Nearly 30 years after he donned the famous Illawarra Steelers jersey, Great Britain international and Wigan legend Steve Hampson visits the region.
Steve Hampson will be among a host of rugby league legends to don a jersey again and take to WIN Stadium on Saturday night.
The Wigan star, Great Britain representative and former Illawarra Steelers player, now 56, plans to soak in the atmosphere too as part of the All-Stars touch football game, the curtain-raiser to the Wigan/Hull FC Super League encounter.
“After not being here for 29 years and then getting the chance to walk out, there's going to be some fond memories flooding back,” he said, marvelling at the venue during the Mercury’s photo-shoot.
“The pitch is a lot better than what it was when we played on it in 1989 (as Wollongong Showground).”
Hampson is a tour ambassador for Wigan during their visit to Australia.
The fullback played for the Illawarra Steelers during the 1989 season.
Although he has visited Australia since that time, this tour is his first time back in Wollongong since turning out for the Steelers. “When I heard it was at WIN Stadium against Hull, I was so pleased,” Hampson said.
“It's been a long, long time. I’m a bit disappointed I've not been back earlier, but it's just the way things happened.”
Hampson was among a handful of English players who took part in the NSWRL competition that season.
This included Hampson and Wigan team-mate Andy Gregory signing with the Steelers, while Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon and Shaun Edwards joined other clubs.
“We got asked if we would be interested in coming over for about three months, and straight away we took the offer up.”
The battling Steelers finished with the wooden spoon that year.
Hampson remembers being part of a “very young side” in 1989, alongside players such as Rod Wishart and Dean Schifilliti.
“Even though we had the likes of Chris Walsh, Michael Bolt and those guys, we had a bit of a young team.
“We didn’t really do that well. When we got here they were bottom of the ladder, and when we left they were bottom.
“That was the only disappointing part, but the memories that will stick with me forever are that we actually made the Panasonic Cup final."
The Steelers qualified for the decider of the mid-week knock-out competition, but were narrowly defeated by Brisbane in controversial circumstances.
The result remains a sore spot for the Englishman, as well as Steelers fans.
“I think we played well enough to actually win the game,” Hampson said.
“And it was only the last couple of minutes that they scored. I think if I remember rightly, Peter Jackson scored on the right-hand side. To this day, I swear it was a forward pass, but they read it in the papers the next day that they won the game.”
Hampson has other memories of his stint in Wollongong.
“I just remember it being a very wet place when we were there,” he said.
“I remember the pitch being very wet and damp, and if I remember rightly, John Cleary actually hovered his helicopter over the pitch to try and dry the pitch out.
“It definitely was a great family club. People would make you feel welcome, especially when you’re walking around town and what have you. People would come up and chat and say hello.”
Why didn't he return to the Steelers? “I think it was just the way it went. I don't know whether they wanted us back or what, but it didn't happen, which was a little bit disappointing. I think it’s quite tough playing seasons back-to-back (in England and Australia).
“Some people can do it, some people on a regular basis can't, so I think they just decided against us doing that.”
Hampson played 306 games for Wigan and won numerous trophies there. He later had stints with clubs such as Salford and Halifax.
“It was very disappointing, because when you put your body on the line for somebody for near on 10 years and you play 306 games with broken bones, arms and legs, teeth knocked out, just to get fired off for no apparent reason on your testimonial year was very disappointing,” he said of leaving the Wigan club.
“But it’s one of those things, it happened a long time ago. I've more fond memories of Wigan rugby league than I have negative memories.”
He also has the unique ‘distinction’ of being sent off twice in one weekend in 1989.
This rare occurrence has an Illawarra connection.
The first incident occurred during an international against New Zealand in Leeds.
“(Coach) Mal Reilly kept winding us up and saying, ‘listen, if anybody gets a chance, get at this (Gary) Freeman’, who was a fabulous player.
“I’ve caught the ball in my in-goal in the first minute... I wouldn’t kick people, and I had the ball under my left arm, he grabbed my right arm and I just head-butted him, just out of Mal Reilly going through my head to give it to him if you get the chance."
With the ensuing ban due to start the next Thursday following the Saturday's game, he was able to play for Wigan the next day.
“Believe it or not, it was an ex-Illawarra player, Steve Larder, that I got sent off (for tripping),” Hampson said.
“He used to play fullback when I was here, it was between me and him.
“He was playing for Castleford, he stepped me and I tripped him, and I got sent off again. I couldn't believe it when I saw who it was. I’d gone from never being spoken to by a referee or touch judge to being sent off twice in one weekend. Not one of my proudest moments, but something I can’t deny.”
Post-retirement, Hampson dabbled in coaching, including working as a strength and conditioning coach for former English cricketer Andrew Flintoff, and golfers Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.
He still lives in Wigan, and hopes it won’t be another three decades before he makes it back to the Illawarra.
“Hopefully it (Super League clubs playing in Australia) kicks off and we can do it most years - that would be very nice,” he said.