by Patrick Skene
My fascination with Papua New Guinean Rugby League started in 1989 with the arrival of the ‘Kumuls’ Captain at my beloved Canterbury Bulldogs.
It was heady times for Doggies fans.
The year before we had won what in Rugby League terms was the first real national title – the first to include a team from the north of the border badlands – the luminously fresh Brisbane Broncos.
Still enjoying the moment but with an eye on the future I eagerly awaited the new batch of recruits and who should appear but our very own bird of paradise.
With a big beard and big smile he was one of the pioneer Papua New Guineans to try their luck in the big smoke of rugby league. Bal Numapo: meet the Harbour City.
When he hit the front cover of Rugby League week in full PNG tribal headdress, the man from Simba had won me over. He was to be a key brick in building our dynasty.
A quick read of Funk and Wagnalls and Encyclopedia Britannica sent me to another world. Isolated, 800 languages, Kokoda Trail, masks, pet pigs, Stone Age warriors, birds of paradise, mining, sweet potatoes, sing sings, former Australian colony, former German colony, sorcery, headhunters, highlanders, lowlanders and Rugby League represented by their national team, the Kumuls or colourful birds of paradise.
Who was this man and where was he from?
My hopes subsided as the weeks and months rolled on and Bal struggled for selection, a proud captain of a nation reduced to a few games in reserve grade – our bird of paradise had morphed into a sooty pigeon.
Some said it was homesickness, others said it was lack of size. Whatever it was, it didn’t work out for Bal and the Bulldogs, his only first grade appearance as a replacement in front of a small crowd in Wollongong.
Since Bal, I kept an eye on the Kumuls as they struggled for respect and credibility in the Rugby League world. Apart from a few upsets, they lacked the size to make a real impact in various World Cups but always charged into the fray with kamikaze zeal.
Periodically news would filter through of some crowd disturbances at PNG games, but it continued to grow and a game first played in the gold-fields exclusively by colonial expats had blossomed into the national pastime.
Then in the late `90s, West New Britain’s finest, Marcus Bai broke through into the NRL with the Melbourne Storm, winning Dally M winger of the year, playing 144 games, scoring 70 tries and winning a premiership.
One Keith Milleresque interview I heard on radio gave me some perspective. The interviewer asked Marcus about whether he felt pressure playing in the NRL Grand Final. He chuckled and recounted a story from a PNG grand final he had played in.
His team were a try down and the local sorcerer of the opposing team had come onto the field and put a magic spell on the tryline that would prevent anyone from crossing it.
Bai’s team were a try behind and desperate when he took an intercept and ran towards the tryline for what should have been a simple try to win the game.
With the Sorceror’s credibility on the line, he ran onto the field swinging a sharp club to prevent Bai from crossing the tryline, chasing him off the pitch and down the street forcing the cancellation of the game.
“Now that’s pressure,” Bai said, closing out the story.
Fast forward to 2014 and a historic moment in the development of Papuan Rugby League. Using what Paul Keating once termed ‘congealed wisdom’, the Queensland Rugby League decided to admit the ‘PNG Hunters’, the newest team in its flagship Intrust Cup.
The Cup continues to grow and is an amazing competition with teams traversing vast distances of Queensland to reach Brisbane, Mackay, Rockhampton, Gold Coast, Cairns, Tweed Heads, Townsville, Ipswich and now Papua New Guinea.
Fully funded by the Rugby League mad PNG government, the PNG Hunters is the latest step in the long journey for Papua New Guineans to have their own NRL team.
With history in the making, a huge contingent of local and fly-in Papua New Guineans prepared to head north of Brisbane through the mangroves to Dolphin Park to watch their new team take on QRL heavyweights Redcliffe Dolphins.
I happened to be in Brisbane with a free day and a rental car and curiosity got the better of me after reading a hype piece in the Courier Mail.
The piece featured David Loko, PNG’s Raging Bull, a cabbage farmer and son of a Southern Highlands basket-weaver, the star captain of the Enga Mioks who was in town to show NRL scouts what they were missing.
To add to the theatre, the game was to be broadcast live across Queensland on Channel 9 and into the homes and hearts of two million Papua New Guinean television viewers for whom Rugby League is not just a national sport but a national obsession.
Looking for final inspiration I scanned the team lists and saw the Hunters had a player called George Benson, surely named after the butter-smooth soul singer of ‘Turn your love around’, ‘On Broadway’ and ‘Give me the night’. The deal was sealed.
The mysterious men from the north now had finally forged a real pathway into Australian Rugby League and I made the trek north to check out how far PNG rugby league had come.
The queue at Dolphin Park was meaty but gave me a chance to test the PNG Hunters fans who seemed supremely confident, some in English, some in Pidgin, others in Tok Pisin.
Standing next to me, a musclebound nugget in a Kumuls jersey said “No fear, No fear. We waiting for this.”
His tall skinny mate said “About time, we got some big boys now, you watch out”.
His group roared with laughter.
A huge crowd already in the stadium was buzzing, a mix of Redcliffe diehards and excited Papua New Guineans, all colour and motion, full diversity on display and impatiently awaiting their heroes.
Highlanders, Coastal lowlanders, Islanders, Chinese Papuans, White Papua New Guineans all chanting for a new set of heroes. For more than half the crowd, English was a second language.
The Manus Island traditional dance team flanked either side of the players entry and a roar engulfed Dolphin Park as captain Israel Eliab led the Hunters onto the field.
The kick-off was met with a loud cheer and I camped myself on the hill amongst some feverish PNG fans who came close to hyperventilating as the Hunters almost scored in the first minutes.
Dreadlocked fullback Adex Wera looked dangerous on every run, halfback Roger Laka schemed mischievously like a cunning mastermind and hooker Wartovo Puara drove his pack of big forwards relentlessly around the park.
Within a blink the PNG Hunters had scored two tries and taken a 10-0 lead with skipper Israel Eliab crossing for their first-ever try.
High fives, whooping and general pandemonium reigned amongst the Hunters’ faithful.
Two PNG baby brothers in Kumuls shirts in front of me started crying inconsolably because their mother wouldn’t let them play with the Dolphins mascot.
The two teenagers to my left exchanged $5 notes, waged on the outcome of each try kick conversion.
A gaggle of teenage girls in front exclaimed: “this is easy, we’re going to win”
Salty Grandad in front of them scolded their insolence. “Long way to go. Keep it down.”
He’d seen enough Rugby League to know not to anger the gods through early hubris.
I moved along the hill and the crowd diversity dwindled the closer I got to the XXXX Gold beer bar located in the far corner of the ground.
In this area of the hill sat the rusted-on Redcliffe Dolphins Anglo heartland fans, confident their team would withstand the early burst by the over-excited newcomers. The heat, the tradition, the structure would prevail in the end.
One barfly said (to no one in particular): “All energy now but we’ll run over the top of `em, don’t you worry.”
And I believed him as well. It seemed too good to be true and it was, as Redcliffe clawed back into the game with two tries of their own.
Under the scoreboard a PNG embassy had been established with flags and loud, hardcore fans.
I got talking to one of the Embassy hardcore, a shaven headed, intelligent FIFO mining engineer originally from Manus Island. He was working in the Northern Territory and had flown down for the event.
I wanted to test a theory I had developed after watching a documentary on first contact with the PNG people in the 1930’s. Their method of tribal war seemed identical to rugby league. Two tribes lined up and separated by 10-20 metres and one warrior from each side came out to meet each other and contest.
“Why Rugby League for the PNG people?” I asked.
He answered. “We are a nation of warriors and Rugby League gives us war without death. Rugby League is a link to the past and gives our warriors a way to make our people proud in the future.”
I asked for an update on Bal Numapo.
“He’s a politician now. Big man.”
Redcliffe surged forward. The Hunters repelled.
Fullback dreads man Adek Wera shucked and jived with every fibre of his being to escape the in goal area only to be enveloped by a wall of red.
The Axeman David Loko and my man Georgie B chopped down wave after wave of Polynesian, Melanesian and Anglo giants including 110kg Brisbane Broncos star David Hala.
“It’s a level ball game,” said the nasal ground announcer as the score reached 12-12.
Coach Michael Marum had delivered his team in magnificent shape on a boiling hot Queensland day and they were now forcing errors from Redcliffe with their swarming defence.
“Boom,” the crowd shouted with each big hit as their heroes collided with the thick red line of Redcliffe.
Sitting in front of the PNG Embassy was a young boy on his grandfather’s shoulders both in matching Rabaul “Gurias” shirts with Grandad answering an excited stream of questions from his awe-filled grandson.
“One line, one line.”
Another world was on display, colourful PNG rugby league shirts bearing sponsors’ names like TI Pipeline and Lae Biscuit.
The Hunters scored again.
Back in the XXXX Gold bar the cynics were still vocal.
“They don’t have the discipline, they’ll crack”.
But they were wrong. The Hunters discipline was there for all to see. Their sliding defence was perfect, nobody rushing in to be the hero. Good percentage football with bone-crunching hits and entertaining backline moves.
A fight broke out between the teams and one drunk shouted out: “As long as they don’t use their spears” which brought raucous laughter. Old habits die hard in XXXX Gold corner.
Both teams exchanged tries and the game see sawed until the Hunters led 24-18 and steeled themselves for a final surge from Redcliffe.
Back in front of the PNG embassy it was getting tense.
“Hold `im out.”
“Up on `im.”
“Lock ‘im up.”
Every Redcliffe mistake was met with a roar of excitement, and laughing, up and down the terraces.
“Referee Takim Long.”
“How many more?”
“C’mon Mr Siren.”
And then came the squeal of the siren and half the stadium groaned in confusion while the other collectively leapt for joy.
The PNG Hunters had defeated mighty Redcliffe Dolphins, prevailed in their first game, away from home and against all the odds.
The ground was invaded by hundreds of delirious fans eager for a selfie with their heroes while fans in the terraces hugged and wept with delight.
It could have been $250 million and you would not have gotten a bigger smile from Man of the Match Sebastian Panda as he accepted the $250 cheque.
The PNG Sports Minister in attendance said it best: “It’s a brand new day for Rugby League in PNG. Queensland be warned, the Hunters are on the move”.
Agreed. And Queensland QRL teams are on the move as the Hunters next three games are at home in Kokopo, the former German colonial island capital located at the tip of an active volcano in East New Britain.
Mad scrambles from fans across PNG to get flights to Rabaul Airport for a three-week Rugby League festival as their new heroes take on the Mackay Cutters, Central Capras and Northern Pride at 10,000 capacity Kalabond Oval.
The QRL teams will be protected by former SAS soldiers, as long-standing travel advisories remain in place, but I suspect the only onslaught will be of love and respect.
As the afternoon faded, I headed out of the ground.
Behind me came a voice of reason: “Don’t get too excited, it’s a long season.”
A long season it may be but Australian Rugby League will never be the same again.
CHECK OUT MORE RUGBY LEAGUE WRITING AT www.footyalmanac.com.au (and other sports as well)