Wantok Almanac: PNG Footy and the Zimmie, Ace & Thyra show

 

Wantok Almanac is a collaboration between Wantok Musik’s David Bridie and The Footy Almanac’s Jarrod Landells. Both share an affinity with our Pacific neighbourhood and its stories, of which several on music, sport, culture and history will be published on The Footy Almanac.

 


 

The Footy Almanac is a place for many stories – reports from when your beloved club won their first flag in decades, poems, prose, hard yakka, hard luck, making your own luck, lucking out on a roughy…country pubs and sausage rolls of all definitions.

 

So far this Wantok Almanac has shared stories brimming with the colour and movement that we think finds a cosy home in this great community, but until last time we shared Nancy Patterson’s story (in case you missed it, check it out HERE) nothing much about the subject at the core of the books, lunches, road trips – footy.

 

That all changes today.

 

In the streets of Port Moresby, there is a fervour and life for rugby league that mimics any passion worldwide. Think Rio favelas bristling with Ronaldinho acolytes or Delhi devotees playing every day to become the new Sehwag in the hearts of a billion. Kids dream of being the next Marcus Bai, Adrian Lam or (most likely these days) Justin Olam.

 

Papua New Guinea recently celebrated 45 years of being an independent nation after decades of being part of the Australian Empire. As such, it is also considered the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport. The second of Australia’s former colonies, Nauru, is the sole state where the same status exists for Australian football; it being arguably the second most popular code in PNG.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to experience watching State of Origin in Far North Queensland just once, the fervour and noise was out of this world, unlike anything I’ve experienced watching the Maroons face up to the Blues in more southern latitudes. Origin in Port Moresby is just as ballistic and possibly more keenly anticipated.

 

It makes sense on a practical level to anyone who knows rugby league – despite the half dozen or so competitive national teams who regularly face off in test matches, regional tournaments and world cups, New South Wales v Queensland is the pinnacle of the sport’s representative contests. The best of the best take part and the skill, and moreover the pressure, rises to an unmatched peak.

 

While cane toads and cockroaches alike have skin in the game, millions of fans in PNG tune in simply out of love for that game – sometimes whole communities and villages share a single television set, its beacon-like glow captivating all around like a tractor beam.

 

 

The big game in the village [Source: David Bridie]

 

If Origin provides a televisual feast, the PNG Kumuls (Tok Pisin for bird of paradise, the nation’s emblem) are the smorgasbord of national pride and local heroes, world stage challengers and the idols of every youngster who glances inside, drops a shoulder and sprints for the goal line with lungs on fire.

 

Some of the more notable Kumuls have become household names here in Australia too – Marcus Bai, Adrian Lam, Justin Olam I have already mentioned – but did you know ABC journalist Sean Dorney played for and even once captained the side? In the years just before and after independence a lithe, pale, strawberry-blond 23-year-old scribe originally from Townsville put the jersey on to represent his newly adopted country at halfback. Dorney is an icon of Pacific radio and print journalism and was featured on Foreign Correspondent in 2018 returning to the village of his wife and fellow journo Pauline on Manus Island. Since his retirement from the ABC, Sean has been diagnosed with that scourge motor neurone disease (the same condition blighting Neale Daniher) and will likely never return to his former home again.

 

Sean was one of the first handful of players, however the Kumul of the moment and in the spotlight after playing in the 2020 NRL Grand Final and winning the Dally M Centre of the Year is Justin Olam – he has the definition of rock star status in PNG and in just his third season at the highest level was considered one of the best centres going around. As if that wasn’t enough, the Storm star has also graduated from university with a degree in Applied Physics.

 

He casts a huge shadow over the sporting landscape. A shadow that has been acknowledged by another footballer hailing from PNG, the Gold Coast Suns’ Hewago Paul ‘Ace’ Oea.

 

The stories of rugby league in PNG (and indeed, Olam) are too numerous and spectacular for one piece to do them justice; but fear not, because from here on in we will be leaving the Steeden for the Sherrin. The Greatest Game will return in a tale for another time…

 


 

Ace is arguably the most talented Australian Rules footy player with the highest ceiling to have learnt the game outside of Australia; at age 16 based in Port Moresby he was playing school, club, state, regional and national footy. Still a youngster, Ace looks set to take the next step to playing senior footy for the Suns after a couple of NEAFL/VFL seasons playing in the reserves.

 

“My dream is to work hard on my training and off field to play my first senior game. It doesn’t come easy, I know it’ll be hard to get a game in the ones, but I’m positive about the future.”

