The Super League war and the brutal death of the South Queensland Crushers
Super League was a bomb that blew up just about everything in the rugby league world in the mid-90s, and the fallout from that explosion is still being felt today.
Plenty of clubs with almost a century of history behind them struggled to survive the war and a few of them perished soon after hostilities ceased.
There was no escaping Super League in 1995. It divided every level of the game right down the middle, splitting clubs in two and pitting teammate against teammate.
In such a cutthroat environment – with every club fighting for what they could get in the scramble to either jump ship, stay loyal or play both sides against each other – the South Queensland Crushers didn’t have much leverage to play with.
There were some promising signs for their future, but the long-term future didn’t count for as much when the nature of the competition was changing on a daily basis.
“When it all hit, I didn’t know what to think. I’d grown up in dressing sheds my whole life, it was about the NSWRL, that was the be all and end all,” foundation player Scott Sattler said.
“I’d been brought up in rugby league, I was conceived in a dressing shed, so I thought the current governing body was always going to win the battle.
“But we got knocks on the door, representatives asking us to come for the kinds of exorbitant money that I’d certainly never seen.”
It cast a pall over everything – case in point was the Crushers’ first win, a 16-12 win over high-flying North Sydney in April. Rising star Chris McKenna was man of the match and Mario Fenech, who made a return to the team off the bench, was named “most inspirational player” by coach Bob Lindner. The scenes in the dressing shed were jubilant.
Later that week, McKenna, a future Test and Origin player, signed with Super League.
First-year coach Lindner said the breakaway league was rumbling in the background for the Crushers’ first season.
“By the time we were six weeks into the competition, there were players from my playing group signing to Super League and there was definitely a divide – half the team were going to Super League, half of them were on the ARL side,” he said.
“The conversation was ‘which side are you on’ and when you’re trying to mould a very diverse group of players together and there’s an issue like Super League, that’s where it’s so difficult, that’s where my lack of experience showed.”
The Crushers were in an odd position when it came to a potential Super League defection. So much of the breakaway competition was predicated on the Broncos and their strength since entering the league as the masters of a one-team town.
The mere existence of the South Queensland side represented an attempt at diluting that power base. Where the other 1995 expansion teams were all the sole representatives of large markets in Perth, North Queensland and New Zealand and thus juicy targets for the new league, the Crushers never featured in pre-war discussions.
But once the ARL began their fightback and an arms race began from both leagues to simply sign enough clubs and players to fill out their competitions, the Crushers were in the game. They wouldn’t win or lose the war for either side, but they were a card to be played.
In the end, they stuck with the ARL despite some interest from the rebels. With two QRL directors, Ted Webber and Barry Bennett, on their board, as well as famed Maroons manager Dick ‘Tosser’ Turner, a move to Super League was always unlikely and News Limited quickly moved on to target North Queensland.
“I wasn’t really keen on what was happening. There was a lot of misinformation, the old Telex machine used to go crazy every day with things people had said or done,” Crushers chief executive Daryl Van de Velde said.
“It forced people to make a decision, to follow the ARL or Super League. Dick was really staunch with the ARL, he had such deep ties to the ARL that we were probably never going to go to Super League. He was very loyal.”
But the misstep for the Crushers wasn’t so much sticking with the establishment, but rather how they were used and presented by the ARL. As 1995 rattled on, the Crushers continued to put up solid home crowds at Lang Park and helped form the backbone for one of the era’s most memorable moments.
The Crushers and an Origin miracle
With Super League players banned from competing in the State of Origin series, coach Paul Vautin was flat out fielding a team and, as one of the few ARL sides based outside of Sydney, the Crushers were on deck.
Dale Shearer and Mark Hohn went from players of the past to automatic selections for Origin I, Craig Teevan and Terry Cook were handed their Queensland debuts and Trevor Gillmeister, who had been dropped for Game III of the 1994 series, didn’t just return to the side but was also handed the captaincy.
From there, the story is well known. Queensland didn’t just win the series, they whitewashed the heavily favoured Blues in what remains the greatest upset in Origin history.
For Gillmeister, who was hospitalised with a leg infection but defied the risk of death itself to play in Game III, it was perhaps the best time of his life.
