after three months in the wilderness, Paul Aiton is feeling fresh and hungry and ready to take Leeds Rhinos to a new level.
Aiton joined Leeds from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats last autumn and featured in their opening six games, before enduring a 12-week lay-off as he underwent a course of medication to treat an unspecified illness.
He made his comeback on time last week, entering the action as a first-half substitute and playing a key role in two second-half tries as Leeds overcame a 16-10 interval deficit to record a precious, if scrappy, 38-28 win at Widnes Vikings.
“I am really enjoying being back,” Aiton said of his return. “I was very stiff and really sore after last week’s game, but that’s to be expected. I forgot how tough the game was, but I am feeling pretty good, mentally and physically. I am happy to get straight back into it.”
Aiton’s illness was a huge setback for both the player and his team, a situation which worsened when Rob Burrow – the other experienced hooker in Leeds’s squad – suffered a fractured collarbone two months ago.
But the Papua New Guinea international, who played in all his country’s three games during last year’s World Cup, feels the enforced break could prove a blessing in disguise over the long-term.
“I don’t think I missed a game at all last year and then I played in the World Cup,” he said. “I have been playing at the end of each season since I was 17 or 18, so I haven’t really had a long break.
“It has freshened me up and it has given me a lot more hunger, which is good. It has given me a new appreciation for the game, because I did not know whether I would be able to play again.
“It has also made me appreciate where I am at with this club. They looked after me really well and it made me feel lucky to be here.”
Despite reports coming out of the club that he had trained right through, Aiton revealed he was unable to take part in any sessions until the very end of his lay-off.
“I wasn’t able to train, I only started the week before last Sunday’s game,” he confirmed. “I came back a bit earlier than expected and things have turned out better than I thought. I trained last week and then Mac (coach Brian McDermott) said if you can play, you are in.”
Aiton has declined to divulge the nature of the illness, which led to his long spell on the sidelines. “I wanted to deal with it myself,” he said. “But I am fine now.
“I want to have a strong finish to the year. This is when it starts to get intense and exciting. I want to finish really strong, for myself and the team.”
Aiton is likely to start tomorrow’s home game against Catalan Dragons after teenager Robbie Ward was left out of Leeds’s initial squad.
The under-19s hooker played five times in the senior team and Aiton believes he has a big future if he maintains his current rate of progress.
“He went well,” he said. “He just went for it, which is good. He did a great job.”
Back-rower Mich Achurch will be back in action for Leeds tomorrow after missing three games due to ankle and knee injuries.
Props Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock, who weren’t risked on Widnes’s artificial surface, are also back in contention, along with forward Stevie Ward and utility player Luke Briscoe.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan made his comeback from a long-term biceps injury against Widnes, but is ruled out tomorrow with a calf problem and Ian Kirke has also joined Leeds’s casualty list.
Catalan have been in strong form at home this year, but beaten only London Broncos – twice – on their travels. Aiton said: “They are always big and tough. We have got to be mentally prepared for that.
“We have got to build on the win we got last week, leading into the Challenge Cup semi-final. That’s coming up fast now and we have got to be ready for it.”
Burrow is expected to be back on the field next month and Leeds coach McDermott reckons the return of two pivotal players will make a huge difference to the way his team plays. He said: “We have tried not to make too big a thing of it, but we lost both Rob and Paul. When Paul comes back and you look at how offensively fluent we are, it then dawns on you how big a thing it was to lose both those players. That has been massive.”