 

And positive he has had to be under trying circumstances for any young footballer (living away from home/family, becoming a professional athlete, dealing with a pandemic) let alone one burdened with the expectations of doing what nobody else who learnt the game in PNG has done before: play in the AFL.

 

“I think when I first moved up here, Jarrod Harbrow, who had already been playing footy for a very long time – he’s an Indigenous boy and a good fella – when I rocked up at the Suns he started helping me a lot, with training and with socialising with the other boys. It was a bit different when I moved here, I was happy to experience a different culture.”

 

Despite his upbringing in Port Moresby, home to around 400,000 residents (only slightly smaller than the Gold Coast where he now lives), Ace has diverse cultural and linguistic family links to other neighbouring provinces of PNG: from Gulf Province comes his mother’s side and his dad’s relatives are from Central Province.

 

“I grew up with my family in Moresby, hanging out with my friends and family. I loved going to my dad’s village, going fishing and it was good to visit my grandparents. I was two or three when I stayed [for a prolonged time] at my dad’s village…after that I grew up and spent time in the city. I’m a city boy.”

 

In the city was where Ace got the chance to pick up a footy for the first time.

 

“When I was little, about 10, I started playing touch footy and rugby league for my school and with my friends. To be honest, rugby league is so big back home, everyone supports the Kumuls, it’s the number one sport.

 

“My older brother, he’d started playing Aussie Rules footy while I was playing touch. I thought ‘Maybe I’ll give it a try for school footy’ not in the local leagues [at that stage]. He told me to make sure I gave it a go.”

 

Following in the footsteps of an older sibling is a tried and true path for many a footballer (more on that later…) and it seems that Ace made all the right steps as he entered his teen years…and in a dizzying fashion.

 

“I started in Under 12s, then I made Under 14s state team. We flew over to Queensland and I loved it, it was really good.

 

“I got picked in the PNG Under 14 team, came back to Australia for a week, next I got picked in the South Pacific team against the Australian state sides – [from there] I got selected to the Queensland Under 16 team. I’ve also been lucky to represent my country for the Mosquitoes [PNG’s senior men’s team]; it’s very special to me.

 

“I flew down by myself, went into the Queensland camp, stayed with the team for a weekend – my visa was upgraded for three months – that was the lead up to being picked up by the Suns Academy. I played in the local league down here, for the Broadbeach Cats. Then I started playing NEAFL with the Suns in 2018.”

 

At this level below the big time, Ace has impressed with his ability to find the ball, athleticism and clean disposal. It was right when he was knocking on the door of a debut that the pandemic hit.

 

“When Covid kicked in everything went crazy, so I’m not sure about the boys back home.”

 

The boys back home are former AFL hopefuls and International Scholarship holders Gideon Simon and Brendan Beno – both of whom played in Cairns after their stints on the extended lists at Richmond (Simon) and Brisbane (Beno) and key points of contact for Ace as he tries to go one better.

 

“They’re back now – still playing footy in local leagues, but working as well. I think they’ll play for the Mosquitoes again, but I know some of the older boys won’t play [in 2023].”

 

Being on an AFL rookie contract, Ace wasn’t forced to return to PNG when borders closed like the others, but that security was contrasted by a loss of easy connection with many people.

 

“I’ve [still] got a couple of family [members] in Brisbane; it’s more family friends who live on the Gold Coast.”

 

While self-effacing and still finding a way to make his mark on the world, Ace understands plenty about negotiating cultures, experiences and utilising his voice.

 

“Back home I spoke Tok Pisin, and both of my parents’ languages. I know dad’s (Toaripi) a lot more – I can understand mum’s (Mailu) but I can’t speak it; my aunties and uncles make fun of me!”

 

 

 

 

 

“[While] I’m not too sure about their Kastom, because I grew up in Moresby, I’d like to teach more Australians about culture and traditions back home, so they can understand our background. I’m looking forward to next year [if I make my debut], where I can help people understand more.”

 

 

Ace and Jarrod after a post-training catch up [Source: Author]

 


 

Zimmorlei Farquharson’s rise in 2022 has been swift. Since she made her debut in Round 3’s win over Carlton in a now trademark longsleeve jumper, Zimmie has only been out of the side once. In her second season on an AFLW list, the highly skilled forward from Dalby (JTH country) looks set to be a key player in the Lions’ bid to add to their trophy cabinet.