“Some of those 1995 blokes, a lot of us still keep in contact, and if you had said to me when I left Penrith that I’d captain Queensland and play for Australia, I’d have asked what drugs you were on and told you to get off them,” Gillmeister said.
“Life can be about timing, the right place and the right time, and that’s where I was. It was probably the best year of my life – just don’t tell my wife that.”
Herein lies the misstep with the Crushers, a point of divergence when they could have formed the tip of the ARL’s spear.
The events of the 1995 Origin series became mythical even as they were happening. It was as good a propaganda tool as the ARL could ever have hoped for – the team of unknowns proving that big money and fat contracts could still be beaten by old-fashioned qualities like teamwork, mateship and digging in and giving it your best.
What more evidence would the rugby league public need that there were still some things money couldn’t buy?
A costly missed opportunity
The Broncos were synonymous with Super League and the future, but that future was tearing the game apart.
The backlash was powerful and real, even in Brisbane – from 1995 to 1996, the Broncos’ average crowds dropped by 12,000 fans per game.
There was space for the Crushers to fill that void and, with the heroes of the 1995 Origin series front and centre, it could have been an easy sell.
But just because it’s an easy sell doesn’t mean people will buy. Real tradition can’t be marketed any more than it can be bought or sold.
“We weren’t wanted in Super League and the ARL suited us a bit better, but it was still a rough time. I had mates who used to get corporate boxes at the Crushers; they walked away from the game and started watching Aussie rules,” Van de Velde said.
“They didn’t want to be on the wrong side, they didn’t want to pick Super League or the ARL in case they picked the side that was going to lose.
“We forced them to make a choice. That’s when the AFL got a real strong foothold in Queensland.”
Van de Velde could see the writing on the wall and left the club at the end of the first season, returning to England to coach Huddersfield.
“I got disillusioned with the whole thing, we seemed to lose our way a little bit. I was really keen to coach again, I don’t think I was meant to be an administrator at that time,” van de Velde said.
“But I did love it. We worked long hours and pieced it all together eventually. It was a special time for us.”
A year in hell
When the dust settled on 1995, the Crushers finished their first year in 16th with a solid 5-5-1 home record, offset by a dismal return of one win and 10 losses on the road.
Three of their marquee recruits for their first season were gone, with Fenech retiring and Anthony Herbert and Garrick Morgan returning to rugby union. After so much fanfare around his arrival, Morgan played just two games for the club due to injuries and poor form, with the towering Wallaby saying he was misused as a prop instead of a rangy back rower out wide.
“The excitement was unreal, and sometimes it did go to my head a little bit with my ego, there was a fair bit of pressure on me to be successful straight away,” Morgan said.
“I’d gone from 128kg down to 115 because I was just too big in the beginning. At 115 I felt great, I was rocketing around the field. I had a neck injury where I lost all the strength in my upper body, that upped the pressure and I put a lot of it on myself, but I was judged pretty harshly straight away.
“People might perceive it as a failure, but I didn’t – I perceived it as something I tried. If union hadn’t gone professional it would have lasted a bit longer.”
Sattler said Morgan came along too early to successfully make the transition, and if it were 20 years later, league clubs would be able to make Morgan’s size an asset as they have with Storm and New Zealand star Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
“I thought it was really brave, from Garrick and Herbie. Garrick was voted the best forward in the world in 1993, that’s a lot to give up,” Sattler said.
“The timing wasn’t quite right.”
The Crushers missed out on the scramble for refugees from Super League sides – they went hard for three more Queensland Origin heroes in Penrith’s Matt Sing, Canterbury’s Brett Dallas and Brisbane’s Gavin Allen, but missed out on all three.
English pair Mike Ford and St John Ellis were out as well as they returned to Britain and in Ellis the club was losing one of their real characters.
“I remember one day he drove down to the Gold Coast, filled his car boot with sand, drove it all the way back to Brisbane and shovelled it through his house,” second rower Brett Horsnell said.
“He said he just liked how it felt when he walked on it. He had a company car from the club, like a few of us, and he lost it after that.”
Horsnell, the club’s player of the year for 1995, returned, as did Gillmeister, Shearer and Hohn. The Crushers also welcomed Maroons prop Tony Hearn to the fold.
