Islington teenager to make senior debut for Jamaica
PUBLISHED: 12:00 26 May 2016
There aren’t too many boys who grow up in north London and go to university in rugby union’s heartland – and then become rugby league internationals.
However, that’s exactly what Islington teenager Aston Stephenson, a second row with London Skolars’ reserve team, is due to accomplish on Thursday when he wins his first cap for Jamaica.
The 19-year-old completed a rugby scholarship at Barnet & Southgate College and played for RFL Midlands academy team in Loughborough, where he first came to the attention of Jamaican scouts.
A call-up to the Caribbean country’s Under-19 team for last summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow soon followed.
Now Stephenson, who is approaching the end of his first year studying rugby coaching and development at Cardiff University, is set to make his senior debut for Jamaica in their two-match Test series against the GB Select Under-23 side.
“The coach contacted me and said they were going to start rebuilding and looking to bring people through for the next World Cup,” said Stephenson.
“He couldn’t guarantee I’d get two full matches but he said I’ll start both of them, which is good. It’ll be quite surreal to be up against some of the players I’ve watched on TV, but I have to stay grounded.
“In rugby league the rules are different from union or football, where you play for one team and that’s it. So in theory I could play for Jamaica, then in a few years get selected for England.
“In some ways, of course it’d be a dream to play for England – but I like the way Jamaica are taking things forwards. The fans out there are unreal and the players have good ability.
“If everyone uses Jamaica to get caps and moves on, they’re never going to actually progress. It might take a few people to stay with them and try to build something good.”
Rugby league has been Stephenson’s main passion ever since he was a youngster at Holloway School, although he combined training at Skolars’ academy with several other sporting interests.
Judo at Sobell Leisure Centre, football at Market Road and even the odd game of rugby union for Hackney Bulls all played a part in Stephenson’s weekly schedule, with mum Elaine ferrying him from one venue to the next.
And the teenager is quick to credit his mother, along with Skolars coach Matt Cuss, for the roles they have played in his sporting success to date.
“They’ve been equally supportive in different ways,” said Stephenson. “My mum does so much – sometimes if I’ve been down because I wasn’t picked for a team, she makes sure I get back up again.
“When I’m back home, the weekly shopping isn’t cheap – there are all the meats I have to get to make sure I eat properly, along with my protein and supplements.
“I can’t even begin to say how much Matt has helped me. He encourages me all the time, he put me in touch with a professional team in Wales and he put in a word for me with the Jamaica scouts.
“I train with the Skolars first team and they’re a good bunch, especially because the head coach, Jermaine Coleman, is a player-coach, so he’s in with the banter and I think it makes the team tighter as a unit.
“Even the reserves are the tightest bunch of boys I’ve ever been in a team with – and in Loughborough we all lived in the same house! But it was still nothing like we have at Skolars.”
Stephenson – who also does some coaching with Skolars’ Under-13 side – still switches code occasionally, making appearances now and then for Hackney Bulls.
But there is no question that he envisages his future being in rugby league – traditionally a sport that is firmly centred on the Pennines rather than north London or south Wales.
“Everyone in Cardiff just goes nuts whenever Wales are playing at home, so it can be hard because there’s only one professional league team out there,” added Stephenson.
“But it was the course that took me there – my education is the main thing. With union it can be really stop-start and, if you play certain positions, you’re not always moving.
“In the league the whole line’s moving every minute and the buzz you get is unreal. There’s nothing like the contact you get in league, taking that first ball and getting smashed.
“If I’m not playing league in 10 years’ time, I’ll be coaching it or maybe doing physiotherapy. I’m 100 per cent certain I’ll be doing something connected with league – I’m not going to just veer off towards union.
“I want to put something back into the game and it’s exciting to be part of something that is on the up. We’re getting more games on TV and good things are happening in the sport.”