 

While you don’t see too many AFL or AFLW players hailing from Queensland’s inner-west Darling Downs region, rarer still are those with Melanesian heritage, like Zimmie, whose mother hails from Masingara Village/Daru in PNG’s Western Province.

 

Daru Island is part of the broader Torres Strait Islands, nestled between Queensland and PNG – a place which gave birth to artists like Ben Wainetti (PNG) and Christine Anu (Australia).

 

 

The international border lines between these islands are distinctly blurred by shared cultural, economic, language and family ties. Zimmie’s dual heritage of Australian and Papua New Guinean is in a way a reflection of this, but it wasn’t always so clear.

 

“When I was little I didn’t know much about my family from PNG – mum never talked about it, dad never talked about it.

 

“I only had one aunty [from mum’s side] here who lives in Toowoomba and that’s the only [regular] contact I have.

 

“I know there are some people who have asked me about my culture and it’s been kind of a shock, because no-one’s ever asked us before – it hasn’t been a common thing.”

 

Nor did her family usher her into the world of footy through rusted-on allegiances and generational passion for the game.

 

“My family’s not really sporty, they’re not sporting people.

 

“I was actually doing other sports…tennis and soccer and I was also a sprinter as well. I was aged six and there was AusKick going on at our school and my brother took it up…[but] my brother was just playing it because his friends were doing it.

 

“So, as I love my brother and have followed in his footsteps, I did my first AusKick with him…then our parents decided to put us into the Dalby Swans. We continued playing, my brother was in U14s and I was in U12s and one day he didn’t want to play footy anymore. I wanted to play so I kept going. It wasn’t really a decision I made that I was going to keep playing footy [indefinitely] because I still had athletics…it kind of reached the point when I was in U17s when I had to choose.”

 

“It was hard because I looked at it as athletics had the chance to take me so far, but there was no possibility with the AFLW yet…I didn’t really know there was an AFLW.”

 

But having taken “a shot in the dark” with footy, Zimmie wasn’t alone.

 

“My family were really supportive of our sport; they just wanted us to do what made us happy. They’re all really big Lions supporters [now].”

 

Just like her family’s embrace of the Brisbane club, Zimmie’s awareness and appreciation of her roots to the north has also grown.

 

“[My PNG heritage] is definitely a big thing for me.  It wasn’t really a cultural thing but in 2020 mum decided to take me and my brother to meet the other side of my family, which was really good, it made me happy – made me feel like I got a piece of something that was missing when I was younger.

 

“[Having that] culture’s very important to me. Even though I don’t know it much, it’s good to show that girls like me who might not know all about their culture, but still associate with it…they can do what they want to do if they put their mind to it.
Even with her newly fleshed out connection to PNG, the allure of rugby league remains ellusive.

 

“I wasn’t really a rugby league person. My family wasn’t into rugby league, my friends…it’s more difficult than footy with understanding the rules. It’s not for me, but I can definitely appreciate and understand the interest of PNG – we’re really built for it, fast and agile and with the hard hits and tackles; it is a very exciting sport to watch.”

 

Zimmie too is exciting to watch, drawing superlatives from commentators, coaches and fellow players alike. Despite being a groundbreaker in many ways, she remains a reluctant figurehead.

 

“I haven’t really thought of myself as being a role model – I don’t want to put that expectation upon myself, perceive myself as this ‘great footballer who is multicultural’ but I would like to show those who have similar backgrounds that it is possible to make it in professional sport. If I can be that kind of role model for girls who haven’t had that person who was like them, then definitely.”

 

While legacy is a big concept and one for much later in her career, Farquharson has already canvased building on that 2020 trip with her closest supporters.

 

“I’d love to go back. I’ve told my parents and most people around me that I want to go back. Dad was thinking if I ever finish with football [here] to go back and try and do something with football in PNG. My family knows how deeply I want to get into my PNG culture because I didn’t get it when I was younger. I want to learn more, I want those experiences; like what mum went through when she was a kid. I’d like to be there, live there, for a year or two. Know what happens, about the environment, the culture. Really embrace it.”

 

 

Zimmie kicks away against Gold Coast [Source: David Layden Photography]


 

Brisbane, Port Moresby, Gold Coast…even Dalby is a somewhat of metropolis compared to where Thyra Tavil lives on Lihir Island.

 

 

 

 

Sitting about 50km offshore of the far larger New Ireland Island (both part of New Ireland Province’s archipelago) Lihir is mostly known for its substantial gold mining operations, far and away the biggest employer on the island.

