A World Cup For Wontoks?

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league’s capacity for self-harm is all pervasive – but our capacity to find out about it us often inconsistent and unreliable.

We know every twist and turn of the Super League War in Australia. We know how the New Zealand government formed a commission to overhaul the game in New Zealand. And most readers of this august organ would be aware that Italy and the United States are about to make their World Cup bows with divided competitions.

But what about the nation that is our fourth or fifth most powerful, Papua New Guinea? One suspects that a Test player could spontaneously combust on the main street of Goroka and it would be weeks before we found out about it, if at all.

In 2010, when the Australian Prime Ministers XIII played in Port Moresby, the political turmoil in the game there reached such a nadir there that the Kumuls side had no food in camp and the Australians’ bus didn’t show to take them to Lloyd Robson Oval.

Ever since, Australian authorities – with the tacit co-operation of the Federal Government which provides millions of dollars in rugby league-related funding to PNG each year – have been using the carrot method to effect changes in the only country where our game is the national sport.

In 2010, the Australian Government froze $4 million in annual funding which had been set aside for rugby league in PNG, ostensibly in protest of the administration of Gary Juffa, previously the national customs commissioner.

Juffa came to power at a time that millions of kina had come into the game as a result of the government’s backing for an NRL franchise. Ousted Albert Veratau launched legal action, claiming he had been deposed unconstitutionally, and the Federal Court reserved judgement with no date given for a ruling.

This left the PNGRFL without a viable administration. As part of a compromise, Vatatau was left in control of liason with overseas authorities and the Australian Government, and Juffa ran the international team.

Juffa reportedly wanted more of a say in selections and more domestic players representing the Kumuls. This set him against coach Adrian Lam. When the former Wigan star quit, he was replaced by British favourite – and close friend of Juffa – Stanley Gene.

Gene oversaw a disappointing 2010 Four Nations campaign which saw the Kumuls loose 42-10 to Australia, 76-12 to New Zealand and 36-10 to England.

The PNG Bid for NRL inclusion has engulfed the game in PNG since then. Mal Meninga, originally an ambassador for the bid, stood down. It was suggested he disapproved of the taxpayers’ money being handed to Australian consultants for the bid.

The PNG Bid even became a sponsor of the Brisbane Broncos, with perimeter advertising at Suncorp Stadium.

But with the NRL’s announcement late last year that expansion was off the agenda for the time being, some sanity seems to have been restored to rugby league in PNG. The Kumuls played a pre-season game against South Sydney and the Rabbitohs promised to support a more sensible a bid for Queensland Cup inclusion.

The PNGRL – under the chairmanship of Don Fox (not that one) – has now officially switched its focus to the Queensland Cup. Adrian Lam is back on board, and there are reports in PNG that Meninga is back as well, as part of the World Cup coaching team.

Fox has also revived the PNG Origin fixture, pitting domestic players against those based overseas.

Lam told the PNGfacts website the overseas players he would consider included: James Segeyaro (Penrith), Neville Costigan (Newcastle), David Mead (Gold Coast), Joe Bond (Brisbane), Reece Martin (Sydney Roosters), Nini McDonald (Sydney Roosters), Tyson Martin (North Queensland), Rod Griffin (Gold Coast), Menzie Yere (Sheffield Eagles), Jesse Joe Parker (Whitehaven) and Paul Aiton (Wakefield).

The Origin game will take place sometime after the NRL grand final. The PNG v Australian Prime Ministers XIII game is also on the agenda for September and will probably give Australia coach Tim Sheens the chance to run the rule over players not involved in the NRL play-offs.

Sports minister Justin Tkatchencko appears to be the driving force in ending the feuding in PNG. H brought the warring parties together at a meeting in November, from which Fox was elected. The NRL Bid became the “Rugby League Foundation” and supported Fox, whose official title remains “interim chairman”.

Gene admitted in a recent interview that the NRL Bid had not been the waste of time he imagined, as it had helped with many grass roots programmes.

“We all should support the minister’s focus and if they want Mal Meninga as coach, we all must support them,” Gene told The National newspaper.

Former Kumuls winger Marcus Bai, on the other hand, is his country’s answer to Garry Schofield or Mark Geyer, speaking out against the administration on a number of occasions. He is being sued by Australian official Paul Broughton and his wife Bev and after they worked together on the NRL Bid, only for Bai to quit and make allegations of impropriety in the Gold Coast Bulletin.

Gene challenged Bai’s view of things but also criticised one aspect of the PNGRL’S operation – it’s lack of support for former internationals.

“They have been great ambassadors of the country playing rugby league but need jobs after they hang up their boots,” Gene said. “Currently the bulk of former Kumul players are jobless and have nothing to do compared to Australia and New Zealand.

“It is very sad to see a lot of Kumuls now walking the streets of our major cities and the towns they come from, literally doing nothing.”
Gene believes the PNGRL should be actively helping players get contracts overseas.

But the government’s financial support of the Kumuls’ 11-day stay in Sydney in February – for the Cabramatta Nines and the game against Souths – is seen as a positive sign by all involved.

In return, the Australian government finally released $4 million in funding on December 11.

“Four million dollars, which had been earmarked for Rugby League in PNG for a long time now is able to be spent on developing rugby league within schools,” he said.

“Over a three year pilot 50,000 children, 500 teachers across 80 schools in three provinces in PNG will benefit from participation in rugby league and that’s just fantastic.”

Indeed it is.

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE

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