By STEVE MASCORD
MOST of them had not seen their families for 11 weeks. Half a dozen had never been overseas. But as they were embraced by ecstatic strangers, they knew that had carved themselves a little piece of rugby league history.
In Australia, we are often told how Papua New Guinea is “the only country where rugby league is the national sport”. But even in developed countries, our game is riven by distrust and profiteering. In a nation where 37.5 per cent of the population lives in poverty, those problems are multiplied exponentially.
The PNGRL itself has been bitterly divided in recent years and the below-par showing at the 2013 World Cup, where the Kumuls were winless, eroded public confidence stil further.
Yet on Sunday at a baking hot Dolphin Oval, a PNG Hunters side made up entirely of domestic players made a winning debut in the InTrust Super Cup, defending bravely on the way to a 24-18 success against the might Redcliffe.
“It’s a turning point,” said PNGRL chairman Sandis Tsaka, “a pointer to the way forward.”
Coach Michael Marum: “Back at home, after the World Cup when everyone got back into the country, the guys that played in the Wprd Cup never went in public places because a lot of media and people around the country were pissed off at the performance of the players and, overall, the team.
“This is probably one way of getting those sponsors and supporters back.”
To play for the Hunters, players were required to enter a police training camp in Kopoko. They trained three times a day, were not allowed to return home, and even the lowest alcohol breath test reading would result in dismissal.
“The boys, they’ve been put on contacts and they’ve all come together – that’s including myself as well, the coaching staff,” said Marum. “We all live together in one Police barracks and we have to do training and stuff like that together. We’ve got some of our rules from (the police).
“We’ve been living together for the last 11 weeks now. Most of the boys have left their families behind and they haven’t been back to see their families for the last 11 weeks. That’s really something we need to look at but a win today would satisfy most of the families back at home.
“There’s five or six boys who haven’t been outside the country and probably 10 who haven’t played outside PNG. I’m pleased with the way they stood up and faced the Dolphins team.”
According to Tsaka, the spartan measures were suggested in the aftermath of the World Cup.
“The World Cup was a wake-up call for us,” he tells League Week. “After our terrible World Cup, we realised how far behind we were and it was decided the only way we could be competitive would be to put everyone together in camp to prepare for the Q Cup.
“These boys come from rural areas. They needed that training. We didn’t want to come into the competition with players from England or New Zealand. Our point objective was to show the level of talent we have at home.:
Indeed, most of the Hunters side which won on Sunday were unknown in Australia. Player agents Steve Deakin and Jim Banaghan were in the 5000 crowd. World Cup star Mark Mexico – out injured at the weekend – is tipped to join Manly this week.
While the Hunters will be difficult to beat at home in Kopoko, outsiders predicted the bright lights of Queensland would be a distraction as the season wore on.
“I haven’t been to Brisbane before, this is my first time and it’s good to see a different place and experience footy in a different place,” said back rower Brandy Peter (no, he’s not named after Greg Alexander).
“At the start of the game I was a bit nervous but when you get into the game, you get a rhythm and you have to work hard.
“We have plenty of talented players in PNG but the coaching staff have to go into rural areas and look at them … and find them.”
Tsaka says it’s part of PNG’s strategic plan to have 10 players each in the NRL and Super League. The Hunters are happy to be Hunted. But when it comes to silverware in September, the Hunters could also become collectors.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK