Sean Fagan of RL1908.com
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."