Down Under Diary: What’s stopping PNG from becoming the NRL’s 18th team?

What are the barriers standing between Papua New Guinea and the NRL’s 18th licence … and what’s stopping Peter V’landys from leaping over them? 

WHILE the NRL took its first steps into the American sporting market this month, ARL Commission chair Peter V’landys and his fellow administrators are plotting another international expansion much closer to home.

More than 11,000 kilometres from the dazzling lights of Las Vegas, Papua New Guinea is bidding to become the NRL’s 18th side. 

After the Dolphins became team number 17 in 2023, another new side would give the NRL a lucrative extra game each weekend to sell to broadcasters when the existing deal expires at the end of 2027. 

PNG faces competition from Perth, New Zealand and Brisbane. But the Pacific nation is a far bigger untapped market than any of those locations. 

Australia’s nearest neighbour is home to 12 million people — more than Belgium, Portugal, Greece or Sweden, for reference. New Zealand’s entire population is a little over five million. 

Heading up the bid is experienced official Andrew Hill, who’s previously led the Canterbury Bulldogs and the 2017 World Cup. 

Hill’s bid team is now drilling into the numbers, expecting V’landys to announce his 18th outfit later this year, with a 2027 kick-off date. 

On paper, league-mad PNG seems like a natural fit. 

The only country on earth that boasts rugby league as its national sport also holds huge strategic value to the Australian government. 

With China projecting its power through the Pacific via aid and development, Australia is eager to shore up its national security by tightening diplomatic ties with its neighbours. 

It’s hard to think of a more effective soft diplomacy tool to PNG than an NRL side. On the foreign affairs chessboard that is the Pacific, the 18th licence is the king. 

Newspapers suggest the Australian government is preparing a $600 million war chest to invest over 10 years in the new team. 

Australia is already PNG’s largest development partner, investing more than $500 million a year in foreign aid. Within that context, the reported $60 million a year doesn’t seem that extravagant. 

Australia pumped $5.5 million into PNG’s junior pathways last year, while the PacificAus program props up both men’s and women’s international fixtures, as well as the PNG Hunters’ inclusion in the Queensland Cup. 

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed PNG counterpart James Marape to Canberra in February — first Papuan PM to address Australia’s parliament. 

Albanese is a died-in-the-wool rugby league person. In fact, he sat on South Sydney’s board during the fight for readmission to the NRL in 2002, and was rewarded with life membership of the club in 2013. 

Albanese even invited V’landys to the White House last October to meet President Joe Biden — a glimpse of just how important rugby league is to Australian interests. 

All of these factors appear to place PNG in the box seat for that coveted 18th licence. 

“PNG is on the top of the list at the moment for expansion,” V’landys said last June. 

“We are in commercially-sensitive discussions with the federal government. 

“Naturally we want to assist the government in Australia’s national security and we see unlimited potential in a PNG team.” 

But the Papuan plan isn’t without its problems. 

Violent rioting in Port Moresby this January provided a potent reminder of just how difficult it would be to set up a professional sporting franchise in the country.

During the civil unrest, former Kumuls skipper David Mead took to social media to demand politicians re-assess their priorities. 

“PNG and Australian government — open your eyes and see that the country needs development,” Mead wrote on LinkedIn. 

“So much talk about creating a NRL team when it’s quite obvious that the need for basic services, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, job opportunities, police force should be top of the priority list.” 

The bid board plans to base the team in Cairns, and fly into Port Moresby for games — a similar set-up to the Toronto Wolfpack’s participation in English competitions. 

It will be difficult to convince Australian players to pack up their lives in Sydney or Brisbane to live full-time in Port Moresby — and the new franchise will depend on those type of recruits to fill out their dressing room. 

But PNG’s highest profile player Justin Olam cautioned against a fly-in-fly-out model after Marape’s February visit to Canberra. 

“Unless they’re based in Port Moresby then it’s an Aussie team that’s going to have the label of PNG,” Olam told media. 

“I don’t think it’s good, I want a PNG team based in PNG for PNG players.” 

However, that production line of local talent is another question mark. 

Plenty of Papuans have made their mark at the top level — Adrian Lam, Stanley Gene and Marcus Bai among them. 

But look at the Kumuls’ most recent squad and you’ll see how far they have to go before Papuans can complete an NRL-calibre 17. 

Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston, Leigh pair Lachlan Lam and Edwin Ipape, plus Leeds duo Rhyse Martin and Nene Macdonald were the biggest names in the Kumuls’ Pacific Championships side. 

The rest of their squad is populated by Hunters and a handful of fringe NRL players. 

Since the Hunters joined the Queensland competition in 2014, Olam is the only graduate to make his mark on the top grade. 

PNG has huge potential as an NRL nursery. But at the moment, that’s all it is: potential. 

The Papuan side will have to build a pipeline of home-grown players, or risk draining an already stretched player pool. 

All that said, V’landys has never let a hurdle or two stand in the way of a landmark project. 

The brash ARLC boss is the game’s biggest thinker since Australia’s Super League War ended in 1997. 

When the idea of a Vegas visit was first floated, critics wrote it off as a headline grab from a media magnet who knew how to generate attention. 

Fast forward two years, and 40,000 people witnessed NRL premiership points being contested in a world-class arena that hosted a Super Bowl less than a month earlier. 

The naysayers can point to plenty of reasons why PNG can’t or won’t be the NRL’s 18th team. 

But if V’landys sets his mind to it, only a fool would bet against him.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

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