Weekend Interview - Dave Craven: Aussie legends Sterling and Kenny remain a great double act

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WHEN Hull FC and Wigan Warriors play the first-ever Super League game outside of Europe today they will do so for a trophy that depicts not two English greats but two Australian legends.

It is a sign of just how big an impact both Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny had on the English game, though, that they are immortalised in this way.

Brett Kenny, left, and Peter Sterling

Brett Kenny, left, and Peter Sterling

It is equally fitting that Hull and Wigan are playing this historic fixture more than 30 years after they contributed to what is still perceived as the best Challenge Cup final of all time.

It was in 1985 that, fascinatingly, scrum-half Sterling lined up for the Airlie Birds against Wigan stand-off Kenny, his long-time Parramatta Eels, New South Wales and Kangaroos team-mate with whom he formed one of the most potent half-back combinations in the sport’s history.

The sublime Kenny – who only played one season for the Cherry and Whites but is still adored there – came out on top as Wigan edged a classic game 28-24 but only having avoided a stirring comeback initiated by his gifted mate.

They have been reunited again this week in the build-up to this morning’s contest in Wollongong where the duo also spoke, on the eve of the match, at a special fundraising luncheon for Kenny.

Last year he suffered the double trauma of being diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and seeing his step-son Riley suffer a serious spinal injury that left him in a wheelchair.

On being immortalised on the Kenny-Sterling Shield, Sterling admitted: “The name on the trophy was obviously alphabetical. That’s how they decided it!

“Look, it’s a great honour. Again after all of these years to still be held in that esteem has some real significance and it makes us feel real warm inside.

“I was only at Hull one and a half seasons but it was up there with winning my first Premiership with Parramatta and pulling on the Test jersey for the first time. That’s how special my time at Hull was.

“I they going to get the trophy through customs, though. You’re not allowed to take wood out of the country and it’s got some sort of shell on it, too!”

On the game itself, Sterling recalled: “I refer to that day as bitter-sweet. “Obviously going to Wembley and losing was bitter but sweet for the fact it was a great experience.

“And Brett was the difference that day which softened the blow a little bit.

“The support at Hull was unbelievable and the icing on the cake was to play in front of nearly 100,000 people at Wembley, something I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do.

“I know I got more out of my time at Hull than Hull got out of me but it was just so special.”

It was a star-studded side that had won everything in the previous few seasons but was still eluded by Wembley glory, something that would continue throughout the East Yorkshire club’s history until eventually ending the hoodoo in 2016.

Sterling recollected: “We had a young Lee Crooks and a young Garry Schofield.

“They kicked two from seven between them that day – that was costly and I’d like to take them aside for that!

“No, it wasn’t goalkicking that cost us then. We scored fives tries apiece but shouldn’t have conceded five as we did.

“There was too many missed tackles and there was one from me on Shaun Edwards that still haunts me to this day.

“I always remember coming through the tunnel and looking up to just see a sea of red and white at the other end of the field.

“But then I got to the end of the tunnel and the noise nearly knocked me over. It was an actual physical thing; I turned and saw that Black and White support behind us and it was just a huge moment for me. Incredible.”

Sterling had special praise for Steve ‘Knocker’ Norton, the former Castleford and Great Britain loose forward who was so integral to Hull.

“‘Knocker’ was a great joy to play with,” he said.

“I still think he’s the most skilful forward I ever played with and so to go over there and play alongside him was brilliant.

“I was a Manly fan when he was over here back in the 70s so to get that opportunity was great.

“With all due respect, though, I could never quite understand what he was saying. It was like he was speaking out of the Bible... ‘How’s tha guin!’

“David Topliss wasn’t there that afternoon but he was a great influence at Hull at that time, too, a wonderful player.

“There was some really good young ones coming through and it was a pretty formidable outfit but on the day we just fell short.”

It was remarkably close in the end even though Wigan had been 22-8 ahead early in the second period.

Sterling, now a commentator for Channel Nine, said: “I’d just rather it had been a terrible game and we’d won!

“The exact reverse would have been best for me. But I do guess it’s pleasing that after all these years it is recognised as one of the better deciders over there.

“Ten tries in all, it really went down to the last 10 minutes, some great performances, Brett was deservedly the first Australian to win the Lance Todd Trophy and he was the difference that day.

“He copped a bit of criticism that day for being fairly laid back and lackadaisical when he went out there.

“I knew straight away that we were in trouble, though. I’d seen that before. That was him.

“It started being embarrassing for us. We were in the greatest arena and the game was just slipping away from us so we had to find something.”

Sterling, 57, watched on as Hull fans in the luncheon crowd on Friday produced a rousing rendition of club song Old Faithful.

“My dad knew every word to Old Faithful as well,” he said.

“He was an acquired taste my dad. He should have been English; he was a big man, liked to drink and loved pub life.

“It was a kind of package deal for him to come over with me and for him to be able to travel around and meet so many great people in Hull was great.”

Sterling has been inundated with autograph and picture requests from Black and Whites fans in Wollongong during the build-up this week. Some just want to shake his hand and say ‘I was there.’

It is no surprise that even though he barely played 30 times for the club he is in their Hall of Fame.

That said, they nearly didn’t get to that famous final after almost coming unstuck over a replayed semi against Castleford.

“I had to survive not only those two games but Mal Reilly sued me as well,” said Sterling.

“It was after I was fairly critical of him trying to rip my eye out in that second game.

“I got a letter from his lawyer but fortunately I was flying out of the country two weeks later! We have shaken hands since but it was tough.”

“I didn’t know what to expect when I went over there but loved every minute of it on and off the field,” added Sterling.

“I loved the people and they are the only people I’ve seen that have rivalled the Parramatta fans back here. I got more out of that experience than they got from me so to be recognised in that fashion is great as I loved them and it’s nice to know they warmed to me in such a short space of time.”

Sterling concedes he would like to return back to the UK more often.

“I was devastated I couldn’t get over for Arthur Bunting’s funeral last year,” he said, referring to the FC coach who was the catalyst for so much of their success.

“He was laid to rest the day after (State of) Origin so I literally couldn’t get there.

“And I regret not being able to get back for David Topliss’s funeral, either, God bless him.

“I really felt for Hull that day in ‘85 as they’d been beaten by Featherstone a couple of seasons previously and to lose again was heartbreaking.

“But it did just mean I was so excited when I watched Danny Houghton two years ago come up with one of the greatest tackles I’ve ever seen in my life…”

And what about his old mate Kenny who has now finished his chemotherapy and seen the size of his tumour reduce considerably.

Sterling said: “He’s always had this bad habit of just hanging around!

“He’ll outlive us all.”

Dave Craven is on tour with Hull FC in Australia in association with Ladbrokes.com