Chief among the recruits was Roosters back rower Nigel Gaffey, a former premiership winner and one of six Tricolours to make the trip north that off-season.
With new faces and improving rookies, there was cause for optimism, but the club was heading into a financial oblivion from which they’d never truly escape.
Playing for the love of the game
Despite the lucrative sponsorships and strong crowds they enjoyed in 1995, the Crushers were flat broke.
“I remember at the start of 1996, before we’d even played a game, we had a meeting where a Crushers board member said ‘we can’t pay you, there’s no money’, so we trained and played for a while where we didn’t know what we were going to get,” Sattler said.
“We could fight it legally, maybe accept a deal where it’s a certain amount of cents on the dollar, but it sort of reminded me why we played footy in the first place – for the love of it.
“We all still played part-time, and I think it made me play better, because you had to play for the love of it, but it made ’96 a bit of a wipeout.
“That season became about finding another club for most players.
“Everyone was a bit disappointed that year two was so bad. It was like they spent all the money in year one and left us to fend for ourselves.”
The Crushers managed to shrug off the drama by upsetting big-spending Parramatta in the season opener, a 24-20 boilover that was one of the club’s finest hours, and their home derby against the Broncos two weeks later was another highlight.
The Crushers drew first blood when Gillmeister bet $100 on the result of the coin flip with Broncos skipper Allan Langer and won, before they gave Brisbane a hell of a scare on the field. After leading 8-6 for much of the second half, the Crushers were still right in the game at 12-8 with a little over 10 minutes left in a fiery encounter.
Despite collapsing late and going down 28-8, Lindner remembers the match as the point where he thought everything was going to turn around. Instead, the Crushers fell into abject misery.
It was six more weeks until their next win and they finished the season with just three victories. Morale was low and performances were lower, with the club hitting a nadir in a 52-4 loss to fellow stragglers Gold Coast in July.
Just days after, the club needed a $1 million loan from the ARL to cover wages for the first half of the year and revealed they would be forced to release most of their top players.
“The option is there of asking players to take a cut in pay, but it would be less traumatic if some of the players who have ARL loyalty agreements were placed with other ARL clubs,” Turner told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The club finished the year on a seven-match losing streak and claimed the wooden spoon but, remarkably, still pulled in the fans – their average attendance of a little over 13,000 was sixth in the league and more than any team in Sydney bar the Roosters.
‘The carpet was ripped up under our feet’
With the season drawing to a close, Lindner and the club agreed he would stand down as coach for 1997.
“It was like starting again. The direction had changed from the original plan, it was pivoting left, right and centre due to the structure of the game. Everyone was pretty much in survival mode,” Lindner said.
Older players either retired or followed one last big payday to play their last few years in Super League, and the young players weren’t quite ready for prime time.
“We hadn’t had the chance to establish any consistent supporter group,” Lindner said.
“We got good crowds, people liked us, but when things got tough and the carpet was ripped up under our feet, we didn’t have an established, core fanbase to lean back on.”
Lindner said he and the club made a “mutual decision” to part ways as the league and administrators came in to try and save the team from their dire financial situation.
Barely 12 months after coming to life there was no guarantee the Crushers would see another season. But even in the darkest hour, there was hope for the future.
The long-term planning was beginning to bear fruit in the club’s lower grades, which had fast become stocked with emerging talent.
“We used to say ‘you’ve been dropped to first grade'” said Sattler, who spent most of the year with Steve Bleakley’s second-grade side.
“We made the finals, and first grade were really struggling. I remember Fili Seru, he was an absolute freak, a real natural talent, and he got called up for first grade, but halfway through the session they spun the ball out wide to his wing and he wasn’t there because he’d buggered off to go train with the seconds.”
The Crushers’ reggies reached the preliminary final, but it was in the under-21s where the club covered themselves in glory. Under the coaching of Graham Herlihy, who helped recruit many of the club’s young players in the lead-up to 1995, they won four sudden-death games in a row to reach the grand final, where they upset minor premiers Parramatta 24-12 at the Sydney Football Stadium.
“It was an incredible day. It’s hard to put into words how unique a situation it was, how proud we were to represent the club, how proud blokes like Daryl and Graham were of us, that was never lost on me,” captain and halfback Nathan Antonik said.
