Hampson still shouting the odds

Dave Hadfield speaks to a veteran standing in St Helens' way next Saturday; In a week when the Cup holders in football and rugby league were brought to earth, two heroes relish a job well done
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The Independent Online
ON THE final whistle at The Willows last Sunday, Steve Hampson's jubilation at knocking Wigan out of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup took a different form from that of the rest of his team-mates.

The Salford full-back's celebrations were aimed at one seat in the stand - the one occupied by the Wigan chairman - and his message was unmistakable: "I just wanted to stick it up Jack Robinson. I've been waiting a long time and now I've had my revenge." His reward, and the team's, was a quarter-final against St Helens on Saturday.

Hampson enjoyed nine memorable seasons at Wigan, but it was the manner of his departure, just before he became eligible for what would have been a lucrative benefit, that left him with a self-confessed chip on his shoulder. "If he had just come up to me and said that they were going to release me, I could have accepted that," he said. "But the way in which it was done was terrible."

Hampson was on Wigan's end-of-season trip to Magaluf in Spain when the club phoned his wife, Lisa, who was expecting the couple's first child. "The first thing I knew was when I got a message that a young lady had been on the phone crying her eyes out," he recalled.

"My first thought was for the baby, so when I phoned up and found that I had been sacked by the club, my first reaction was one of relief. It was later that I became angry. I haven't talked much about it, but it's something I've carried around ever since. Now we've beaten them, though, it's over."

Robinson, like all club chairmen, has to make hard, pragmatic decisions and he defends getting rid of one of Wigan's most popular players. "Hampo's been that way about it ever since," he said. "I've got the greatest respect for him as a player, but we signed Gary Connolly and a year later we got Henry Paul. I don't think there's a player in the game you would swap for either of those two."

Robinson's judgement seemed to be vindicated by the two unhappy seasons that Hampson spent at Halifax, plagued by the sort of injuries that interrupted his early career at Wigan, famously robbing him of three Wembley appearances.

Hampson went even deeper into limbo when he agreed to sign for the Australian Rugby League during the bidding last spring for "name" players in the struggle with Super League.

Released by Halifax, he trained with his old Wigan team-mate Andy Gregory at Salford. And when the ARL decided that it did not, after all, have a club that was gasping for a 33-year-old full-back, he accepted a match- by-match deal to play for the Red Devils. "As soon as I got a red shirt on again, I started to play well," he said. "And age doesn't worry me. I've kept myself fit and if you do that you can keep up."

Hampson certainly had few difficulties in keeping up last Sunday, when his authority under any sort of kick was as commanding as it ever was during his Central Park career. The question now for him and Salford, however, is whether they can draw on the same inspiration on Saturday.

"I think we can," Hampson said. "The players, especially the younger ones, know what they are capable of, now that they have taken on and beaten Wigan. It has done wonders for their confidence."

Having exorcised his personal demon with that defeat of Wigan, Hampson's motivation now is to try to add to the five Wembley appearances he made with them. His only grudge against St Helens is that they stand in the way. But Salford have discards from Saints as well, in the shape of Paul Forber and Mark Lee.

"They'll have something to prove on Saturday as well, although I don't think Paul feels quite as strongly about it as I did," Hampson said. "He got his benefit."