Like many in the south coast city of Wollongong late last year, Rod Wishart was there to cheer the Dragons on to their maiden premiership trophy. Yet his jubilation was also tainted by a hint of regret.
A passionate Illawarra Steelers junior who played 154 games for the club (third most) between 1989 and 1998 (as well as one season for St George Illawarra in 1999), Wishart was saddened by the demise of his club as a single entity when the merger took place a decade ago and isn’t convinced any sense of equality has since been reached.
“I’ve got four kids that are all Dragons fans but my oldest was only five when I retired and they don’t really remember the Steelers, which for me is a bit unfortunate,” Wishart told NRL.com. “When you look at St George Illawarra these days you don’t really see anything of the Steelers.
“I’m disappointed that the identity of the Steelers isn’t what St George has got. They seem to not have missed anything. Forget about money and anything like that – I played for the badge on my jersey and that doesn’t seem to be there anymore. As time went on I started to realise that the merger wasn’t as even as you would like. I know other factors came into play. St George had a good brand that they could build on, a proud history, so you learn to live with all of that.
“I’m pretty passionate about the club I played for and I guess you’ve just got to live with the fact that it’s not the same anymore.”
Although he identifies as a St George Illawarra supporter himself these days, Wishart – who will forever hold the Illawarra records for tries scored (68) and points scored (1044) – has always been an Illawarra boy at heart.
Born and raised in Gerringong, about 40 kilometres from Wollongong, the NSW and Australian representative goal-kicking winger was an obvious target for cashed-up rivals throughout his 12-year career but rejected a number of big-money offers to remain in the scarlet jersey.
“I was born and bred down here and that was one of the reasons I played for the Steelers,” he explained. “I had the opportunity to go to other clubs but I guess in the end it was all about staying at home.
“I think at an early age I realised that having my family and friends around was a good thing and although leaving for a team like the Gold Coast sounded exciting, I was level-headed enough to know that I had a pretty good support base at home. And it’s turned out to be perfect for me. I’ve got no regrets at all.
“I had some great years with the Illawarra Steelers, one year with St George Illawarra and that’s it. It’s good to live in a place like Gerringong and I never had to leave Gerringong to play in the best comp in the world. It’s pretty unique like that. Not many people can live in a little town like Gerringong and play in the NRL.
“For me, Gerringong is home. It was a great place to grow up myself and I’m fortunate to be able to give my own kids the same opportunity.”
Not surprisingly, the south coast is now home to the next phase of Wishart’s life. Having taken up a job with a chemical distribution company when his football career came to an end in 1999, he now sells automotive industrial paint to panel beaters and industrial companies in and around the Wollongong region.
“I never really wanted to get into coaching or anything like that – I always wanted to have a business of my own to be honest,” Wishart said.
“When I retired I had four little kids, they were all five years and under at the time so it was pretty good to work for a company and sort of learn the ropes in distribution and then try and find a business that was suitable for myself.
“That’s what happened I suppose and I’ve been doing it for about six years now.
“I bought an existing business and changed the name to Wishart’s Paint Solutions.
“Obviously I didn’t have too much background in paint but what interested me was distribution more than anything. It didn’t really matter what I sold – if you give a good price and provide a good service you’ll go okay.
“And Wollongong is the sort of town that likes to look after their own. You’ve still got to run your business properly but it’s all going quite well.”
Of course, Wishart hasn’t left rugby league behind completely.
Having now accepted that the Steelers will never exist in the same way they once did, he is a regular at WIN Stadium to watch St George Illawarra go around.
“My kids support the Dragons and they know I played a year with them,” he said. “I do like to see them go well. I go to most of the games down at WIN Stadium and the kids are always keen to go. Last year was obviously very good and they’re getting great results.
“Wayne Bennett has done a wonderful job. They’ve got a good side that just plays football and knows what needs to be done.
“Plus it’s good to see a lot of Illawarra juniors still coming through the ranks to play for the club. Matt Cooper was at the club when I was there, playing under-21s, and it’s great that he is still there. That’s one area where the Steelers were always strong and even though we didn’t have the money, we had a lot of bargaining power with what we had to offer with local juniors. That’s still the case now.”
And rest assured Wishart – who played 22 State of Origins for NSW and 17 Tests for Australia – will have the TV tuned to Channel 9 this Friday night when the Kangaroos clash again with New Zealand.
“I’ll definitely be watching,” he said. “As I said I’ve got four kids including two boys that are right into their footy.
“I’m nearly forced to watch it now, which is good – they keep me interested and we love watching a bit of footy together.”