“We were struggling financially, but they found the funds to send us down there and stay for a few days. We got changed at the SCG, walked across through the crowd into the SFS — I still have goosebumps thinking about it.”
The victory remains a point of pride for the old Crushers, proof they were really on to something with their long-term plan. But it was very nearly the club’s death rattle.
From the brink of death
As 1996 drew to a close, the Crushers’ financial situation had spiralled out of control, with reports the franchise was close to $9 million in debt. The club went into administration and creditors were called in. An emotional plea from the players, including Antonik, earned the club a stay of execution via a 60-day extension of their credit.
“There were so many kids – and I can say kids, because we were kids – who lost their identity. Yeah, we lost some money, but it was more than that for a lot of us. The club was a family,” Antonik said.
Just surviving would take a miracle, and it seemed for a second Kerry Packer might provide one.
The Channel Nine mogul took a personal interest in saving the club from death and launched a failed bid to lure Maroons’ legend Arthur Beetson from his contract with the Roosters to coach the Crushers.
Perhaps Packer’s true motives were ensuring the ARL had a team in Brisbane for 1997, when the league was split down the middle with two competitions, but either way, the Crushers saddled up for a third season.
Once again, the club said goodbye to some of its biggest names, including Origin players Shearer, Gillmeister, Cook and Hearn, as well as Horsnell and Gaffey. But it was the departures of the young brigade that hit the Crushers hardest.
Phil Lee left for Brisbane, where he’d win a premiership less than two years later. McKenna’s Super League deal kicked in and he went to Cronulla, where he went on to become a Test and Origin regular. Travis Norton was gone too, bound for Canterbury, and Sattler reached the end of his tether and took up a deal with Gold Coast.
Only a few old hardheads were still around to help the club’s remaining players, many of whom were part of the 1996 under-21s premiership side, make the grade. It didn’t matter if they weren’t ready, because there was nobody else.
Teevan did not want to return to Sydney, so it was “a no-brainer” to stick around. He was appointed captain and did what he could to try and bring the club together.
“It was a good young side with some good blokes around. Some of those guys, like Craig Wilson, are still my best mates today,” he said.
“Some clubs are cliquey. I say to people you can see guys on TV jumping all over each other when they score tries, but that doesn’t mean they’re mates. But a lot of us did stuff together all the time.
“We almost had to, we were pretty tight because what we went through was something unique and different. We needed one another to rely on.”
Bleakley, who coached reserve grade the year before, took over from Lindner and did what he could to show his charges the way.
“‘Chicken’ was super knowledgeable about the game but his real strength was as a man-manager. It was important for everyone to band together as a family, even if we weren’t getting results,” Antonik said.
“He was learning as we were learning, and he was thrust into that position because of our financial predicament.
“He was in a tough spot, but I could never fault him – if there was ever a lack of technical knowledge, he made up with that tenfold by the way he ran the club and the first-grade side.”
The season began on a positive note, with a 23-6 win over Parramatta, and Bleakley told the Sydney Morning Herald after the match: “We have to win back the respect of the fans.”
But as it so often seemed to be for the Crushers, the bright start proved to be a false dawn – they lost 14 of their next 15 and remained anchored to the bottom of the ladder.
The loyal supporters who still showed up the year before voted with their feet. Their third win of the season, a 17-16 win over the similarly soon-to-be-defunct Rabbitohs in round 18, was witnessed by just 3,545 fans.
The club only got 10,000 fans to home games in the final two matches of the season, when they let the punters in for free.
Dead club walking
Rugby league was on the canvas in 1997. By midway through the year it was abundantly clear the two warring sides would have to come back together to survive and, whatever that looked like, it was unlikely there would be room for the Crushers.
Clinton Schifcofske enjoyed a good season at fullback and wing, but remembers how morale plummeted as the year went on.
“It got tough in the back end of the year when we knew we wouldn’t be around for the next year, but everyone stuck as solid as they could,” he said.
By the time the final game of the season rolled around, there was nothing certain about the club’s future other than it didn’t really exist and that every joy they experienced could be the last.
Be it due to a merger or disappearing into oblivion, the last-round clash against Western Suburbs would be the final game the South Queensland Crushers played.
