Rugby League Heroes: Alan Hunte

Having played briefly for his hometown club Wakefield Trinity, Alan Hunte signed for St Helens in 1989, and went on to score 189 tries in 248 appearances prior to his departure in 1997.

He captained Hull in their first Super League campaign in 1998 before he had three seasons with Warrington and two with Salford.

Hunte won 15 Great Britain caps and was a Lions tourist in 1992 and 1996. He is the son of the former Trinity player Michael Hunte, who was interviewed two weeks ago.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

The 1993 Premiership Final when we beat Wigan 10-4 at Old Trafford. That was a better Saints team than 1996 for me. Wigan were also a better team in 1993. We beat them three times that season, drew one and only lost the Lancashire Cup Final by a point. It was our first major trophy in my time at the club. It was a special day.

Your dad talked us through your amateur days last week, leading up to 1989 when you toured with BARLA and turned pro. What do you remember of that year?

I made my Saints debut against Oldham on 1st March and scored two tries. I played eight matches and scored four tries by the end of the season. I didn’t play at Wembley because I was cup-tied, having earlier played for Wakefield against Batley. I’m a big believer in having no regrets, so I didn’t mind that I’d played in that match for Wakefield. I was dead proud to play for my hometown team, even though it cost me Wembley. Alex Murphy could have left me at home, but I travelled with the players. I soaked it all up. I was still 18. Despite the result [27-0 to Wigan], I wish I’d played.

The tour was fantastic, and we still have reunions. We are mates for life. It was a huge trip. The last one had been in 1983 with Deryck Fox, Garry Schofield and David Creasser, who all went on to have hugely successful careers. The amateur game was much stronger then. We learned so much. It was a massive step up. We froze in the first Test but pushed Australia close in the second. We lost 12-0. Brad Fittler was the difference with three moments of quality. Their backline also included Jason Taylor, Jamie Ainscough and Julian O’Neill. 

How sorry were you when Gary Connolly left Saints for Wigan?

I was as disappointed as anyone. We were great mates, inseparable at times. We just hit it off when we played for BARLA. He was my best man. His last game was that Premiership Final. He went to Canterbury Bulldogs and was voted best import. We had both been in contract negotiations, and they offered us very low money before the 1992 tour. We both said no. When a slightly better offer came along, I signed. Ellery later told me Leeds were interested. People thought Gary was greedy, but the money offered was very poor given how good he was. We lost a world-class player. We were just building a team to topple Wigan, and the transfer weakened us and strengthened them. 

Did you ever have interest from Winfield Cup clubs?

I signed a three-year deal with Manly in 1994 after the Ashes, along with Scott Gibbs. Along came the Super League War three months later, and the deal was off. I could have played in the summer of 1995, but I missed out because I needed a knee reconstruction. My ex-wife was ill, so we decided not to relocate for several years. I could have played for Manly in three Grand Finals on the bounce, but I was at Saints when they started to win trophies instead.

Did you think Saints were wise to trade Paul Loughlin, Sonny Nickle, Bernard Dwyer and £250,000 for Paul Newlove in the autumn of 1995?

I had serious doubts, to be honest! You welcome any player, but we were gutted for the three who left. Paul Loughlin was the best centre I ever played outside of. He’d put 20 tries on a plate for you as a winger, but Paul Newlove came in and did that as well. I’ve been told I have the third best tries-per-game record in Saints history, behind only Tom van Vollenhoven and Alf Ellaby, and it was playing outside Lockers that bumped up my numbers. I thought Newy had a lot to live up to just in replacing Lockers. I also thought Sonny was the best backrower in the competition and Bernard Dwyer the most underrated and toughest player I can remember, so I did question it. But Newy was sensational. Both teams did well out of the deal, winning the first two Super League titles. The deal was possibly the first example of Saints going big in the transfer market. We’d always been a selling club.

Why were you on the bench at Wembley in 1996 and did it take away some of the gloss?

