You have skipped the navigation, tab for page content
New Cup coaches of 2024: Aiton at Hunters

Season 2024 of the Hostplus Cup is upon us and there are some talented faces among the coaching ranks.

Three clubs have appointed new head coaches, with Paul Aiton, Terry Campese and a returning Eric Smith starting at the PNG Hunters, Townsville Blackhawks and Northern Pride respectively.

In this edition we talk to new Hunters head coach Aiton about his first season in charge, his determination to see Papua New Guinean talent on the world stage and what young guns he has coming through the ranks.

Coaching history

A former player, Aiton had a lengthy career across the NRL and Super League. The Mount Hagen product donned jerseys for the Penrith Panthers, Cronulla Sharks, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Leeds Rhinos and Catalans Dragons across 250 games, and also represented the PNG Kumuls.

When he finished playing professionally, Aiton did not think coaching would be his calling. But, by his own admission, he said he struggled after retiring and had a "yearning" to give back to other PNG players.

He had moved back to Australia after his time in France with Catalans and ahead of the 2021 season, saw an advertisement for assistant coach of the Hunters.

Off the back of a conversation with then-head coach Matt Church, Aiton was hired and joined the Hunters - who had been relocated to the Gold Coast due to COVID-19 with the help of DFAT - at Runaway Bay.

He remained as the assistant for the 2022 and 2023 seasons - under Church and Stanley Tepend respectively - before getting the top job himself in November last year.

He has also worked in the Kumuls' coaching staff.

Mic'd up: Paul Aiton for PNG Hunters pre-season

Q&A with Paul Aiton

How does it feel to be promoted to head coach of the PNG Hunters?

"It was a little bit overwhelming. I didn't even think I was going to coach at all and I did like being an assistant. I liked giving my two cents and being able to help the players is why I started it, especially with the Hunters as a pathway. If I can help a player - bring them in, teach them all they need to know so that when they go to another club they don't feel out of place, whether it's with terminology or understanding - that just makes me happy. I was happy just to do that but I was doing the Kumuls at the time (of the appointment). It was a long process and I was waiting and you just don't know if you're going to get it. I went for the interview - I was down to the final three - and when I found out I got the job, I was really overwhelmed, happy, worried, all at the same time. At that time, I was already into pre-season. I knew I had a good chance because I knew the players. I was already there anyway but it was still big for me because I've never done a pre-season by myself before. I was really happy to get it."

What is your coaching philosophy?

"I don't have a particular one exactly but I guess my purpose and my drive would be that pathway... I'd love to send five players to another club, for example. I know that's more work because we have to start again but that's what I do it for. I like that. I like trying to help in any small way to get that next crop of Kumuls or the next crop to go to England or an NRL club, hopefully. That's my purpose and drive. I do my best to see that."

Aiton in Hunters pre-season. Photo: Rikki-Lee Arnold/QRL
Aiton in Hunters pre-season. Photo: Rikki-Lee Arnold/QRL

Who would you say is your mentor or strongest influence in coaching?

"Obviously you have your Bellamys. I was always in teams against Bellamy, I never played under him. I looked up to him, even though I never played underneath him. When I finished I did think I would have loved to have been under him to see how he does things because everyone that plays under him, they enjoy it there. That was before I even started coaching. But there's him, obviously Wayne (Bennett) who we had a little bit of mentoring from through the Hunters. It was good to have that insight into how he does things. And another one from afar would be Trent Robinson at the Catalan Dragons. At the moment though as a mentor, I have a few guys I ring all the time, like Matthew Elliott at St George. He was a coach of mine at the Panthers so I looked up to him and get a lot of information from him. He's only a phone call away for me, which is good. I had Shane Flanagan after we did the Kumuls together. They're all different and they deliver their messages differently and I took a lot from Shane as well. Brian McDermott, who was my Leeds coach and is assistant coach of Newcastle, I ring him for certain things, particularly his defensive philosophy. They're all very different so I take a little bit from each of them."

What are your first impressions of your squad?

"Really good. I'm really impressed with the young guys, really impressed. We went big and had a squad of 50 players for like, five weeks. That was a really big task, it was more work but we had 10 Junior Kumuls to give them the taste. And as I've said to them, they've got an invite for the following pre-season. They now know what's required. All of our young guys were really good and all the senior players, some nearing 50 Cup games, they have a lot of experience and are gelling together. I'm really impressed so far. I'm really happy."

What are your goals for season 2024?

"I definitely want to be in the finals. Every coach wants that. It's definitely our goal. We want that and we want to compete. When we play at home, we want to make our fans happy. I want to see if we can get a couple of players to other clubs. That would be a good goal - other clubs or the Kumuls. If we can do that, that would be really good."

Junior Kumul, Finlay Glare. Photo: Supplied
Junior Kumul, Finlay Glare. Photo: Supplied

Who within your squad will make their mark in 2024?

"We have a few. We've got a young Junior Kumul, Finlay Glare, and our centre positions are open at the moment. Rod (Tai) left us and went to Warrington, so we're happy to see him do that, but we've bought in a couple of options in Robert Mathais and Elijah Roltinga. One of those will make the spot. So those two and Finlay - they're the ones to look out for."

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

Platinum Partners

View All Partners