Eels hooker Therese Aiton isn’t just a trailblazer for Papua New Guinea players; she has established a pathway for more women from the Pacific nation to play in the NRLW.
Aiton, who is only the third Orchids international to earn an NRLW contract after Amelia Kuk and Elsie Albert, has created a scholarship program to help promising PNG players further their careers in Australia.
Albert, the Orchids captain and St George Illawarra prop, was the first beneficiary after Aiton organised for her to come to Brisbane in 2020 to play for Souths Logan Magpies.
The 32-year-old, whose brother Paul played more than 100 NRL matches for Penrith and Cronulla and represented the Kumuls in 16 Tests, accommodated Albert at her house in Brisbane until she earned an NRLW contract with the Dragons.
Albert again received help from Aiton, through the Hezekiah Sports Scholarship Foundation she founded, to return for the 2021 NRL Telstra Women’s Premiership, which kicks off on February 27 after being postponed due to COVID.
Long story short, the chances were 0%Elsie Albert
This time, Aiton will be lining up against Albert after being signed by Parramatta and the Orchids star is working to ensure that there are more PNG players in the NRLW in future years.
“Ideally, we wanted to bring more players here now but the whole visa process and the funding for that was huge,” Aiton said.
“A friend of mine runs a charity, His Harvest, so we just branched off that with the Hezekiah Sports Scholarship Foundation and through that, with whatever funding comes through, we can support more players to come over here.
“I’ve put up my house for accommodation for them. This year I have offered to take five or six girls in my own home and get them to training.
“We just need funding to support us with visas and flights to get them over here and whatever food they require when they are here, but we are happy to take them to training and accommodate them.
“We were able to get Elsie here for the first year with Souths Logan Magpies, which was great, and to support her to come over again this year with the scholarship I created, so hopefully we can bring more players over because there is just so much talent in PNG.”
Albert told of her struggle to return to Australia for the 2021 NRLW season and thanked the Hezekiah Sports Scholarship Foundation in a Facebook post after re-signing with the Dragons.
"The founder of the foundation is one of our PNG Orchids player, Therese Aiton," Albert said. "She created this foundation to help raise money to help our PNG girls to get the opportunity to play in Australia and achieve their dreams. A quick shout to His Harvest, as well, in helping to set up the foundation.
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"I am fortunate enough to be one of the first one to be helped by this foundation. They helped sponsor for my ticket to come to Australia.
"At the beginning of the year, I pictured myself getting on a plane and flying to Australia and it took me seven months to finally settle everything and am now in Australia. Long story short the chances were 0%.
"Keeping my fingers crossed and keen to see what this foundation can achieve through helping our PNG girls in the near future."
Aiton said the inspiration for the scholarship program came after hearing about some of the obstacles female players still face in PNG to access training programs and gyms which would help with their development.
The Orchids, whose first Test was during the 2017 World Cup, enjoyed an historic win against England at Port Moresby in 2019 but Aiton said more support was needed at grassroots level if PNG was to compete with the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns.
“There is so much talent in PNG so we just want to get more girls into the competitions here and that’s what the scholarship is designed to do,” she said. “Even at A-grade and club level, the football in Australia is completely different to back in PNG.
“I really feel that the sooner we can get girls over here experiencing this level of football the easier it is going to be when they go back to PNG with the skills they have learned here, and they can support other girls to develop at home.”
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Paul Aiton, who is on the coaching staff of the PNG Hunters, is working in Papua New Guinea to help organise for more women to be able to play in Australia.
Therese’s move to Parramatta may also open another pathway, with the Eels - through NRLW manager and former NSW women’s coach Andy Patmore - have expressed an interest in helping to develop players from PNG in their junior teams.
“They played a schoolgirl comp in PNG and there were quite a few young players who were switched on and just need that support to take their football career to the next level,” Aiton said.
“You just want to pluck out those players and give them the opportunity to do what Elsie has done, basically.
“The amazing thing for Elsie now is that not only has she been supported to work, she has got a two year visa, she has got an opportunity to study and it has just absolutely changed her life, so it would be nice to do that for a few more girls.”