Proud Papuan Paul Aiton wants Kumuls to fly higher

Paul Aiton enjoyed something of a mix of emotions at the end of the 2014 campaign, with Leeds Rhinos suffering an early exit from the Super League play-offs.

An Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) investigation into the Cronulla Sharks, for whom Aiton played in 2011, is still going on, and Aiton could yet face a ban.

He did, however, also win the Challenge Cup at Wembley, and enjoyed a trip to his homeland of Papua New Guinea, where he was enthusiastically received, in a country where rugby league is king of sports.

“It was a terrific trip,” Aiton told Love Rugby League.

“But it was non-stop. When I finished here, I went there and it helped take my mind off a few things.

“It was really good. Gary Hetherington gave me some jerseys, and I actually saved a lot of gear from Wakefield as well.

“I loved it.”

Player Welfare

The 29-year-old, who has played for Penrith as well as Cronulla in the NRL, and Wakefield as well as Leeds in Super League, is pleased to see the PNG Hunters team doing well in the Queensland Cup, but he still has some reservations about how well players are treated.

Player welfare remains of crucial importance, in Aiton’s view, if there is to be long-term success for the team, and for PNG players generally.

“I’m happy that the PNG Hunters are involved,” he said.

“I’m not sure about some of it, though. I’ve heard a few things from players there about how they’ve been treated.

“So I think there needs to be some sort of players’ association as part of it.

“I’ve heard from a lot of different players that the welfare of the players there isn’t always up to standard.

“But they’re tough players and they love the game, so I just hope that their welfare is the Hunters’ first priority.”

The Leeds hooker’s fierce pride at playing for his homeland is undimmed, however, even though facilities in PNG have not always been what he is used to.

Players have always had to work hard to build cohesion when they are only briefly together for international camps.

“Any chance I get to play for Papua New Guinea, I’ve taken it,” he said.

“It’s cost me major injuries for myself, from training and playing on the rock hard concrete-like fields.

“The grounds in the UK and Australia can get pretty hard in the summer, but it’s nothing like PNG.

“At one stage, we played at Lae, and you could see the winger dipping down into a slope as he ran.

“The fields at that time weren’t up to scratch, but a lot of the stadiums are getting up to scratch now.

“But I got a lot of injuries, because it’s intense. When I first started with them, we’d train twice a day for long hours.

“You’re just trying to jam as much information as possible in before the game in camp.

“But I’ve always, every year, said that if they want me in then I’ll play.”

Experience and Youth

As for the immediate future for the Kumuls’ international side, Aiton hopes that the hierarchy and the fans realise that combining experience and youth, along with players playing their trade overseas, is the best route to take for success.

“I think whoever is in charge now, they have to understand that they need a mix of the old, the young and the international,” he said.

“They need all the help that they can get, and I think that that’s been forgotten over the last year or two.

“Every team needs the best of the best, it’s the same in all walks of life.”

One player who has recently returned from England to PNG is Gary Lo, who had signed a deal, along with three of his countrymen, to play for Newcastle Thunder in League One.

Lo recently departed from the North East in somewhat controversial circumstances, however, and looks set for a period in rugby league limbo while he decides his future.

Aiton was disappointed at the Lo situation, but felt that it was an indication of some of the negative undercurrents which often run beneath the game in PNG.

“I found out about that, it’s quite disappointing,” he added.

“Players get promised the world, and the most consistent thing that happens is nothing.

“They’re promised the world, ‘We’ll take you here, we’ll take you there,’ and nothing ever happens for these guys.

“That’s part of the welfare of the players, and it’s so disappointing, because I only want the best for the players.”

World Cup Hurt

The Leeds hooker is still hurting from the Kumuls’ failure to impress in the 2013 World Cup, and he is concerned that the recent rise of Samoa and Fiji could spell the end of PNG dominance in the Pacific Islands.

“The World Cup was probably the most disappointing thing – we let the country down completely with the way we played,” he said.

“It just didn’t feel right. It was very disappointing that we let the country down, because they ride on the back of us, and they were let down by our efforts.

“We’ve been the kings of the Pacific for as long as I can remember, and I hope that’s not changing just yet.

“We’ve normally beaten all the Pacific teams. But there’s a lot of Samoans and Fijians coming through.”

As part of strengthening the PNG national team, Aiton would like to see more Papuans playing in the UK. Bureaucratic issues keep throwing up obstacles in the paths of many players, however.

“I’d like to see more, but there’s the visa issue which keeps coming up,” he said.

“Coming over here is a good option for them. Otherwise they’ll probably just stay with the Hunters.”

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