St George Illawarra pursuing WIN deal but not in financial strife

St George Illawarra chairman Brian Johnston insists suggestions of financial hardship at the Dragons are wide of the mark, but that won’t stop the club maintaining its pursuit of a deal with WIN Television owner Bruce Gordon as they look to secure the club’s future by forming a partnership with one of the country’s richest men.

The Dragons have been in talks with WIN executives for more than a year as Gordon weighs up whether to buy Illawarra’s 50 per cent stake in the club. Talks have stalled as WIN deals with the changing landscape in the media industry, but Johnston remains committed to the talks and is optimistic that an agreement can be struck in the near future.

Regardless, he insists the Dragons are in solid shape off the field despite having to repay a loan that they have taken out with the NRL.

“That’s somewhat of a misconception,” Johnston said when asked about suggestions the club was struggling financially. “We’re comfortably meeting all our payments. I feel very positive something will happen with the right partner at the right time. At the same time, WIN have a number of investments and they operate in a very complex environment that is experiencing significant change and challenges at the present time.

“There is a whole lot of dynamics that are beyond our control. That would be rightly a distraction for WIN at the present stage.”

Johnston stepped into the role as chairman in March, having been involved with the club as a player and administrator for more than three decades. He joins at a time when all rugby league clubs are attempting to secure their ­futures by striking a more fitting ­financial deal with the ARL Commission.

The promise of more money from next season should reduce the club’s reliance on a deal with Gordon being completed in the near future. But Johnston insists WIN remains the ideal candidate to buy the Illawarra side of the joint venture despite other suitors contacting CEO Peter Doust.

“There has been interest from a couple of parties, but that hasn’t progressed any further,” Johnston said. “There needs to be that emotional contact with the club, in addition to capital investment in the organisation. I think that augurs well over a longer period rather than if you take the money and run, which is not St George’s style.”

Meanwhile, coach Paul McGregor has paid tribute to the influence of prop Russell Packer on both his coaching and the playing group as the New Zealand international prepares to lock horns with Canterbury on Monday afternoon.

Packer has turned around his life since joining the Dragons, ­having spent 12 months in jail for assault. He has gone on to become a leader on and off the park, his story resonating with his teammates and coaching staff.

“Russell is a very strong, honest, opinionated person who is very good for our club right now,” McGregor said. “He is a leader, he is intelligent, he has been through some tough times in his life. Sometimes he is the one that brings things up that probably everyone else would keep secret.

“I think if you look at Russell’s future beside rugby league, he was a very good student and now he is doing a double degree at uni. He learnt a lot with the difficulties he went through … and that is inspiring for young men who have been around our organisation and it is certainly inspiring for a coach.”