The pull of the big concrete sheep

Grittiness in everything he does – league export Aritaku Robens defending his line.

When the Australian rugby league scout flew in and told Aritaku Robens he liked what he saw, Robens signed there and then.

“I was pretty excited,” says the Otumoetai Eels centre and Coastline rep. “I’ve only been playing league a couple of seasons, so I was excited and a bit nervous.”

The 25-year-old then had some research to do. Who are the Goulburn Workers Bulldogs, the club he had signed for? And where on earth is Goulburn. “Google tells me it has a population of 22,890,” he says, “but that was a couple of years ago.”

We can fill in some gaps. It is a rural railhead, 90 kilometres north-east of Canberra. So it’s a feeder club for the Green Machine, the lime greens - the NRL’s Canberra Raiders. There’s no parking fees in Goulburn and it is home to the world’s largest sculptured sheep - a 15.2 metre concrete merino which would dwarf Paeroa’s L&P bottle or Ohakune’s carrot.

But 24-year-old Aritaku is unfazed. “I’m Thrilled, yeah,” he says. After all, Queen Victoria proclaimed Goulburn as Australia’s first inland city. Locals brag about “perfectly good views going unwatched” and “paths leading nowhere”, but Aritaku is very much on track. He knows exactly where he’s headed in life.

“It’s a stepping stone,” says Aritaku. “It could lead to bigger things.” And before he’s even landed in Goulburn, he’s thinking about playing in Europe somewhere someday.

Born in Masterton, raised in “Rotes” and now a Tauranga sport and recreation graduate, Aritaku has been employed as a trainer at the city’s F45 boutique training facility. When he’s not being paid to play rugby league, he will be employed as a trainer by the owner of the Goulburn Bulldogs’ wife, who owns gyms. “Strength and conditioning stuff,” he explains.

“This is a young man with grittiness on a league paddock,” says Roben’s Coastline representative coach, James Nicholson. “When he’s running with the ball, he’s out to make a yard and put players in a better position than him. And he works tirelessly on defence.”

“It’s aggression, man,” says Aritaku. “I get into the head space where it’s go hard or go home.” He tried rugby – didn’t like it. “I had one season with Greerton Marist, but to be honest I preferred the hard and fast nature of league. The post breakdown – get up and go again.”

He played in the centres for Otumoetai Eels, but at 1.78cms and 97kgs he’s versatile. “Jock played me in the second row and loosie. Even bloody prop.”

“It’s his good physique, good work ethic and good attitude. He lends himself to it,” says Jock.

When Aussie scouts came to Rotorua to watch him play in the national Maori League tournament, Aritaku found himself in the middle of a bidding war. One club was offering him gym work and the other a labouring job. It made a man feel valued and wanted. “But it was a no brainer,” says the sport and recreation grad.

Is heading offshore to ply his trade at 24 not a bit late? “No,” says James Nicholson. “Ideally, it may have been better when he was 17 or 18.” This is an educated man who already has a career, has something to fall back on and is chasing a dream.

“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see him run out onto GIO stadium in a Canberra shirt on day,” says James. In the meantime he has work to do. So has Goulburn

A season report says finishing seventh was a fair reflection for the Goulburn Workers Bulldogs as they didn’t beat a team above them in the table but didn’t lose against a side below them.

Aritaku is running, chucking weights and is in good nick even before he lands in Goulburn. “Yeah, I’m training hard,” he says.

He will pack his boots in the middle of January and set things up before girlfriend Dannielle Fox follows him. It is cooler in Goulburn than Tauranga, but the blurb says there’s no sitting in traffic and that should be enough to win a girls’ heart – anyone’s heart.