It’s a long way from the small coastal town of Hat Head, which boasts a population of just over 300 people, to the big city lights of Melbourne.
But for Aiden Tolman, who was 18 at the time, the excitement of pursuing his dream to become an NRL player outweighed the nerves which should come with such a drastic transition.
An NRL career had been at the forefront of Tolman’s mind for years but the odds were against the boy from a small country town.
Opportunities to be involved in rugby league programs, receive high quality coaching and be a part of a pathway to an NRL club are limited in the country.
However, the determination Tolman possessed and the support group around him, helped him defy the odds.
It was no secret Tolman had the ability to make it as a professional. He began earning representative honours at the age of 13 and was picked for the Australian Schoolboys in Year 12.
The Smithtown Tigers junior made his way onto the Melbourne Storm radar and signed a scholarship with the club when he was 15.
Tolman travelled to the city during the Christmas holidays for training camps and gained a taste of what is expected.
The trips to Melbourne enhanced Tolman’s desire but unlike many aspiring NRL players from the country, Tolman had no ambition to leave for the city until he had completed his high school education.
“A lot of young kids move to the city to play Harold Matthews and SG Ball but I didn’t have any interest in that,” Tolman told the Argus.
“I wanted to make sure that I was enjoying playing footy and I loved growing up and living at Hat Head.”
Fortunately for Tolman, he had a great support network surrounding him when he returned to his country town.
“There are definitely obstacles when you live in a country area, the level of coaching and the opportunities available are less,” Tolman said.
“In saying that though, I had really good coaches growing up, some teachers at school who really helped me through, Mark Morrison is naming one, but there was lots of them who brought me through and helped me understand that the sport is also a profession.”
So there he was, two months after celebrating his 18th birthday, Tolman had packed his bags and moved out of home on January 3, 2007, after officially linking with the Storm.
The country boy, who spent his spare time fishing, surfing and playing the game he loves, travelled more than 1,300 kilometres with his wife-to-be to a city where they knew no one.
As daunting as that sounds, Tolman made a seamless transition.
“Of course I missed home, it’s a big move to a city where you don’t know anyone,” Tolman said.
“But I went into an environment where I have 30 teammates, coaches and that makes it a lot easier. That was a saving grace.”
The now 30-year-old has amassed 234 NRL games over an 11-year career which includes a premiership with the Storm in 2009 and two grand final appearances since joining the Bulldogs in 2011.
Tolman built a career on the back of hard work, he’s a glue player which every premiership contending side needs.
The former St Paul’s College student isn’t a player who will provide a flashy play but he is a tireless and unselfish player who gives his all for the team every time he steps on the field.
However, Tolman was one of the lucky country kids.
The prop could have easily been another talented player to slip through the cracks for remaining in the country.
The disparity in opportunities between kids who live in the city and country led to Tolman putting his hand up to be involved in the creation of a partnership with his NRL club, the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs, and the North Coast Country Rugby League.
The opportunity to close the gap was the main incentive for Tolman when he walked into the Bulldogs CEO Andrew Hill’s office.
“When Aiden heard about the opportunity he walked in and said we had to do it,” Hill said.
“Aiden didn’t say it in these words but he very much understands the role he can play, as a senior player, to be a role model.
“For anyone who lives in this region, whether it is in their chosen sport or not, they have someone to look up to who made it from little old Hat Head to end up having a 10-year career in one of the most professional sporting environments in Australia and potentially the world.”
Tolman didn’t want to miss out on the chance to help out the region where he spent his childhood and he understood the challenges which aspiring rugby league professionals can face, just like he did.
“It’s a great opportunity to give back to the local area that I grew up in, I know what it’s like to grow up in this area and go on to play a professional sport. There are a lot of other kids from here that might be able to use my experience and take bits and pieces from it,” Tolman said.
“It’s great the Bulldogs are on board for what is hopefully going to be a really great relationship in terms of rugby league but it’s also more than that as it’s about giving back to a local bush community where sometimes in Sydney you can forget about that.
“There’s a lot of players in Sydney who do come from country areas and this partnership will provide a pathway for future talents from the North Coast region.”
Tolman’s personality and support made it possible for him to relocate to the city as a teenager but not all juniors can adjust to the city life, especially when away from their friends and family.
That is why the Bulldogs’ partnership with the North Coast is focused on keeping the aspiring NRL players at home for as long as possible.
“This isn’t about grabbing the 15-year-old boy and bringing them to Belmore, far from it – it’s the exact opposite,” Hill said.
“We will put programs in place which allows for young boys, primarily, to be able to stay at home and play.
“I think as a game we have all learned from the mistakes of trying to take young boys away from home too early and I think the game is maturing where we realise the best nurturing environment for players is to stay at home and receive the care from mum and dad and complete their education with their mates.”
Despite spending more than a decade away from the Macleay, the father-of-three will always consider the region his home.
“My parents still live in Hat Head and my Nan and Pop are in Gladstone, my brother, cousins and lots of family and friends are still here,” Tolman said.
“We get back here when we can, it’s a long drive when you have three kids in the back but I love the area and it will always be home for me.”
Tolman is looking forward to witnessing the progression of the partnership between the Bulldogs and the North Coast and is excited at the prospect of the next Aiden Tolman making the venture to an NRL club, when the time is right.
Stay ahead with local news by signing up for the Macleay Argus newsletter here.
Also making the news: