RUGBY LEAGUE It took a three-decade fight but when the Illawarra finally got its own team in the big league what they'd be called was a no-brainer. A team playing the working man's game in a steel city? The Illawarra Steelers was a match made in heaven. "We put it out to the public on what we should be and Steelers was the overwhelming one," bid organiser and St George Illawarra board member Bob Millward recalls. "The steel industry was the major industry in the Illawarra. They employed in excess of 25,000 people and we were known along with Newcastle as a steel city. I'm sure if we hadn't taken that name in '82 Newcastle [Knights] would have in '88." They may have been called the Steelers and die-hard fans will always associate their team with the BHP logo worn by club greats like Paul McGregor, Rod Wishart and Michael Bolt but - contrary to popular belief - the steel giant did not financially back Illawarra's bid for entry into the NSW Rugby League competition. Six of the region's league clubs pooled their money to get them over the line in 1980 despite opposition from the Country Rugby League which had effectively quashed previous bids in 1954 and 1967. The Steelers played their inaugural season in 1982 without a major sponsor before Penfolds wines came on board for '83, '84 and '85. Illawarra was finally in the big league but struggled on the the field and in the board room as the recession bit hard and saw club money drying up. The Steelers didn't have the financial clout to mix it with their wealthier Sydney rivals and by 1985 faced the prospect of being forced out the back door after just five seasons. Enter BHP, "the big Australian" who stepped in to not only save the Steelers but legitimise Illawarra's presence in Australia's premier competition. "We always said we didn't want to take Illawarra to the big league we wanted to bring the big league to the Illawarra and BHP helped us do that," Millward said. "We were very fortunate that Jerry Ellis came here as the general manager and he gave the go ahead. "BHP paid us a great compliment coming on board. "They were the big company of Australia. They used to be called 'the big Australian' and their main works were at Port Kembla and it gave us that prestige. We were in the big league and we were backed by the big Australian." The gratitude certainly didn't flow all one way with BHP's 25,000 employees all having stake in the Steelers performance. "The big thing to come out of it was that Jerry Ellis and many other members of the management team used to say to us regularly that it gave their employees a sense of ownership. It was their team," Millward said. "Rugby league became their game. They often used to say that it was a better Monday after the Steelers had won and production was up. "It was one of the biggest compliments they ever paid us, that Mondays were different when the Steelers won and we really had an impact on worker morale." While their formal association ended in 1998 following the Super League war and Illawarra's merger with St George, Millward says rugby league in the region still owes a huge debt of gratitude to BHP [now BlueScope]. "There was a big cry before we went in that we wouldn't have the money to sustain it and those people were probably right and without BHP they would've been proven right much earlier," Millward said. "They not only supported the Illawarra Steelers, they supported the Wollongong Wolves who won two premierships in the National Soccer League and also the Wollongong Hawks so they supported all three." It's why - with the future of BlueScope's Port Kembla plant still under a cloud - Millward backs the Mercury's #SaveOurSteelworks campaign. "I can't speak highly enough or give enough compliments to what BHP [BlueScope] have done for sport in this region," Millward said. "If I speak on behalf of sport, particularly our presence in professional sport, we've got a lot to thank them for. I'd like to remind people how good they were to Illawarra sports and the community at large. I just hope that they do survive and remain part of this community for decades to come."