Crunch time for joint venture

Crunch time for Illawarra's involvement in the St George Illawarra joint venture is drawing closer with the National Rugby League set to offer a new licence sooner rather than later.

The Dragons will be asked, perhaps as early as next week, to consider an application for another five years in the NRL from 2006 onwards.

Their existing licence, like the other 14 clubs, expires at the end of next season.

While they have provided a seemingly endless stream of young players , the Steelers are not financially strong.

If the NSW Government's proposed poker machine tax hits hard after its introduction later this year, the Steelers will be forced to seriously consider whether they can afford to stay in the joint venture with the wealthier St George.

Steelers director Bob Millward was hopeful of a positive future for both Illawarra and the Dragons.

"I believe one of the first (licence renewals) that they will offer will be the St George Illawarra Dragons," he said.

"Even though we haven't won a premiership, it has been the success of the merger of the ARL and Super League.

"It's difficult to start a club, it's harder to merge two."

His sentiments were echoed by St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust.

"I think our club will continue to go from strength to strength as we continue to invest in the benefits available to us across our regions," he said.

Steelers chairman Peter Newell said the Illawarra half of the partnership would have to be cautious before putting pen to paper.

"The word we hear is that they (the NRL) want to move forward on it. In the near future we're likely to be asked to look at another joint venture agreement," he said.

"It's very hard to commit yourself to going forward when you don't know what the future's going to hold," he added in reference to the pokie tax increase.

Newell estimated the Steelers pumped around $2million into rugby league last year via St George Illawarra's NRL and Premier League teams, the Steelers representative squads, and the Illawarra senior and junior competitions.