 

If you step away from the industrial soundscape of the mines, you might just be lucky enough to hear the satisfying thump of ball meeting boot.

 

Drop punts on Lihir [Source: Thyra Tavil]

“Life’s pretty chill out here and I’m enjoying it.

 

“I was born and raised in New Ireland, on Lihir. There’s a mine that my dad works for and my family has been here for quite a while. My dad is from East New Britain and mum’s from Lae in Morobe Province. I have connections with both sides but I think my connection with dad’s side is stronger. We normally go back and forth from Rabaul for holidays.

 

“I’m just kicking goals and handballing to a wall at home.”

 

Thyra runs her own show now (Matt Zurbo would be proud) but the Coorparoo AFC training gear she wears harks back to just a few years ago when fate’s clutches carried her back to her birthplace.

 

“In 2019 when I was in Brisbane still, I tore my ACL during training with Coorparoo and I had surgery to get it fixed. I was out for a year and was just helping out at training and then I was about to get tested for the all clear to get back to playing when Covid hit and my parents flew me home. So I’ve just been stuck here. Haven’t been playing but I’ve just been training; basically just by myself.

 

“Most of the girls here don’t really play footy or rugby. The boys however love rugby. Most of these boys I played footy with in primary school; Michael Bawden was our principal and he loved footy so he got us all into it. These boys definitely never took it easy on me, which is where I think I got all my strength.”

 

She might have been the sole girl on the island to play, if not for a like-minded mate.

 

“I was the only girl in the whole comp and then my best friend joined me in my last year; Barbara Sigere. When she left for highschool she got more into rugby. And now she’s just focussed on that and she’s really good. She’s part of the PNG squad.”

 

“I know women are, like, expected to be the mother of the house and look after the house and kids, the cooking and cleaning, but who says we can’t do both!”

 

It’s an attitude that seems to be quite infectious among the younger generations – weighing up the past and future, balancing respect for culture and forging your own path.

 

“I guess Kastom doesn’t really affect the goals that I have in relation to playing footy in the future. I think that’s because of my parents and their values; I know they are supportive of the goals that I have. Other families in PNG may not encourage women to take up sport but for me that’s not really an issue. It all depends on your family’s values.

 

“For me and many young people today, we only engage in Kastom for special occasions. Basically just things like weddings, land disputes, bride price, funerals…

 

“[Also] the mine definitely brought a lot of development and change; it’s not too traditional around here for everyday life in town.”

 

 

 

 

Tubuan and Bilas are two striking traditional representations of Kastom that we’ve showcased on The Wantok Almanac before – for Thyra, another item best sums up her continued connection with Kastom.

 

“I reckon it would be the shell money here: ‘mis’. Because that’s used in basically all Kastom and special occasions. To me, with the mis that my family and I have collected over the years from many friends it represents the connections we have made.

 

 

Thyra’s ‘mis’ shell money [Source: Thyra Tavil]

“The one on the left I received from our Catholic priest who is a close friend. The right was kind of from Kastom [itself]. So I became really close friends with a local girl and our families are also very close. Her dad wrapped us both around with the mis and that symbolised how we are sisters now in a way.”

 

Her other connections from Coorparoo and boarding in Brisbane have been harder to maintain of course, but at least physically things have turned a corner.

 

“Yeah the knee is a lot better. I’m just waiting to get back to Brisbane so I can play.”

 

The bustling riverside city clearly holds a big piece of Tavil’s heart – though mainly because of people at the club whose name she proudly wears when kicking around Lihir.

 

“In Brisbane I got culture shock; I went from a small island to a big city. I went to Somerville House which is right opposite the hospital and there was so much noise that went all night…just so many people.

 

“But at Coorparoo it’s definitely the supportive family-type team we are that makes it really special. Like the team chats and our last training before games on the weekend – all the guys train too. We normally have dinner and a group meeting. There were two PNG girls in the grade above who always came to my games or even just came to watch me at training, which meant so much.

 

“I had never played in an all girls team before, so that was different. My first time on the field was the best feeling ever and the support I got from my team I never really felt playing up here. I thought it was just ’cause I was new, but I felt the same amount of support every game.

 

“Some of the girls I played and trained with are now playing for the Brisbane Lions and I think that is just the best thing ever. That really motivates me. I remember in Year 7 looking at all the Instagram posts about the Brisbane Lions. Jessica Weutschner and Emma Zilke were my favourites…and then few years later I started playing at the same local club as them which was amazing!”

 

It’s not just AFLW superstars like Woosh and Zilks who encourage Thyra in her journey.

