Hunter Mariners

Sean Fagan of

Hunter Mariners - made the World Club Challenge Final - Brett Kimmorley & Robbie McCormackNo rugby league club ever endured the adversity that the Hunter Mariners faced to get started on the field and then, as it turned out, to stay on there. The Sydney Morning Herald described the club before their 1997 debut as "the most unpopular in the history of rugby league".

The Hunter Mariners were formed as one of the two new Super League franchises in late 1995 (the other being the Adelaide Rams) when it was apparent that the Newcastle Knights would remain with the ARL. The fight for the rugby league heartland of Newcastle was particularly bitter which made life for the Hunter Mariners a very difficult task.

A number of Knights officials had embraced the Super League and joined the Mariners. This included Robert Finch (football manager), Neil Cadigan (marketing), Keith Onslow (junior development) and Mark Sargent (corporate services). They were extensively criticised by the remaining Knights staff.

Bob Ferris was secretary-manager of the Newcastle Wests Leagues Club and he tried to get his club to financially back the Mariners. Wests weren't the most loved club in Newcastle, and Ferris' actions didn't make him or Wests (who at one stage held a 60% ownership of the Mariners) any more popular. Ferris eventually left Wests and became the Hunter CEO.

Mariners public relations manager Michael Hagan (a former Knights player himself) told the Sydney Morning Herald: "I feel sorry for blokes like Keith Onslow, who wears his heart on his sleeve and just loves kids." Onslow was refused entry to every school in the Newcastle region right through 1996.

"He came here on almost the same salary he was on at the Knights but saw an opportunity to do more good because we had a bigger junior budget. For someone to suggest he doesn't care about rugby league and is only in it for the money is ridiculous. It's like people expect you to do what they think is right, rather than what you think is."

The Mariners' hopes for sharing an upgraded Marathon Stadium with the Knights were brought to an end in October 1995 when the Supreme Court ruled Hunter had no rights to the Council-leased stadium. The Mariners had been prepared to spend $4million to build two new grandstands at the ground.

The Mariners played two trial games in the 1996 pre-season under ex-Illawarra coach Graham Murray. They assembled a useful team of many quality first graders including Kevin and Tony Iro, Noel Goldthorpe, Robbie Ross, Brad Godden, Nick Zisti, Robbie McCormack, Paul Marquet, Troy Stone, David O'Donnell, Mark Sargent, Matthew O'Connor (ex-Wallaby), Heinrich Fuls (ex-Springbok), Jamie Oljinek, Anthony Brann, Junior Paramore, Henry Suluvale, Willie Poching and Neil Piccinelli.

Poching will be remembered as the man who brought the Hunter Mariners their first win. Poching was called in to kick a 40-metre penalty goal late into the trial match against Canterbury at Raratonga in the Cook Islands, to see the Mariners win by 12-10.

But the team had to be disbanded and the club put into stasis following the legal restrictions placed on Super League which prevented the 1996 rebel competition from proceeding. The Mariners players were scattered across the ARL competition and elsewhere - some of them would not return.

Halfback Noel Goldthorpe was on his way to a grand final with St George, winger Keith Beauchamp had decided to join the Knights rather than return to Illawarra, 19-year-old five-eighth Scott Hill was an unexpected revelation at Canterbury and fullback Robbie Ross excelled at the Brisbane Broncos. Mark Sargent retired and Heinrich Fuls was released from his contract and returned to South Africa after playing the 1996 season with Moorebank.

In October 1996 the Super League competition was given the go ahead by the courts. However, the Mariners were quickly offered as merger partners for the Knights. Then when St. George knocked back the offer of a Melbourne Super League franchise, there were suggestions the Hunter Mariners would be sent there. Neither happened and the Mariners finally got on the field in 1997..

Meanwhile the anomisty between the two rival Newcastle clubs had hardly improved. Rumours abounded that Knights players were banned by their club from attending Mariners games.

