As someone who has played for the Papua New Guinea national team at a World Cup, Rhyse Martin is no stranger to rugby league’s big stages.
When he steps out onto the field at Wembley with his Leeds Rhinos team-mates on Saturday for his first experience of a Challenge Cup final though, it will be completely different to when he made his international bow.
Partly because the match against Salford Red Devils will be played inside an empty stadium – although even the most fervent Cup final crowd at Wembley might struggle to match the passion and devotion of fans in the one country in the world where the 13-man code considered is the national sport.
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But the biggest difference is that prior to kick-off, they will not have to walk the pitch to clear the playing surface of rubble as was the case when Martin first lined up for the Kumuls for a Test match against Tonga in Lae in 2014.
“Before the game we had to line up next to each other, walk down the field and get all of the big rocks off the field,” Martin said.
“Literally, the middle third of the field was all gravel and everything outside of that was nice green grass. Everyone was just trying to stay out of that middle part, so I’m glad Wembley is not like that.
“I had heaps of carries that day with it being shifted out to an edge.”
Martin has quickly established himself as one of the key players in the Rhinos’ revival since joining from Canterbury Bulldogs in July last year.
But it has been a long route to the top for the goal-kicking back row, who did not make his NRL debut until the age of 25 with the Bulldogs.
Martin originally came through the youth set-up at their cross-city rivals Sydney Roosters, but was let go before making a first-grade appearance after spending the 2014 season playing for feeder club Newtown Jets.
That led to a return to his home state of Queensland – Cairns-born Martin qualifies to play for Papua New Guinea though his father – with Townsville Blackhawks, where he played alongside future Leeds team-mate Robert Lui prior to the half-back joining Cup final opponents Salford.
It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing.
From there, the Bulldogs came calling and after making a try-scoring debut against Brisbane Broncos the rest is history. However, the 27-year-old has no complaints about having to be patient before finally achieving his long-held ambition of playing at the sport’s top level.
“It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing,” Martin said.
“I don’t think I’d have been ready and would have burnt out my career, so to speak. I had to grow up a fair bit, change the way I was preparing for games and I’m just glad I still get to be a professional.
“There was a point when I thought it wasn’t going to happen and it had always been a dream of mine as a kid to play in the NRL, and I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I’d have given up.
“I was just happy I stuck in and where it’s led me now, I get to play in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley.”
Unlike many of his Rhinos team-mates, the Challenge Cup was never something which featured much on Martin’s radar as a youngster growing up in Queensland.
He has quickly got to grips with the significance of rugby league’s most prestigious knock-out competition since moving to this side of the world though, and is under no illusions about what it would mean to both him and Leeds to lift the trophy at Wembley.
“It’s a massive thing,” Martin, who scored the opening try in Leeds’ 26-12 semi-final win over Wigan Warriors, said. “I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get that so early on, it would be awesome for me.
I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get [the Challenge Cup] so early on, it would be awesome for me.
“It’s getting the club back to where it should be. The team and the squad we’ve got, we’re heading in the right direction and what we want to do is win this game and keep building for years to come.
“For me, that’s the whole reason I came over here.”
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