Refusal to call time on career reaps final reward

Leeds Rhinos' 'Paul Aiton
Leeds Rhinos' 'Paul Aiton
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JUST a few years after wanting to quit rugby league, Leeds Rhinos’ Paul Aiton will become the first Papuan to play in the sport’s most famous occasion – a Wembley Challenge Cup final.

It completes a remarkable turnaround for the vibrant hooker, who has endured some difficult times during his career, not least this season when his early momentum at Headingley following a £70,000 switch from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats was stalled due to an unspecified illness that sidelined him for three months.

Having made his recovery from that, returning to the Leeds side at the end of June and now preparing to take on Castleford Tigers in Saturday’s showpiece event, Aiton concedes he almost called an end to his playing days prior to even moving to the UK from the NRL.

“Before I came over (in the winter of 2011) I was thinking of giving up the game,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“When I was in my last couple of years at the (Cronulla) Sharks I wasn’t playing much footy, wasn’t enjoying myself and, unfortunately, wasn’t enjoying the game I’d loved for so long.

“My family live in Brisbane but I was going to go to Papua New Guinea and maybe get a role in a company over there.

“I thought about packing in but, eventually, I just didn’t think I was ready.

“I’d always wanted to come over here and play. I’d watched Super League on TV, liked the attacking aspect of it and Wakefield gave me an opportunity.

“But that’s how far I’ve come – from almost finishing to now playing at Wembley. The last few years have been absolutely crazy.”

It will be a proud moment, too, walking out at the national stadium to become the first man from rugby-obsessed Papua New Guinea to feature in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

Fellow countryman Adrian Lam was part of Wigan’s victorious 2002 side but that triumph came at Murrayfield while Marcus Bai scored for Leeds in a final but during their shock loss against Hull FC three years later and in Cardiff.

Legendary Stanley Gene – treated like royalty in his impoverished homeland and the man who persuaded Aiton to move to Yorkshire – did feature at Wembley for Hull KR in 1997 but only in the now defunct Plate Final, defeating Hunslet before the main event of Bradford Bulls v St Helens.

Would lifting the trophy there this weekend see him usurp Gene, the Hull KR assistant coach, as an unofficial king back in the rainforests and mountains of the country of their birth?

“I’d make him the jester, instead,” joked the ex-PNG captain, whose pace and vision around the ruck will be crucial against an in-form Castleford pack.

“It’d be huge, wouldn’t it? I really hope more Papuans get a chance to watch the game and understand the competition, just how many teams are involved and what it takes to get to the final.

“If they can understand it’d be a big thing over there. They love rugby league. I’d take the trophy back and my medal and show them if they’d let me.

“It was at the 2008 World Cup when I started talking to Stan about playing over here.

“He told me what it was about, how he thought I’d go and the only reason I didn’t come over was because my manager advised against it. But Stan did try getting me to Hull KR, too, before Wakefield.

“He’s a funny guy. I always see him at the end of the year with the PNG side and he really wants to get more Papua New Guineans over here. It’s just a shame there’s always visa problems.”

Aiton, who was born in Mount Hagen before moving to Queensland later in his childhood, believes his best form is still to come for Leeds.

He played the opening six games before being told he had to stop playing while taking a prescribed course of medication for the virus.

The former Penrith Panthers rake, ever-present during Papua New Guinea’s World Cup involvement last autumn, has featured in nine successive games since returning.

“I’m fit and well now but I’d set a benchmark over the last couple of years at Wakey of how I wanted to play,” he said. “I enjoyed that and I want to get back there and continue that.

“I really didn’t think it (the illness) would take that much out of me but it has.

“Over the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve been getting my game-fitness back and now I need to add to that.”

Along with Luke Sutcliffe and Joel Moon, the 29-year-old is one of three players in the Leeds match-day squad yet to experience a Challenge Cup final.

Of course, though, most of his colleagues have endured wretched luck in the showpiece – Leeds are aiming to win for the first time in seven finals since last prospering in 1999.

“A lot of the boys here have missed out. They really want to win and and I want to win just as much as them,” said Aiton.