First published in Rugby League World, Issue 385 (May 2013)
The Kumuls sprung a major surprise by drafting Australian legend Mighty Mal Meninga into their coaching set up ahead of the World Cup.
There were two surprise faces in the crowd at Redfern Oval in February when a touring Papua New Guinea side faced South Sydney Rabbitohs in the annual ‘Return to Redfern’ pre-season friendly.
Bunnies owner Russell Crowe, who had recently flagged an intention to step away from the club for personal reasons, watched from the grandstand, while Queensland State of Origin coach Mal Meninga chose to attend Redfern over the All Stars clash in Brisbane that night.
Even though PNG is known as the ‘land of the unexpected’, not many people expected one of Australia’s top representative coaches – the likely next-in-line to the Kangaroos’ throne – to pledge his future to the Kumuls.
But at a modestly low-key announcement in Port Moresby five weeks later, Queensland and Australia legend Meninga was unveiled as director of Rugby League at the PNGRFL’s new high performance unit, ‘Team Kumul’, alongside director of coaching Adrian Lam.
As the only country in the world which claims Rugby League as its national sport, PNG is also arguably the only one where the code has the potential to change the lives of the majority of its people.
The passion, excitement and reverence generated by league in PNG – a country renowned for its high crime rate, ethnic disputes and tribal violence – underpins hopes that ‘the greatest game’ could be the best-placed vehicle to drive social change.
Through Team Kumul, the country’s first full-time, professional Rugby League programme, this potential could become reality.
The unprecedented five-year government funding, along with a pledge by the PNGRFL to improve playing, management and development standards nationwide, has created real belief that Rugby League’s time to unite and inspire Papua New Guineans has arrived.
“We feel this is a defining moment for Papua New Guinea – people are going to run with it like Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby Union team,” enthuses Lam, evoking images of Invictus, the sequel. “When our national team is successful the entire nation celebrates, and it gives us a united voice and identity. I think it can lift the country, and we hope we can create our own legacy.”
Although the five-year plan is designed to feed into preparation for RLWC2017, the PNGRFL hopes its high performance programme will have an immediate impact on the team’s RLWC2013 build-up, with the introduction of a year-round focus on players’ fitness, diet, strength and conditioning.
“I’ve been coaching the team since 2006 and, as much as we’ve improved as a side, I felt that we needed to implement a high performance unit because, at the moment, all we do is come together six days before playing the likes of Australia, New Zealand and England,” Lam explains.
“We want to work towards a level we believe is NRL-standard. We feel we’re a long way behind at the moment and this programme will get us to a place where we haven’t been before.”
Although Rugby League in PNG is now in high spirits, Lam, who visits the country every few weeks for business, admits the situation was much less rosy a mere six months ago.
He reveals: “League had been on its knees in PNG and I had a phone call last September warning me that the RLIF were considering taking away the (annual) Prime Minister’s XIII match (against an Australian select side). We needed to do something very quickly, and we needed government heroes to step in. Sports Minister Justin Tkatchenko and Minister for State Enterprise Ben Micah did so, and in doing so they saved us, and formed Team Kumul.”
Meninga, who has spent the best part of 30 years travelling to PNG as a player and coach with Australian sides, joins the set-up with the Maroons’ blessing, and insists the Kumuls have untapped potential.
“I have always maintained that if PNG Rugby League gets it right they will be a force in international Rugby League…my job is to maximise the potential that exists in PNG and to give the youth inspiration to achieve and excel.
“The program is not only about improving the current players and giving them the training required to compete internationally, but it is also about developing the next crop of players to take this nation to the next level.”
Some of PNG’s future stars enjoyed their first taste of international Rugby League on February’s tour to Australia, winning the Cabramatta International Nines against an exotic mix of global and local teams, and performing admirably against Souths at Redfern, racing to a 12-6 lead before eventually going down 38-12.
The squad consisted entirely of PNG-resident players, several of whom had never travelled overseas, providing some eye-opening moments in the bright lights of Sydney.
“Some of the boys haven’t been away from home or tasted Rugby League in another country before, and it has been a great experience training in Sydney with the climate and facilities here,” enthused PNG Residents captain Glen Nami.
“It’s a good start for us, and the World Cup is (still) a few months away, so we have got room and time for improvement.”
Watching his players train on a sun-drenched afternoon at Wests Tigers’ Concord Oval in between photos with heroes Lote Tuqiri and Braith Anasta, Lam admits the Sydney tour was more about broadening horizons than winning matches.
“There are 14 players here who had never left the country before, so when you look at statistics like that, these trips are crucial to give them a better understanding of how the rest of the world works when it comes to Rugby League,” he reflects.
“These fields here are like carpet to our guys because the fields they play on in PNG are made of gravel and rock. It’s about getting that experience of being away from home.”
Papua New Guinea’s eight-team domestic competition, the semi-professional Digicel Cup, is now profitable and thriving, according to Lam, who brings coaching staff from around the league into the Kumuls set-up so they can pass on skills and knowledge at a local level.
While the Sydney tour threw up some exciting options for the Kumuls’ World Cup squad, notably halfbacks Dion Aiye and Israel Eliab and forward Mark Mexico, the side will yet be bolstered by PNG’s NRL and Super League-based stars.
Paul Aiton, David Mead, Neville Costigan, Jason Chan, James Segeyaro, Ray Thompson, Menzie Yere and Jessie Joe Parker are among those in the reckoning for RLWC2013.
Lam explains: “We’ll have four training camps in PNG and, after the Prime Minister’s XIII game in September, we’ll play a PNG Origin game (PNG Residents v internationally-based PNG players). The Residents have never won that game but they should do, because it’s on home soil. We’ve got a feeling that the Residents will win this year, and comfortably, and that game will decide who makes the 22-man World Cup squad.”
The Kumuls will face a tough challenge in Group B against defending champions New Zealand, Samoa and France, and are likely to struggle more than most with the chilly conditions. But Lam, who is no stranger to the host nation after playing five years with Wigan and starring for the Kumuls in the 1995 and 2000 World Cups, is confident his side will make an impact.
“The input from our UK-based players will be important, but a bit of information from everyone will help. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we understand that, and if we prepare well then we’re a good chance of doing well in our pool.”
Whether Lam’s Invictus dream is realised in 2013, 2017 or beyond, at least Crowe will be well placed to play Meninga in the movie.
By: Joanna Lester