We’d been knocking at the door from about 1992, so when Wigan went out of the Cup, everyone expected us to win it. But Bradford came from nowhere! I remember watching them hammer Leeds in the semi-final, and we were so impressed. We played them at home a fortnight before Wembley and we raced into a big lead, but they nearly turned it around in the second half. We knew the final would be tough.

I was on the bench because I’d only played a few games since my knee reconstruction. My first game back was the semi-final against Widnes. I scored, but I rolled my ankle and missed the start of Super League. Danny Arnold came in and scored four at Workington, three against Wigan and two against Leeds. He didn’t deserve to be dropped for Wembley, so I was on the bench. I was just thankful to be back.

I only played for about 13 minutes as a second-half blood-bin replacement, but, amazingly, I came on when we were 14 points down, and we were winning when I went back off. The pace of the game was ridiculous. There were five tries in those 13 minutes, and we scored four of them including the three from the bombs. But if you watch the tape, the first one should have been disallowed because Keiron was offside. Thankfully, no one noticed! 

You missed the 1997 Challenge Cup Final with injury. What happened?

We made a great start to the season. The only game we lost before my injury was away at Leeds when Bobbie missed a kick in front of the posts. We were flying and I was in the form of my life, but I pulled a hamstring against Warrington two weeks before Wembley. I’d already scored when I broke clear. I was turning Nigel Vagana inside out when it happened. I over-strode and my left hamstring went. I’d just been named player of the month for the comp as well. I was in such good form I was imagining myself scoring a hat-trick at Wembley and winning the Lance Todd! It just felt I was going to make an impact in every game I played in that spell, so it was heartbreaking to miss out.

Why did you leave Saints for Hull?

I refused to stay there because there were two incidents involving race, and the club handled them poorly. It was a completely different St Helens board of directors to the one now. Saints are great now, and they come across as such a professional club. I’m a big fan, and I go and watch them a lot. But, despite having been on the wrong end of racism, I ended up getting fined for bringing the club into disrepute and I had to get the players’ union involved. I played on through the season, even though I didn’t want to be there. I was in great form and ended up with 27 tries in 28 matches. I’d been there nine years and I had three years left on my contract. It was handled so badly. It was institutional racism. They were trying to be supportive but they weren’t because they didn’t understand. 

People question why we take the knee, but those people haven’t lived our lives and they don’t understand how it feels to not have the same rights as other people. I often wonder if I should have been more public, but I was happy with the integrity I showed. I shouldn’t have had to listen to what I heard and it happened twice. When I was a kid, I learned to turn the other cheek, but these things impact on your life.

I moved to Hull and I have no regrets because I loved Hull. Leaving was the only one way I could resolve the issue, but it shouldn’t have been down to me to do that. The club put me on the transfer list for £350,000, which limited my options because it put off clubs like Bradford. The disappointing thing for me wasn’t what was said. I’ve heard it all before. I can shake it off. But it turned into an environment that I didn’t want to be in any longer.

Who was it that racially abused you? 

I’d rather not say.

Talk us through your year at Hull.

It was a tough year because they were newly promoted, but I’m proud I was their captain in their first year in Super League. I could never understand why there wasn’t a Hull team in the first couple of years in Super League because it’s a great rugby city. I had a soft spot for the Boulevard because I made my international debut there. We lost a good scrum-half early in the season in Glen Tomlinson but we replaced him with Craig Murdock. I didn’t have the best season. Maybe I could have been smarter about some things. For a newly promoted team to come ninth was a decent achievement. We won our first couple of league games and the pressure of relegation was never really on us. 

Financial problems emerged as the year went on. Players would dash to the banks with their pay cheque because if you waited a day, it might bounce. It’s not good when players aren’t being paid what they’re owed. It shouldn’t happen. I turned down Bradford half way through the season because I was committed to Hull. I later found out the club were trying to get rid of me. I was the highest-paid player and fingers were pointed at me when things weren’t going well. But I had thick skin. The problems galvanised us and we won six games in the second half of the season. It was a shame it didn’t work out at Hull, but I have good memories. I’ve loved every club I played for.

In next week’s League Express Alan Hunte discusses his time at Warrington and at Salford and reflects on his Great Britain career.

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