Team Sunderland Elite Athlete Aaron Harlow-Stephenson made his Newcastle Thunder debut on the weekend and remains hopeful he can land a spot on the England University Rugby League team.
A last-minute switch from Keighley Cougars to Newcastle Thunder, who Harlow-Stephenson described as the “pinnacle” of North East rugby, saw the middle make his debut on Saturday in a 10-114 loss to York City Knights in the 1895 cup.
For a Thunder club that once faced extinction though, the day was viewed as a triumphant comeback to life on the field in front of a bumper crowd by a somewhat inexperienced side.
“I’ve loved every second at Keighley and am grateful for all the coaching I got there, and it’s brought me on as a player,” said Harlow-Stephenson. “But when Thunder did have the offer… how do you turn your hometown club down, playing with a bunch of your mates that you’ve known all your life? You can’t. It was a no-brainer.
“Anyone who loves rugby in the North East will be happy to see the Thunder squad back out there. The managers, the coaches and everyone behind the scenes have worked so hard just to get that team back there.
“A lot of the players are scholarship and academy graduates. 16-year-olds on the pitch against a Championship team that’s fighting for promotion to the Super League this season is quite amazing. The boys’ spirit can’t be knocked at all, I like to think everyone who pulled that shirt on did it for the fans and everyone that got the club back on the pitch.
“It is boys versus men when you’ve got Tongan internationals running at a young lad who have just graduated out of the scholarship or into the academy, it’s a matter of kilos on bodies!”
For rugby league in the North East, Thunder is the pinnacle. It’s the only club we have. It means the grassroots game has a progression point. It means kids who want to get into rugby league can get up to Kingston Park on a Sunday and watch us play. It is that air of hope that rugby league can expand outside of Yorkshire. We’re breaking the mould a little bit and keeping the rugby league dream alive up here.
“The club is massively professional and standards have to be met. Although we’re a team that doesn’t have much pressure on us this season, our standards are high and our goal is to be the hardest-working team in League One and I think that’s what we’ve got to live up to.”
With stories running adjacent to a degree, Harlow-Stephenson himself has had to pursue a road to recovery that seen him tear his ACL twice – keeping him on the sidelines for two years before making his debut with Keighley in December.
“(Since coming back from injury) cardio is massive now. I’ve lost over a stone since I came back from pre-season, I was over 120 kg and I’m down to about 113 kg. That massively helps my position on the field, just being a more mobile middle. That’s what my routine is now, constantly trying to be better.”
The now fully fit Harlow-Stephenson is going through the process of selection for England University Rugby League. Having already been successful in making the cut as the teams shortened from their regional output, the paramedic science student is now in the 20-man squad for the North and is one game away from selection for the National squad as the North take on the South contingent.
2024 University RL Origin Game 🏴
— England Universities Rugby League 🏴🏉 (@EnglandUnisRL) January 31, 2024
“I think it’ll be a good game, and the South have big middles, but the North is the North and we’re hard as nails! I’ve heard a rumour about one of their middles being humongous, so I’m sure we’ll have a bit of fun with that and just see how it goes.
“There is a good mix of pro and high-level university players who might not have been able to get on that pro pathway yet but it’s a high-skill-level bunch of lads in that team – and the worst part is they’re all young and fit so they can run quite a bit!”
Harlow-Stephenson admits that balancing a relationship, studies and rugby “is a struggle”, but his commitment to his sport means that one thing was always going to take priority.
“Trying to balance everything at the minute is a struggle, and you get struggles within your personal life as well. My life is: wake up, train, eat right, university, train again. That is my life. It’s hard to balance, but you must prioritise what means the most, and rugby means the most to me at the minute.
“My goal that I’m working towards with Thunder is to be the hardest-working player on the pitch and I am training to try and do that, and to pay back my coaches that gave me a chance to get back onto the pitch.
“It’s a tough challenge this year with everything that’s happened and the squad that we’ve pulled together, but how great would it be to turn up to League One and cause some upsets? I think we can do it, I really do. The passion is absolutely there, and everyone is there for the right reasons.”