 

“I’ve met up with Ace a few times and he’s definitely someone I look up to. I know Ace will and has already inspired so many people playing the sport and attracted more attention to the AFL in PNG.

 

“A goal I’ve had for a while now is to play in the QWAFL and just high level footy. I’m almost there, I just need to get back to Brisbane! My everyday goal is just trying to be better, always working on my skills. But a big dream definitely is to play for the Brisbane Lions alongside the women that have inspired me since I started taking footy seriously.”

 

 

Thyra practicing her handballs [Source: Thyra Tavil]

 


 

Of course while these three are extraordinary in their own right and trailblazers of a sort, the fact is that Zimmie, Ace and Thyra (all of whom are yet to celebrate their 21st birthdays) stand on the shoulders of history.

 

 

Footy in Queen’s Park, Rabaul, East New Britain, 1972 [Source: David Bridie]

 

The overwhelming domination of rugby league is a relatively recent phenomenon – indeed in the 1960s and ’70s Australian football was on the up and up and several players were invited to train with VFL, starting with the late Herea Amini of the Koboni Demons who ran around with the namesake powerhouse Melbourne side of 1964 – read more about Amini’s impact HERE.

 

After substantial miscalculations around the management, structure and funding of footy in PNG from Australia in the late 1970s into the early 1980s, support for the game tanked – despite being on cloud nine a few years earlier after generations of growth.

 

 

The game was considered to have been introduced immediately post WW2 [Source: David Bridie]

 

It wasn’t until PNG started to find success on field again from the mid-1990s (building up to their most recent third International Cup win in 2017 and crushing performance by the men’s team at the last Asian Games on debut) and local heroes of old like Koboni’s Vili Maha got the machinations of local competitions on track that the sport reclaimed some of its former glory. Having AFL triple premiership winner Mal Michael (born in Moresby) raise the profile of the game a decade later didn’t hurt either…

 

The challenges of today are different, but PNG is not alone in fighting them this time. The pandemic has forced the International Cup to be delayed by an entire cycle and many players have been left high and dry – either by leaving Australia or covid restrictions making their competitions unviable. But if Thyra Tavil can come off an ACL and keep her eyes on the prize all the way from little Lihir, don’t bet against the will of her compatriots.

 

 


 

 

Post Script: After spending almost all of the pandemic so far on Lihir, Thyra Tavil has freshly arrived back in Brisbane and returned to her beloved Coorparoo – she hopes to be in line for senior selection in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

 

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About

A classic jack of all trades & master of a couple, Jarrod started his footy career as a gangly ruck after a growth spurt catapulted him to the lofty heights of 177cm as a 12-year-old. Forward pocket off the bench was where he ended up as he topped out at 178cm eight years later. The trajectory of a career in health fortunately didn't peak during the pre-teen years & a keen interest in footy has turned from playing to coaching, volunteering and writing.

Comments

  1. Brian The Ruminator says

    As a rugby fan for 40 years I’ve had some wonderful interactions with Pacific Islanders that remind me of some of the moments recounted in this tale. I’m just about to watch the Moana Pasifika v Blues game after reading all the reactions to MP’s big win over the Canes on the weekend. The unbridled joy of so many fans has really put the Pacific into Super Rugby Pacific. And let’s not forget we have Fijian Drua based in Australia. Thank you Jarrod for reminding us how we can always be building bridges to our neighbours.

  2. This is an amazing, epic, and wonderful piece.

    Thanks for this, Jarrod (and David).

  3. Yvette Wroby says

    Thanks All this is brilliant to read!

  4. Thanks Brian – the addition of Moana Pasifika and Fiji Drua have been highlights this season for mine. I’m forever a fan of building bridges via sport.

    Ta Smokie, I know you’ve been following on since the first piece. Chuffed you liked it!

    Thank you Yvette, it was a brilliant piece to put together too, very fun to chat with all three of these young champs!

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Exceptional read Jarrod. The whole story of Australian Rules in PNG, it’s popularity and decline and the rise of Rugby League in that country in it’s place is something I’d love to learn more about.

    Nice to read the Aussie Rules flame still flickers in PNG. Maybe there’s still a market there for the AFL if they are bold enough to invest there before the NRL fully does? Having role models progress through the AFL and AFLW ranks is potentially a huge thing.

    On a side note, have been closely following the PNG cricket team who have been playing in front of packed crowds in cricket mad Nepal, and playing well. They are a great team to follow, full of fantastic characters.

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