The gates to Lang Park were thrown open once again as the fans were let in for free to watch Teevan lead the side out one last time.
“I just tried to enjoy it. We didn’t know what 1998 was going to bring,” Teevan said.
“We might not have had the same size crowd as year one, but we had a loyal core. We wanted to play for them.”
He and Anthony Bella were the only survivors from the club’s first game against the Raiders back in 1995, when everything still seemed so possible for the Crushers.
The Magpies had everything to play for – victory would sneak them into the finals ahead of the Gold Coast Chargers. Down the road, the Chargers, who shaped as the most likely merger partner for the Crushers, had lost to Illawarra and cost themselves a certain play-off berth.
Veteran Gold Coast prop Martin Bella wept in the sheds at full-time – he was retiring at season’s end and was sure he’d played his final game. Who could ever rely on the Crushers anyway?
None of the 11,588 fans paid a cent to get in, but they were treated to some five-star football. The Crushers turned it on one last time before the darkness took them, running out 39-18 winners.
Schifcofske, who had been with the club since the beginning and whose future stardom with Parramatta, Canberra and Queensland was a stark reminder of what the Crushers were going to miss, scored 18 points in a man-of-the-match display.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better finish. I don’t have much Crushers memorabilia, but I do have a picture of that day, it’s of a whole lot of us waving to the crowd,” he said.
“That’s still one of the highlights of my career, that day. I’ll always be grateful for the Crushers.
“It started my career, I met my wife there.”
Merger talks with the Chargers continued until November when Gold Coast withdrew and opted to go it alone for 1998.
The key point was the Crushers’ debt, which was reported as being close to $5 million, a burden the Chargers were not willing to bear.
They took some of the players, with Teevan heading down the M1 for 1998, a decision he now regrets.
“I’m just dirty I had to finish [with the Crushers] at 27, I wanted to play there the rest of my career,” Teevan said.
“I didn’t really enjoy my time at Gold Coast. It wasn’t the same as the Crushers.”
The Gold Coast side went bust a year later after one season in the newly formed NRL.
Antonik went to the Dragons but never played first grade again. Losing the Crushers was a painful experience for him and many others who came through the club’s extensive junior network.
“Things were done really poorly. We had a whole club, close to 100 players on the books, searching for a team, that’s the most tragic part,” Antonik said.
“I was one of the lucky ones, I found a pathway at St George, but I really hated rugby league by that stage. It just left a sour taste in my mouth and that pain doesn’t leave you.”
What might have been
To a man, the old Crushers are adamant on two things — the club would still be around today were it not for Super League and, even after everything that happened, they could have survived the war if not for a compromise struck with the Broncos at the end of 1997.
As the Crushers spiralled into oblivion through the Super League years, the Broncos snapped up thir third premiership in six years and marched on with the confidence only generational wealth can bring.
“People can say they had no money or ‘they were in poor shape financially’, that had nothing to do with it,” Gillmeister said.
“They had to go because the Broncos didn’t want them in town. That’s what happened, and I know that for a fact.”
It is easy to think of alternate future where Brisbane isn’t just a Broncos town, where the Crushers’ Aztec gold is as prevalent as their maroon. Making it through 1998 wouldn’t have been easy, but the Crushers had the talent coming through.
Schifcofske became one of the best fullbacks in the league, Danny Nutley went on to play Origin after their demise, Lee was a versatile gun for Brisbane until injuries slowed him down, and Aaron Moule won a premiership in 1999 with Melbourne.
Then there were the fabled juniors who the club spent so much time investing in and on whom they pinned so many of their dreams.
Every team says they have good players coming through, but the Crushers had a little bit more than most.
One of those players was a 15-year-old fullback from Cairns with a gangly running style that would eventually turn graceful, with a gift for beating defenders.
The Crushers signed him for a T-shirt and when the axe came down it was the head of the Crushers’ academy, Paul Bunn, who told Wayne Bennett he had to get this Justin Hodges kid to the Broncos.
There was another other one right on their doorstep, a Brisbane boy who signed a scholarship with the club when he was 15 years old.
Unlike Hodges, who played first grade at 17 and only got better, there were plenty of doubters this time, because the Brisbane boy was skinny and small, and more than a few good judges said he’d never make it.
