By PETER ROWE
From the gold fields of Western Australia to the golden field of Manchester’s iconic Old Trafford Stadium, for Royce Hunt Saturday’s rugby league World Cup final will mark the culmination of a remarkable journey that began over 20 years ago with a weekly 12-hour round trip from Kalgoorlie to Perth to play the game he loved.
Playing for the Goldfield Titans under-7s team could have spelt the end of a sporting career had it not been for dad Rob’s determination and driving skills, as every weekend he would drive the youngest of his four children to the suburb of Willagee, almost 600 kilometres each way, to play for the Bears junior teams.
“There were no junior teams over the age of seven in Kalgoorlie, only adult teams,” Hunt said this week as he prepared for the biggest game of his life, the final of this year’s World Cup between Samoa and Australia at the home of the legendary Manchester United.
“Dad would drive us to Perth to play and then we’d drive home.”
That regular journey happened for a number of years before the young Royce Hunt was selected to represent Western Australia at the national championships and subsequently earn a youth scholarship at the Canterbury Bulldogs, playing for the 2013 Australian schoolboys team.
Born of a Samoan dad and a Kiwi mum, the Hunt family had moved to Kalgoorlie from Sydney for work when Royce was a toddler. The family still live there and this week dad Rob took another journey, from Kalgoorlie, via Perth, to Manchester, where tomorrow (Friday) he will present his son with his game jersey in the Old Trafford dressing rooms graced by so many sporting legends.
“He’s never been to the UK before, but he was determined to come and watch me play in this game,” Hunt said.
“To be presented with your jersey for a world cup final by your dad is so amazing. All those years travelling that highway to play footy … and now this.”
Hunt’s career has seen him begin as young teenager at the Bulldogs before a spell at the Canberra Raiders, then his chance to shine at the Cronulla Sharks.
“I didn’t really get a chance at Canberra, one game in three years, and then in early 2020 Cronulla offered me a trial,” Hunt recalled.
“I was the last man selected in a 30-man trial squad and then Covid hit.”
Covid turned out to be a blessing for Hunt, two players dropped out and he was in the Sharks NRL squad.
By round eight of that season he had scored his first try and thought his career was about to take off, then injury struck.
“I think I played two games and then I dislocated my left knee cap, so that was the end of my season,” Hunt said.
Another concern, this time to the right knee, saw Hunt make only two appearances for the Sharks in 2021 before he got his chance earlier this year.
“Injuries to others gave me my chance and I played 19 games. I made the Allstar team and here we are now with Samoa.”
Hunt has racked up 158 minutes of game time for Samoa since that opening round 60-6 loss to England. He’s played four of their five games and even scored a try, against Greece in round two.
“It’s been an amazing journey, where we have grown as a group and believed in each other – that was our strength against England: we believed,” Hunt said, adding that when England failed to score when Samoan captain Junior Paulo was sinbinned early in their semifinal clash in London last weekend, they knew they would win.
“They couldn’t get past us with a man down and we just grew from there,” he added.
“All week we were the underdogs and we defied the odds and played as brothers. It was redemption for that first round loss.
“And when Iceman (Stephen Crichton) picked them off with an interception and then kicked the winning point, it was our day.”
England did push them in the second half. “Yeah, it was a bit scary, but we hung in there and that’s what we have learnt. Stick together. We kicked off that sudden death period, kept them deep in their half and then they made a mistake and Iceman was there to win it.”
Australia poses a different threat on Saturday on a field Hunt admits he knows little of.
“We went to watch a Manchester United game a couple of weeks ago, but we’ll get a tour of the stadium tomorrow (friday) and get ready.
Hunt knows they are the underdogs again, but that doesn’t bother him – or any of his teammates.
“We’ve watched some game footage and yeah, we have a plan,” he said, revealing little of what it is.
“Be cool out there, play your sets and finish well. That’s what coach Matt Parish told us in London before the England game. So it will be similar.
“We’ve come this far and have absolutely no fear and nothing to lose. We want to make history.”
With five premiership-winning Penrith Panthers in their squad, it will be a battle of the NRL heavyweights.
“We’ve got five Panthers and Australia has three I think, so yes, it’s going to be huge.
“First up the middle and once we’ve laid the platform we’ve got a superb backlline … and so have they.
“One last time, our chance to create history for such a small Pacific nation. We are ready to go to war.”
Driving that long Eastern Highway back to Kalgoorlie on a Sunday night after playing for the Willagee Bears a decade ago, did a young Royce Hunt ever close his eyes and dream of this day?
“Nah, not really this, but I knew I wanted to play footy professionally and now I’m about to play on the biggest stage the game has to offer – a World Cup final.
“Do I pinch myself? Yeah, sometimes, but we’ve put in the hard work, we deserve to be here and we’re not going to let anyone down.
“Every Samoan in the world is watching us, and a few people in Western Australia as well.”