THERE IS often a misconception that Australian rugby league players simply come over to the UK for one final pay-day.
With a mercenary attitude, they arrive, their better playing days behind them, living off a name and looking to just collect the money before retiring.
There might be some who do that, of course, but it could never be said of Matt Fuller. Far from it.
He immersed himself so much in Wakefield Trinity during his two stints at Belle Vue that he later decided to actually name his daughter after the club.
“The greatest accolade I could give this club is I named my daughter Trinity,” he explained, while celebrating the 20th anniversary of captaining Wakefield to the 1998 Northern Ford Premiership Grand Final.
“She’s 10 now. She was born 10 years after we won that Premiership.
“But – and I played more than a 100 first grade games of rugby league – I always said winning that Premiership with Wakefield Trinity and getting them into Super League was probably one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in my life.”
Last Wednesday marked the actual 20th anniversary of that glorious night at Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium when, in dramatic style, Andy Kelly’s side defeated Featherstone Rovers 24-22 in the inaugural Grand Final to earn their place in the elite.
However, the club marked the milestone last month when Kelly and the majority of his players reunited at Belle Vue for a celebration dinner.
They were presented to the crowd at half-time of Trinity’s 36-16 Super 8s loss to leaders St Helens with their erstwhile coach recollecting that memorable evening.
I always said winning that Premiership with Wakefield Trinity and getting them into Super League was probably one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in my life.Matt Fuller
Fuller flew over from Australia especially, illustrating the comradeship and team spirit that side had fostered
Trinity had finished top as champions that year, four points ahead of nearest challengers Hull KR, who they edged 19-16 in the play-offs to book their place in the Grand Final.
Featherstone finished fourth, fully 10 points off the pace, but, after beating Swinton Lions and Dewsbury Rams in the opening two weeks of play-offs, really showed their potential with a stunning 54-6 win at Hull KR to seal their place in the final.
With Richard Chapman, the rugged hooker who was Championship Player of the Year and former Great Britain centre Shaun Irwin, they had plenty of experience.
Furthermore, Featherstone had beaten Wakefield twice in the league in that season and arrived to the final on the back of a six-game winning run.
However, Trinity took an early lead with tries from Roy Southernwood and towering Aussie winger Josh Bostock in the opening six minutes.
Bostock added another before half-time but all three went unconverted meaning Featherstone were still in touch especially given their first-half try from Danny Baker was improved by Chapman.
Rovers duly took control after the break with tries from Chico Jackson and Steve Collins, both converted again by Chapman.
Garen Casey crossed and improved to level the game up only for Carl Hall to score a try in the 68th minute to leave Featherstone in front once more.
They thought they had extended that advantage following Karl Pratt’s length-of-the-field effort only for referee Nick Oddy, controversially in some eyes, to disallow it due to a knock-on, a decision some Rovers fans still dispute to this day.
It was crucial as, soon after, giant prop Francis Stephenson – Wakefield were labelled a ‘team of giants’ by Featherstone coach Steve Simms – barged over five minutes from time for Casey to slot the match-winning conversion.
Fuller lifted the trophy and he recalled: “This great club is steeped in history.
“Neil Fox, his brother… people will never forget. But when Trinity were in the first division and I first got asked to come here I was a bit reluctant as I was playing first grade in Australia.
“But when I came across, with the cattle that Andy Kelly had got together, I knew that we could probably do something special. I knew straight away.
“Throughout the season I can honestly say we never panicked.
“Even when we were behind in the Grand Final against Featherstone, I still said to the blokes ‘We’ll win this.’
“Everyone believed in each other and we did then go on to do it.
“This club and this side today has a lot to thank the ‘98 Grand Final-winning team as without us they wouldn’t be in Super League.
“But what they’ve done since is keep themselves there.”
Obviously, Wakefield have come close to relegation on a number of occasions since but have always survived and now, under Chris Chester, have secured fifth place for two years running.
Loose forward Fuller, whose first spell at Trinity was when joining from South Sydney in the 1993-94, added: “It was an unbelievable year in ‘98.
“Although the team might not have been that skilled, what a great bunch of lads.
“They worked hard for each other and they believed they could actually win the final.
“Nearly all of them are here now for this reunion. I now live in Western Australia.
“I’ve been back over the years a few times because I’ve met so many beautiful people here.
“I’ve got what I call a ‘Pommy mum and dad’ in Wakefield who I come back and visit regularly.
“I stayed with them when I played here in ‘93 when I was 23 and then again when I came back in ‘98.
“Sometimes sport is not about the result but the people you meet and the journey and being back tonight and being recognised as part of a winning team has meant a lot to all of the lads.
“I know they have said I was captain at the time and a bit of a spokesman and I have come across from Oz.
“But the display that Wakefield Trinity and their supporters have given us has meant a lot ot us and I’m very proud.
“It’s unbelievable. What Trinity have done for us after 20 years – to remember the ‘98 side – has been incredible.”
Back to that night in ‘98, however, and it was nearly two months later that their promotion was actually officially confirmed.
It needed three attempts to satisfy the independent franchise panel that they could actually meet the criteria for the elite.
Thankfully, they did and now they sit firmly embedded as a Super League club.
Fuller, though, did not play in the top-flight with Trinity.
The former Western Reds captain returned to Australia the following year with Western Suburbs, playing 21 games before retiring at the end of 1999.