Even at 18, he couldn’t land an NRL deal until the Bulldogs decided they’d take a chance on this Johnathan Thurston fella, just in case something came of it.
There’s no such thing as a sure thing, and talking about Hodges and Thurston wearing Aztec gold is getting into a kind of front-bar hypothetical that serves little purpose other than talking and drinking. But the two of them were Crushers before they were anything else in big-time rugby league and that’s worth something.
They weren’t the only future Queensland Origin players in the system either — Brent Tate, Ashley Harrison and Casey McGuire, future premiership winners with Brisbane, and Chris Flannery, who won a title with the Roosters, were all on the Crushers books when they folded.
It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the Crushers survived, and the rivalry between them and the Broncos divided the city and turned Caxton Street into a XXXX-fuelled warzone when they clashed at Lang Park, the big house, and all of rugby league stopped to watch would happen when two packs of Queenslanders put it all on the line.
It’s especially easy to imagine it now, because after 25 years the NRL has gone back to the future.
Can the Dolphins dominate where the Crushers crashed?
A quarter-century after the Crushers’ demise, the Dolphins will take their place as the NRL’s 17th team, and the rivalry with the Broncos will run hot once again as the league splits the city in two.
The surface similarities between the Dolphins and Crushers are beginning to become uncanny, from recruitment to the boardroom, with Turner, Van de Velde and Bleakley all Redcliffe locals.
“I always felt the Crushers were a bit of a Redcliffe expansion team themselves,” Sattler said.
“I don’t know how much they can learn from the Crushers because the game is so different, there’s so much more money in it. But what they can learn from the Crushers and the Titans is don’t try and go toe-to-toe with the Broncos.
“I think the Crushers always wanted to disrupt the Broncos, and that was never going to work. … Their footprint is so huge.
“The other thing is you can’t just be competitive, you have to win. They might have a bit of patience that first year, then maybe the second year, but if it’s not happening by the third year, people will start to ask questions.”
Like the Crushers, the Dolphins have recruited older players and copped some heat for it, but Van de Velde said the Dolphins are coming from a far more stable base than his side.
“They have the funding right, they have plenty of non-rugby league income with the aquatic centre and the shopping centre and all that, so they’re in a much better financial situation than we are,” van de Velde said.
“But they’re going to have to wait, they have to build it, it won’t happen straight away.”
Schifcofske, a player agent in his retirement life, is sure the Dolphins will succeed.
In rugby league, first you get the juniors, then you get the money, then you get the power, and the Dolphins are well-stocked for both of the former, even though they can’t seem to land a big star on the recruitment front.
“It takes time, but they’ll get time. The good thing is they have a really good base, Redcliffe have a strong junior base of 50 of 60 teams,” Schifcofske said.
“I’ve been out there a few times with the work I do and the facilities are awesome, there’s plenty of money.”
Fond memories of lovable losers
Today there is an affection for the Crushers that they struggled to find during their brief existence. In life they could not find their people, but in death they have become cult heroes.
Crushers jerseys are a treasured item for the rugby league trainspotter, often going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Wear one to Magic Round and it’ll earn you more than a few drinks.
Plenty of the old Crushers, most of whom stayed in Queensland, are still thick as thieves.
It’s a measure of the people involved at the Crushers that Morgan, who has every right to look back on his league stint as a difficult time, still remembers the club fondly.
“I looked up to a lot of those guys, players like Trevor, they were unbelievable people,” Morgan said.
“Some of the relationships I got from the Crushers, with real genuine people, will last forever.”
Teevan’s record of 58 games for the club will be another thing that lasts forever. He might have played for Brisbane and Manly and Gold Coast and Cronulla, but if you ask him he’ll always be a Crusher.
“I have a lot of great memories for the club, even if I lost a bit of money and those things it’s still one of my favourite clubs I went to,” Teevan said.
“It’s easy to be bitter, but I’m not. All we needed was one season, not even of winning footy, just competitive footy, and the crowds would have come back.
“There was still a lot of great memories. We still played at Lang Park.”
The Dolphins play their first game at Lang Park, against the Roosters at 4pm AEDT today.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-05/south-queensland-crushers-super-league-war-brisbane-broncos/102004370 The Super League war and the brutal death of the South Queensland Crushers