’s decider. With Talatau Amone, Tyrell Sloan, Jayden Sullivan and the Feagai twins progressing to the top grade from those sides, the future of rugby league down south is as strong as ever.
But Sunday will be all about the past. The Dragons will wear commemorative Steelers jerseys as they take on Canberra, and with Timmins and company in the stands, there’s sure to be many a tall tale told.
It’ll be as Illawarra as the Kiama Blowhole, as Illawarra as a Rod Wishart training card, as Illawarra as grabbing a schnitty burger from Chicko’s, as Illawarra as having a serious opinion over which beach is better, North Gong or City.
They might stop short of playing the old Steelers club song, which urges Illawarra “to give ’em a taste of steel” but squint your eyes and you could convince yourself it’s 1992 all over again.
“The crowds we’d get on a Sunday arvo in Wollongong, there was nothing better. I had a ball,” Timmins said.
“There’s a fair few boys fired up for the weekend, there’ll be plenty of old faces. Wishy and Mary and Trent Barrett, a lot of the boys I played with will be there.”
“I have to work on Sunday at the game, so I’ll have to catch them on the Saturday and even then I’ll have to behave myself.
“There’ll be plenty of yarns told and even more lies told, it should be a good laugh.”