Rugby League Heroes: Jesse Joe Parker

The Kumul who’s an honorary Cumbrian

Having made a huge impact in a decade at the Recreation Ground, Jesse Joe Parker played his last game for Whitehaven in 2021.

He made his Papua New Guinea debut in 2007 and has played in two World Cups and a Four Nations tournament. Parker still lives in Cumbria and has just become the coach of Hensingham.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be? 

The 2008 World Cup match against England in Australia. It might seem a strange choice as I’d gone off with a broken eye socket, and I watched the rest of the game from hospital as they stitched me up. It caused some controversy when we were put in a group with England, Australia and New Zealand, but it was great to play the three top nations. Most of the boys were local, and we had an opportunity to show what we could do, and I got a contract from Wayne Bennett at St George. We all believed we could beat England. We thought we had a better squad with players like Stanley Gene, Neville Costigan and John Wilshere. I played opposite Martin Gleeson and I kept him covered for the 25 minutes I played. Everyone back home watches the Kumuls games. Everyone goes crazy for Rugby League.

Is your surname Parker or Nandye?  

I used Parker throughout my career, but Nandye is in my passport. That’s my proper name. In the 2013 World Cup, Nandye appeared on the team sheets which confused a few people. And my first name is Jesse, not Jessie.

In 2020 a website named you Papua New Guinea’s 19th most handsome man. Were you happy with 19th or were you tempted to demand a recount?

Ha! I thought it was very funny. People still bring it up and it always makes me laugh.

Where did you live and what was your childhood home like?

I’m from Koromi in Ialibu. We lived in a very small space. It was a real eye opener when I first came to England. You live in a dream world over here! In contrast, we had no proper furniture. We sat on piles of soil. For cooking, we lit fires on top of the soil. Our beds were made of bamboo. We had no electricity. We used kerosene for lamps, which were made of empty jars or bottles in which we burned old shirts. The roof was made from long grass picked from the roots and tied in bundles. The walls were made of strong straw. You don’t have that type of straw here. We made patterns on the walls with the straw around long poles. There were no windows, so it was total darkness inside apart from the kerosene lamps. Another difference is that many families can’t afford to celebrate birthdays, so that’s why many kids don’t know their date of birth. It’s just another normal day.

According to Wikipedia, there are 851 languages in Papua New Guinea. Which is yours? 

I learned Tok Pisin, also known as Pidgin English, and that’s the most widely used. It was introduced when Britain came to PNG as a way for them to communicate with the locals. Most kids can speak it and then they learn English at school. It’s mainly the provinces that have different languages.

How do Papua New Guinean schools compare to ours?

Kids walk to school, and it can take a long time, sometimes days, to cross mountains and forests, especially up in the highlands. Maybe some kids in the towns have parents with cars, but it’s not the norm. School buildings are like those here, although kids in their first couple of years may have to sit on the floor because two will share a desk. Subjects are similar to what a child would study here. I studied English, maths, science, social science, PE, biology and economics. As you know, Rugby League is the main sport back home, but we only have PE in schools and rugby is played after school.

What were your early rugby experiences? 

I started playing in Goroka as a young kid. I lived next to Stanley Gene, and I followed his whole career. It really motivated me when he got his contract in England. At 14, I played with a local team called Kafuku Spiders on an oval next to a big market, so lots of people came to watch. When I was 18, I went to my dad’s village in the Southern Highlands and played for Koromi Tigers. I was still at school doing my Standard Grade Eight. We got into one of the finals, but we lost. I’d been playing well.

I flew to Port Moresby and found a team called Paga Panthers. Kumuls legend Richard Wagambie had played for them. He was a legend in the 1990s. This was the team that made me. I was well coached, and I was selected in the Prime Minister’s XIII in 2005 to play Australia. I played fullback. I broke my arm in 2006 but was selected again in 2007 when we drew 24-24. I scored the last try. It was a dream come true to play against players I’d seen on the TV like Anthony Tupou, Paul Gallen, Braith Anasta, Joel Monaghan, Mark Gasnier, Scott Prince, Greg Bird and Nate Myles.

Did you have any childhood heroes? 

