Hull KR v Leeds Rhinos: Mantellato’s dream continues on the road from Wyong to Wembley

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FOR a man who freely admits only ever wanting to play one Australian NRL game, Hull KR’s Josh Mantellato is certainly over-achieving.

That is not due to the fact that the tall Hull KR winger did, actually, represent Newcastle Knights twice in NRL matches.

Hull Kr's Josh Mantellato celebrates after KR win the Challenge Cup semi-final match at Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds.

Hull Kr's Josh Mantellato celebrates after KR win the Challenge Cup semi-final match at Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds.

No, rather it is that he will write the latest chapter of his remarkable rugby league odyssey today when he steps out at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final.

It is remarkable because just a few months ago the Australian was contemplating playing amateur rugby back home in Wyong in front of a few dozen supporters rather than the 80,000-plus expected to witness Rovers versus Leeds Rhinos this afternoon.

Mantellato, who was still an amateur at 24, says he almost headed back to university before Hull KR gave him a shot this season.

“I went to Newcastle never with the intention of being a 25-game-a-year first grader,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

(From left) Hull KR players, Josh Mantellato, Graeme Horne, Shaun Lunt, Ben Cockayne, Kieran Dixon, Tyrone McCarthy and Leeds Rhinos players, Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Brett Delaney, Adam Cuthbertson are pictured with the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Trophy ahead of the Final.

(From left) Hull KR players, Josh Mantellato, Graeme Horne, Shaun Lunt, Ben Cockayne, Kieran Dixon, Tyrone McCarthy and Leeds Rhinos players, Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Brett Delaney, Adam Cuthbertson are pictured with the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Trophy ahead of the Final.

“I just went there to achieve my dream of playing an NRL game and I did that.

“I ended up playing two. I was more than happy with that as I was 26 and debuting at that sort of age is very rare.

“It’s hard to make a career out of it as there’s so many young kids over there who are so good coming through.

“So, at the end of last year, I was thinking about going back to uni, studying and going back to Wyong and playing local footy.

“But, at the last minute, this popped up. I’m glad I took it.”

So are Rovers fans who have discovered a new hero.

Mantellato has been prolific, scoring 22 tries and 99 goals in his first campaign with the East Yorkshire club, showing pace, power and dexterity

He was man-of-the-match in their epic semi-final success over Warrington Wolves at Headingley to set up the Robins’ first Wembley Cup showpiece since 1986.

Having played here with Italy in the 2013 World Cup, Mantellato always wanted to return.

“I learned a lot at Newcastle and to have an opportunity to come over here in Super League was another goal for me,” he said.

“To play for such a passionate club as Rovers and in this Challenge Cup final is surreal.

“That World Cup was one of the reasons I came to Super League.

“I’d got to experience English rugby – its atmosphere, the crowds, the football – and after that tournament I just wanted an opportunity to come back and here I am now doing it.

“I remember when we played Tonga at Halifax and that was a packed stadium, really loud. There was probably 8,000 there but it felt more like 15,000.

“And, obviously, the Millennium Stadium was unreal, too.”

His Italian relatives – great uncles, cousins – live about an hour from Venice and he plans to them again soon while a large contingent have flown in from Australia for today’s final.

“There’s six who have come over – my mum, dad, brother, uncle, cousin and my girlfriend,” said the 28-year-old.

“The semi was a clear indication of how much they love the club. They were all crying when we won it and to give them the opportunity to go to Wembley and watch us play there is something I’m really privileged to be part of.

“They’ve not experienced that for 29 years so we have a chance to show a new generation of Rovers fans what Wembley’s all about. I’ve still got to pinch myself a little bit. We’ve got to make sure we enjoy the moment and prepare for what’s coming Saturday.”

Mantellato has had input from Danny Buderus, the former Australia captain and such a legend at Newcastle who played for Leeds in the 2010 and 2011 finals.

“When I signed for KR, Bedsy did chat about it,” he recalled.

“He played in a couple and spoke about what Wembley is like but said, to this day, he wishes he had got the opportunity to lift that trophy.”

Leeds, of course, did finally win the Challenge Cup 12 months ago in their seventh final since previously winning it against London Broncos in 1999.

They are favourites to retain it this afternoon given their position at the top of Super League.

“They are an expansive side and not afraid to throw the ball around,” admitted Mantellato.

“It’s tough rugby to defend. The best we can do is make sure we are all turning up for each other in defence and all backing each other up. But we know what we can do ourselves, too.”

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