Ashton Sims has not arrived in Super League for a holiday, he is on a mission to claim his first piece of silverware. John Davidson reports.
It’s a sad part of the modern game that some NRL players have seen Super League as some kind of sporting retirement village. An easy way to finish your career, claim some big dollars, do a bit of overseas travel and ease out of the professional game. Ashton Sims is not one of them.
Sims has joined the Warrington Wolves at the peak of his career, on the back of arguably his best season in the NRL. At 29 years of age the 17 stone, 6ft 4 inch monster is an experienced prop with plenty left to give.
The perfect age for a front-rower, battled-hardened and knowledgeable after two World Cup campaigns for Fiji, the forward is an excellent acquisition.
While the likes of Todd Carney and Albert Kelly, signed by Catalans and Hull KR respectively, have attracted most of the headlines Sims could turn out to the smartest buy of the 2015 season. Not that he would say so.
Modest, humble and laid-back, Sims just wants to prove his worth and do his best at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
A hard rock music fan with flowing locks and a beard, the prop has an easy-going nature that belies his physical nature on the field. A chance World Cup encounter against Samoa at Warrington’s home ground in 2013 opened his eyes to the opportunity of playing in Super League and he has been impressed by the welcome he’s received from the Wolves faithful.
“I’m really looking forward to the next chapter of my journey,” Sims told Rugby League World. “I’ve just come over here for the opportunity. Be healthy, be fit and put my best foot forward.
“I’m not putting extra pressure on myself other than getting the team forward in attack and making sure I’m solid in defence. I always built my game on the back of that. I probably put more pressure on myself than any external pressures.”
The Sims story starts on the sleepy NSW coastal town of Gerringong, population of just under 4,000. The community massively punches above its weight in sporting terms as it has produced the likes of former players Rod Wishart, Mick Cronin, Paul Quinn and Ron Quinn over the years.
Rugby League is a way of life in the Gerringong area. “It’s pretty much the lifestyle man,” Sims says. “It was Rugby League in the winter and cricket and surfing in the summer. There weren’t that many video games and things like that back then so we were always out playing sport and that was just the cycle we got into as a family.
“We were lucky enough to live on a big yard and we’d always have all kinds of sports around but Rugby League and cricket were always the forefront.”
Sims and his younger brothers Tariq and Korbin, along with older sister Ruan, would be engrossed in games of backyard footy. Grand Finals, Test matches and State of Origin games were won and lost on that patch of grass. “There’s been some tears and plenty of blood at that house back at home,” Sims says.
The family competition in their early years has spurred Sims and his siblings to reach great heights in the Rugby League world. Tariq has played in a World Cup and has been a fearsome enforcer at the North Queensland Cowboys for years, but has recently joined Newcastle. Youngest brother Korbin is also a budding NRL star, building his own reputation as a tough forward with the Knights. The 23-year old has racked up 32 NRL games since his debut in 2013 and was named in the Toyota Cup team of the year in 2012.
All three Sims brothers are similar individuals – hard nuts, mobile and strong forwards who lead from the front and play the game with passion. At the last World Cup the trio got the chance to play together to represent Fiji, the country where their mother was born.
“It was cool as playing with Taz up at the Cowboys but then when we played for Fiji to have Tariq, Korbin and I it was like nothing else. Words can’t describe how exciting it was for all of us to play.
“We came over here to England in 2013 and gave it a really good crack and I think us three brothers playing together it got some of the best footy out of all three of us. I’m really stoked Tariq and Korbin are playing together this year. I think they’ll help each other and challenge each other to bigger and better heights.”
Representing the Bati remains close to Sims’ heart. The 29-year old has played 10 games for Fiji and in two World Cups, and is keen to participate in this year’s Pacific Test for Samoa. “I’ll never knock back a Fiji jersey,” he says. “It’s something that I hold very close to my heart.
“I know I was born in Australia and everything like that but I certainly have strong Fijian heritage through my mum and her side of the family. It’s something I take very seriously and whenever they come calling I’ll be there for them. If I can I’ll certainly come and play.”
Ashton got his break in the NRL with his local club, St George Illawarra, after representing Australia at schoolboy level in 2002. He made his debut a year later, at the tender age of 18, and was one of the youngest debutants in the history of the Dragons.
Sims showed his toughness in 2004 when he had his jaw broken during a game, after a shoulder charge had gone wrong from Clint Newton, but he stayed on the field and finished the match. After five years and 81 appearances for the Dragons, Sims moved north to join the Brisbane Broncos.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the prop in Queensland. Sims was in and out of the Broncos side, managing just 56 games over three years, covering both the front and back row, and made a crucial error in a 2008 semi-final against defending champions Melbourne Storm. He dropped the ball with two minutes left on the clock, with Greg Inglis pouncing to score the match-winning try, and was crucified for the mistake.
It was an undoubted low point, in a year in which he starred for Fiji in the World Cup, and things went from bad to worse the following season.
Sims was dropped down to play for the Norths Devils in the Queensland Cup and at the end of the 2010 campaign he signed for the Cowboys. It turned out to be an inspired move.
Teamed up with brother Tariq for the past four seasons, the pair provided the grunt up front and off the bench with Matt Scott and James Tamou while Johnathan Thurston, Brent Tate and Matt Bowen offered class in the backs. In his four seasons with North Queensland the club finished seventh, fifth, eighth and fifth, making the semi-finals every year.
But every season for the past three years the club has hit controversy in the play-offs. Knocked out thanks to dubious referring on cue in September every year, it has been incredibly tough to take for the Cowboys squad.
In 2014 images of a heartbroken and tearful Sims were beamed around the Rugby League world after a last-minute match-winning Cowboys try was ruled out against the Roosters; Sims’ final game in a North Queensland shirt.
Some of the Cowboys squad bemoaned an NRL conspiracy against the club, but Sims is more circumspect. “It still gripes me but it’s motivation moving forward,” he says. “The four years I was at the Cowboys we always seemed to lose at the SFS under some curious circumstances but that’s a personal motivation moving forward for me.
“I want to jump over that little hump of playing one or two semis a year and not getting past that. I want to experience going further. I’ve played in three games before a Grand Final but I’ve never played in a Grand Final so that’s definitely a big motivation for me personally in 2015.”
Sims’ NRL career may have ended on a disappointing note but he is excited about his new journey in the UK. The front rower has been studying up on Super League and was a keen observer of the recent Four Nations.
“I watched a couple of the English games, I watched our (Warrington) boys run around and I was really impressed with the English squad. I think they were really tough and they played a good, hard style of footy and that’s what I’m expecting over here. The Super League’s that type of old school footy.”
Ashton Sims and Super League should be a match made in heaven. A man who relishes the physical nature of Rugby League, the gladiatorial aspect, but also someone who knows how to play with the best and perform at the top level. For the veteran forward, once likened to Marvel comic character Thor, the best may be yet to come.
This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine, issue 406 (Feb 2015).