My hero was Garry Schofield. Great Britain were playing in Mount Hagen in 1992 when I was seven. My uncle and I walked from my village very early in the morning. It was a 15-mile walk. I would wait for the team bus to see the players as they got off, but the crowds were huge. After the match, I ran onto the pitch to touch Garry Schofield. I was so excited. I’d seen him in the newspapers, and I thought that was my only chance to meet him. I met him again in Whitehaven a few years ago, and he loved that story!

What are junior and open-age standards and facilities like in PNG? 

Kids back home watch so much NRL. They eat and sleep rugby. They are very strong. I would back Papua New Guinean kids to beat English kids. At open-age, we do lots of fitness work every afternoon. If you have a full-time job, you still have to train daily. We don’t use gyms because they are too expensive. It’s all done on the field. The pitches are okay, but there are no changing rooms. We change in the open air, play the game, sit in the shade to cool off and then go home. Referees are treated like they are here. They do get a hard time.

How has Covid-19 affected life in Papua New Guinea, and are many people vaccinated? 

Things are mainly okay, largely because it’s so hot. There aren’t many international flights in and out of PNG, which helps. Most players were vaccinated because they wanted to get rugby going again, but not many others have been. 

Tell us about your early Test experiences.

We toured Europe in 2007, and I played two Tests against France. I was really excited, and it was so emotional. We put our bodies on the line. We looked at each other and said, “This is it now.” We hosted the Pacific Cup in 2009, which was such a big deal. It was one of the best squads we had. I scored against Tonga but was unwell and couldn’t play in the final.

Tu’u Maori made his Test debut in the same game as you. He recently passed away after a three-year battle with Motor Neurone Disease.

He was one of the best. He was diagnosed in 2019. He was a young kid in 2007, and he was a humble guy and a funny guy. We were later room-mates. It’s such a tragedy.

How did you end up at Featherstone in 2010?

I signed for Northern Pride in Australia, but I didn’t get a visa. I had three months with St George in 2009, but it was on a tourist visa. I went back to renew it, but I got an offer from Featherstone, which I accepted. It was pretty cold at first and I lived a few yards from the ground. I really enjoyed it. That’s when I first saw snow – I’d only seen it on TV before! We got to the Grand Final in 2010, but I missed it because my little boy back home was sick. I had developed really well over the year. I was picked for the Kumuls in the 2010 Four Nations and Wakefield signed me.

Why did the Wakefield deal fall through?

I went back for the Four Nations against Australia, New Zealand and England. While I was in Australia for the tournament, I couldn’t process my visa because I needed to be back home to do that. Wakefield’s pre-season was starting. They contacted my agent and realised it would take a while. So they cancelled my contract! They didn’t give me time to sort the visa out after the tournament. That was my only chance of playing Super League and I really regret not doing so.

You spent a decade playing for Whitehaven. How have you enjoyed life in Cumbria?

It’s even colder than Featherstone, but it’s a lovely town with great people. I love it here. I have a little girl now, and my partner is from the UK, so I’m settled. 2021 was my last year at Whitehaven. I’m now due to coach Hensingham, which I’m very excited about.

What are your memories from the derby matches against Workington?

My first derby was two days after I arrived. I wasn’t prepared, and they smashed me when I first ran the ball in. Workington tended to win as they had great players like the Phillips brothers, Marc Shackley and Karl Olstrum. Both teams got promoted in 2012, and we each had four seasons in the Championship. I think my favourite derby memories was when we won two games against Workington in 2018 with a touchline conversion from Dan Abram after the hooter. It was incredible to do that twice to them. You can’t beat memories like that.

What was the secret behind Whitehaven’s success in 2021?

We were fantastic last season. We have a very good squad. Jonty [Gorley] is a very good coach. He does a lot with us all individually and he’s really good with young players coming into the club. I know they’ll do well this year. I knew I wasn’t going to get another contract and I was hoping to get a deal elsewhere, but they put on social media that I was retiring. I was a bit upset about that because the media back home wrote I was retiring. I have a few offers on the table at the moment, but I’m still waiting for a visa. 

Hensingham have a fantastic junior set-up. You must be excited at helping them progress.

I’m really enjoying it. They have very good under-14 and under-16 teams, so there’s a lot of great talent to work with. Many have trained with the open-age team. The club joined the national leagues a few years ago and have done well. It has a great history, having produced guys like Lee Mossop, Kyle Amor, Kris Coward and Scott McAvoy.

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