Knights CEO Ian Bonnette denied any policy existed, but told the media: "If you were working at Tooheys and kept being seen walking out of the bottle shop with cases of Foster's, you wouldn't be working at Tooheys too long."

Mariners players were not placed under any similar pressure, though it is unlikely any were prepared to face the Marathon locals in the prevailing mood. Bonnette summed up the emotions of the community: "Passion can manifest itself in a number of ways." The Mariners' offices regularly had their windows broken overnight.

Even before taking the field in 1997, many were predicting that 1998 would see a peace deal and there would again only be one Newcastle club - either the Knights or through a merger with the Mariners. This belief kept the two clubs battling each other off the park all through 1997. Bonnette again made it clear what the prize would be: "If the clubs were to merge, some of the administration would not be able to work together." There would be no merger.

Sporting a flashy bright yellow and blue playing strip the Mariners played their first game of the Super League season at home (Breakers/Toppers Stadium in Birmingham Gardens) against Canterbury. In a spirited display the Mariners went down 20 to 16.

Hunter finished the season in a credible sixth place (one spot away from the play-offs) and included scoring impressive wins over semi-finalists Canberra, Penrith and Brisbane.

The 24 points to six belting of the eventual title-winners, Brisbane Broncos, mid-season was the club's best performance. By that time coach Murray had found a bunch of youthful talent who were emerging at the Mariners, players who were headed for much bigger days - Brett Kimmorley, Scott Hill and Richard Swain.

The arrival of Kimmorley as a permanent first grader (he had played a handful of games for the Knights before 1997) caused mid-season dramas at the club between Murray and incumbent half Noel Goldthorpe. After kicking the match-winning field goal in the Tri-Series final for NSW in its win over Queensland (in rugby league's longest ever game), Goldthorpe returned to the Mariners to be told he had been dumped for the youngster Kimmorley.

Meanwhile Kimmorley refused to let the situation around him affect his performances and he established himself as the club's no.1 halfback. By season's end Kimmorley had achieved a meteoric rise by attaining inclusion in the Australian SL test teams against Great Britain.

By far the Mariners highest achievement was their result in Super League's ambitious World Club Challenge competition. The Mariners sailed through the early pool rounds which resulted in them having to meet Wigan at the famous Central Park (where Manly was beaten 10 years earlier). On the face of it, what an unlikely match-up this was - Wigan, England's glamour rugby league club (founded as a rugby club in 1872) up against the Mariners who had a club history totalling less than 30 games!

As daunting a task as that was, by the time the Mariners arrived in the north of England (late September) it was well clear that the re-unification of rugby league in Australia was imminent leaving Hunter's future in serious doubt.

On top of that, as ex-Knights many of the Mariners players and officials had mixed feelings while watching the ARL Grand Final from their Wigan hotel. Success for the almost broke Knights would secure their future - a loss and Hunter were in a much stronger position. The Knights won and coach Murray claimed later that all these factors brought the Mariners closer together rather than cause a loss of spirit.

After a hard tussle early, the Hunter Mariners pulled away from Wigan in the second half to record one of rugby league's most astonishing victories 22-18 and went on to play Cronulla in the semi-final. Even though it was at Cronulla's home field the Mariners again displayed remarkable team spirit to beat the SL Grand Finalists and claim a place in the WCC Final against the all-conquering Brisbane Broncos.

The Newcastle Herald gave some belated support to the region's second team to make a rugby league final inside three weeks: "It's unlikely the streets of Newcastle will be bathed in blue and gold this week but the effort of the Hunter Mariners to qualify for Super League's $1million World Club Challenge (WCC) final cannot be ignored."

The SMH reported: "Just this week a radio announcer took his regular shot at the Mariners, humouring their efforts to make the challenge final by calling it a "Mickey Mouse" competition. With Brisbane, Canberra, Cronulla, Wigan all involved? It is a recurring theme in Newcastle. People expected them to be failures and when they weren't they questioned the competition they played in."

