Leeds Rhinos star Rhyse Martin backing drive for NRL team in Papua New Guinea

There is nowhere quite like Papua New Guinea when it comes to displaying a deep-rooted passion for rugby league, writes LOUIS CHAPMAN-COOMBE. But will that be enough to secure them a team in the NRL?

RUGBY LEAGUE may be a growing sport around the world, but it’s a way of life in Papua New Guinea.

The Pacific Island nation is the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport, but their passion is now turning into performances on the pitch. 

PNG is a growing power in rugby league right now. The Kumuls won the men’s Pacific Bowl last autumn after beating Fiji 32-12 in the final, and the women’s side – the Orchids – also announced themselves on the world stage with a 28-20 win over the Cook Islands. 

On the domestic front, the PNG Hunters are establishing themselves as a top team. The club was founded in 2013; however it would take things up a gear the following year as they entered the Queensland Cup. 

Following their entry in 2014, they quickly became a force to be reckoned with. In three of their first four seasons they reached the play-offs, and in 2017 won both the minor Premiership and Grand Final, becoming the first team outside of Australia to do so. They have since gone onto forge a partnership with NRL outfit the Dolphins. 

They have hit the ground running this season in the Queensland Cup too, beating last year’s Grand Finalists Wynnum-Manly Seagulls 36-22 in the opening game of the season. 

The club have also helped in the development of players from the island, namely former Melbourne Storm and current Wests Tigers star Justin Olam; but Kumuls Benji Kot, Epel Kapinias, Judah Rimbu, Junior Rop, Rodrick Tai, Edwin Ipape and Nixon Putt have all seen action for the Port Moresby-based outfit. 

The Hunters success in the Australian second tier has seen them win high praise from current Leeds Rhinos man and PNG legend Rhyse Martin. Martin is the most capped Kumul of all time, with 17 caps to his name, and he told Rugby League World his nation’s success can be traced back to the work of the Hunters. 

“I think it is becoming a growing power, but I think it’s a testament to what they’re doing with the Hunters, in that PNG players are getting that experience in PNG and then going onto get opportunities elsewhere,” he said. 

He added: “Since they brought that in, in 2014, the players have been expanding out to other codes and other teams. I think it’s definitely credit to what they’re doing there, they’re just producing great players and now we’re getting the opportunities in the top leagues.”

Martin isn’t the only current Kumul to be plying his trade in the Northern Hemisphere. Fellow PNG internationals Lachlan Lam, Ipape, Liam Horne and Nene Macdonald all made their Super League debuts last season, and they are now joined by the likes of Sylvester Namo and Putt. 

They have all gone onto become household names in the top flight, but Martin was quick to praise the influence of the PNG Hunters on their development, especially with Putt, Namo, Horne and Ipape all coming via the Port Moresby club. 

“I think just being able to branch to new teams and to get an opportunity in Super League for anyone is good, but I think it’s just the level that they’re playing at and the coaching that they’re getting at the Hunters; what they’re doing over in the country at the moment is giving those players the opportunity to travel around the world and play.

“They’re all physically capable, it’s just the understanding and the coaching that you don’t get until you get to the higher level is where it makes a difference. The boys are all genetically freakish, they’re all powerful and strong, which makes them perfect for rugby league; it’s just the coaching and the experience at a higher competition that they don’t get and that’s what the Hunters have brought in for them.”

It isn’t just Martin who sees the value the Hunters have brought to the sport. There are now calls for a PNG side to enter the NRL, and this even has the support of PNG’s Prime Minister, James Marape, who has come out saying an NRL side based in PNG would do ‘rugby league justice’.

“There is no other country in the whole world where you have rugby league as its number one sport; PNG has that title,” he told ABC’s 7.30.

“It is our national sport, and it will do justice to rugby league for the 18th team of the NRL to be stationed out of Port Moresby.”

Marape has also said having an NRL side is part of a wider ‘national unity strategy’, telling ABC: “In our country of many diversities, having a rugby league team will unite a nation just like Nelson Mandela united his nation behind rugby union,” he said. “So in our bid to the NRL it will include that dimension, other team bids will not include that dimension, it’s just another sport for them.

“For us, it is not sport, it is a national unity strategy.”

Marape’s public backing has also seen various other Australian politicians come out in support of the new team, including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and with the NRL wanting to bring in an 18th team, it is something we could see in the future. 

There are currently building blocks being put in place for a serious bid to join the NRL, with the creation of the PNG NRL bid board. 

Since the board was created, they have developed links with NRL Premiers Penrith Panthers, and according to reports from ABC, the Australian Government invested $5.5 million back in July of last year.  

With the noise around the potential team growing, Martin added that he is ‘excited’ by the prospect of it: “I definitely think that they will be close to it. I don’t know when it will happen, it’s still a few years I think in the process, but I’m excited for them if they do get it because I know how much it means to the people of PNG.”

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

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