LEEDS RHINOS hope to have the local fans’ support when they face Wigan Warriors at St James’ Park on Saturday.
The top versus third clash will close the opening day of First Utility Super League’s Magic Weekend in Newcastle.
And Rhinos have growing links with the north east’s only professional rugby league club, thanks in part to their Papua New Guinea connection.
The Yorkshire Evening Post reported yesterday that Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington has close ties with his Newcastle Thunder counterpart Michael Hogan and club owner Semore Kurdi.
And Thunder also have a backer in Leeds hooker Paul Aiton, who is keen to support fellow Papua New Guinean Stanley Gene’s attempts to boost the sport on the Tyne.
Gene, the Thunder coach, has recruited several players from Papua New Guinea and they have contributed to some impressive form which has seen Thunder win five of their opening seven games in Kingstone Press League One.
“I’ve only seen pictures, but it looks awesome,” Aiton said of St James’ Park.
“I’ve never played up there, but I’ve heard about it from what Stanley Gene has told me and I’ve been up there as well, to meet Stanley’s team.
“I’ve caught up with them and the (PNG) boys, and gone up there to get them to see a friendly face every now and then and take them up a few gears.
“Stanley’s really looking forward to the weekend. His team play York on Friday and that’s great for them.
“Rugby league’s not really big up there, but they are getting good crowds at their games, for them, so I think it’s starting to get a little bit of traction up there, which is good.”
Aiton is already a fan of the Magic Weekend concept and he reckons taking the event to Newcastle will make it extra-special.
The past two Magic Weekends have been held in Manchester, with Cardiff and Edinburgh hosting the event before that.
“I am really looking forward to it, because of playing up there in Newcastle,” Aiton said.
“That’s new and Magic Weekend is such a big event. I am looking forward to the occasion.
“I think Magic Weekend is a good idea. It’s great and for a fan of rugby league to be able to go and watch every game is amazing.
“I wouldn’t say it’s like a Cup tie, because this is a different competition, but it’s still a big occasion.
“It’s a neutral ground, up at Newcastle and I think there’s going to be quite a few people there, so I’ve heard.”
Whatever the stage, Saturday’s showdown between Leeds and Wigan would be a key battle in the race for top spot.
“It is a very big game,” Aiton said. “Last year’s game against them was a big, emotional one and this will be exactly the same.
“It’s first versus third and there’s a lot riding on it.
“We’ve really been putting in this year and it would be great to get a win, just to continue with that.”