Coach Graham Murray had plenty of interviews to do in the lead-up to the team preparing for the WCC Final - the only topic though was the Hunter's future. SMH: "Just yesterday afternoon, a television crew turned up for an interview. Murray looked at the dozen or so questions, then walked over to media man Michael Hagan. "Do you reckon they could ask something about Brisbane?" he asked."

By the time the players arrived in Auckland for the Final it was an open secret that the Mariners club would be permanently closed - though the players and officials had been continually told no such decision had been made. The Broncos blitzed the Mariners early in the Final and despite a courageous fightback by Hunter in the second half, Brisbane claimed the WCC title.

Who knows what effect the Mariners winning the WCC and $1million would have had on the peace talks or thier long term future. The Knights were on the verge of collapse in the weeks leading up to the ARL Grand Final. If Newcastle had lost and the Mariners had won, the financial status of each club would have been markedly different - and News Ltd may have been reluctant to turn their back on thier WCC Champions.

Even allowing for the events as they occurred, the Mariners' Football Manager Robert Finch commented to the Sydney media:"It would be interesting to see if the criteria they put on our franchise (with regard to cutting teams, should it happen) is the same criteria they put on other clubs from, er, from Sydney, if you know what I mean."

The Hunter Mariners continued preparations for 1998. While hooker Robbie McCormack retired, the side was to be boosted by the arrival of Darren Albert and Kevin Campion. The improvement in Kimmorely, Hill and Swain would also see the Mariners challenge more of the top teams.

In the weeks that followed the ARL and Super League camps negotiated an agreement for the formation of a single National Rugby League 20 team competition. With Perth already having been replaced by Melbourne, and South Queensland closed down, one of the 21 clubs was going to have to merge or be excluded from the NRL. It appeared that News Ltd got Melbourne, and the ARL got Newcastle.

In a fore-runner to the later demise of other non-Sydney clubs, the Mariners were dumped without any assessment of the ability of their region to support two clubs or whether Sydney had too many clubs.

Subsequent attempts were made to merge the Mariners with the ARL's Gold Coast Chargers, however this did not eventuate. The Hunter players and staff became available to the other remaining Super League clubs including Melbourne.

The core of the team's talent were snapped up by Melbourne Storm - Brett Kimmorley, Scott Hill, Richard Swain, Paul Marquet, John Carlaw and Robbie Ross all headed to rugby league's new outpost and 18 months later achieved what many saw as an improbable premiership victory. Kimmorley and Hill also became NSW and Australian representative players, while Richard Swain gained Test recognition with the New Zealand Kiwis.

A number of the Mariners' lower grade players were picked up by NRL clubs and gained 1st grade honours including Adam Brown (Manly), Kurt Gidley (Newcastle), Craig Kimmorley (Adelaide and Roosters), Julian Bailey (Roosters and Knights) Willie Mason (Canterbury), Brett Finch (Canberra and Roosters), Ryan O'Hara (Canberra) and Leigh McWilliams (North Queensland).

Willie Mason gained Test selection for Australia in 2002 while he was with the Canterbury Bulldogs. Mason thus becoming the third fomer Hunter Mariner to play for the Kangaroos.

Many will argue that the Hunter Mariners were nothing more than a soul-less front for Super League's ambitions, but the coach, players and staff will tell you otherwise - and they did come within a few points of being World Club Champions.

"I've got no doubt that because of what happened to the mob up the road (the Knights) most of them blokes will be friends for life," Murray says. "It's very easy to have a happy environment and a great football team when you're winning."

"The hard part is overcoming adversity together and keep team spirit up when the pressure is on and people are pushing from behind, that's when you begin to fray. Things have been extremely tough for us but when you still put your hand up to play good and produce under pressure you can't say enough."

"I've never seen a dressing-room like it" Murray said after his side beat Cronulla in WCC semi-final. "It wasn't full of backslappers, we don't have that, it was just people who wanted to be there."

"The looks on the players faces . . . it was all about that."

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