Analysis: Behind the PNG rescue mission
NRL.com's chief Queensland correspondent Tony Webeck examines the decision by the QRL to admit Papua New Guinea into the Intrust Super Cup from 2014 and what it means for the game domestically and internationally.
It was 34 years ago that Brad Tassell got a first-hand insight into the type of rugby league talent to be found throughout Papua New Guinea.
Tassell and his Cairns under-12 teammates were in PNG on their club's biennial trip and were confronted by "5,000 screaming fans against the biggest under-12s I'd ever seen in my life. They ran out onto the field with bald heads and moustaches so we knew we were in trouble," Tassell recalls.
Tassell's association with the game in PNG took on a more formal capacity a decade ago and as the current CEO of PNG Rugby League takes great pride in a side from the island nation being admitted into the Intrust Super Cup from 2014.
It's the culmination of two-and-a-half years of painstaking work but will become a reality when a PNG team runs out onto Dolphin Oval in Redcliffe in Round 1 next March.
"People all along the Queensland coast, now that they know that PNG are in the Intrust Super Cup, there's an interest that is automatically sparked and I've got no doubt that clubs down here will get big crowds when PNG play because there's just that interest in PNG from Australia," Tassell explains.
"I've travelled around the country, I've seen the talent that there is in the country and it is literally a sleeping giant. If it's harnessed properly and managed properly and given an opportunity... Some of the players up there are some of the most talented in the world, and certainly the toughest, that's for sure.
"As much as it's a massive opportunity for us I think it's a massive opportunity for the Queensland Rugby League as well."
QRL chairman Peter Betros agrees.
"There are a lot of Papua New Guineans in Queensland – a lot – and we believe they could bring an extra 500 or 1,000 people through the gate everywhere they play," Betros tells NRL.com.
"They've got that colourful image, they play an attacking brand of football, they're very entertaining to watch and I think it will be a great boost for our crowds."
So how will it all work and how will it affect the game both in Papua New Guinea and Australia?
The PNG team – whose name will be formally announced on December 6 and who will play in the colours of the national team, red, black and yellow – will play 12 home games at Kalabond Stadium in Kokopo, a 75-minute flight north-east of the capital, Port Moresby. Brisbane to Port Moresby is approximately a three-hour flight while Cairns to Port Moresby is just 90 minutes.
Lloyd Robson Oval in Port Moresby is currently undergoing a major upgrade and will be the side's base from 2016. Kalabond Stadium in Kokopo has a capacity of 6,000 people – there were a reported 7,000 for the Prime Minister's XIII game there in September – and Intrust Super Cup general manager Jamie O'Connor is confident every home game will be a sell-out.
"The Prime Minister's XIII game was a really good eye-opener for us to see that that area could cater for a game of that nature," O'Connor says. "They had 7,000 people for that game and we'd expect to get those sorts of numbers for home games week in and week out."
The majority of Queensland clubs will travel to Kokopo on Friday and be accompanied by round-the-clock security, play Saturday and then return to Queensland on Sunday.
In addition to financial assistance to Queensland clubs to travel to PNG throughout the course of the season, the PNGRL bid was required to meet strict criteria surrounding security, health and travel.
Anyone who has witnessed the reaction of PNG league fans to the arrival of any players from the NRL knows that sometimes their passion for their national game can overflow, but officials from the QRL and PNGRL have gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of visiting players and teams.
"No stone has been left unturned to protect the players," says Peter Betros. "Their security, their health, prevention of disease, all of that has been taken into consideration. The clubs are all very happy with the way their players are going to be looked after and protected."
Basing the team in Kokopo for the first two years will keep players clear of the frantic nature of life in Port Moresby but O'Connor says the level of security will remain high at all times.
"The clubs put a list of conditions on what they wanted PNG to meet for our clubs to go over and play there," he explains. "As you can imagine security, travel and health issues were at the forefront of that.
"Kokopo is a different venue than what you would expect in Port Moresby and with that comes a lower security risk but we're not going to be treating it any differently."
If Queensland clubs were looking for a gauge of the quality of the team PNG will put on the park, Betros pointed to a 2013 preseason trial in Cairns as opposed to the Kumuls' disappointing results at the recent World Cup.
"They tell me that 11 of the Kumuls that just played in the World Cup will make the side and they've got an enormous talent pool up there to draw from," he says. "The side that won the Digicel Cup there last year (Rabaul Gurias) played a trial against the Northern Pride at the start of the year – and the Pride went on to be minor premiers here this year – and belted them in the pre-season. So we believe they'll be very competitive."
The 2013 champion Mackay Cutters team will be the first to make the trip to Kokopo in Round 2 and club CEO Glenn Ottaway has no doubt that clash will generate great interest amongst those associated with his club.
"It's something different and I know that PNG has a massive following for rugby league. I'm sure a lot of people would be interested to see how we stack up against what I understand is effectively going to be a national team," Ottaway says.
At the risk of putting the cart before the horse, Brad Tassell admits that having a PNG team in the NRL remains a dream but points out that their success in the Intrust Super Cup – both on and off the field – will be the ultimate determiner of where their future lies.
"Obviously the NRL would be a dream in the future and if we're successful in this competition and we're competitive – and more importantly we're financial over a long period of time – I don't see why there wouldn't be an opportunity to look at an NRL model in future years," Tassell says.
"That's not the reason why we went in the Intrust Super Cup. We went into this competition because we needed to provide a pathway for our players."
When Papua New Guinea went through the group stages of the 2000 World Cup undefeated – recording wins over France, Tonga and South Africa – they appeared on the verge of becoming a more relevant force on the international stage.
In the 2008 World Cup they failed to register a win having been drawn in the same pool as Australia, England and New Zealand while they recently went winless in games against New Zealand, Samoa and France.
Rather than lay blame at the feet of the Rugby League International Federation, Tassell insists that it is the PNG RL who is responsible for their development on the world stage.
"We've fallen behind 10 years in that [international] program and I think it showed at the last World Cup. We need to make up ground on the other nations and to do that we need our players playing at the highest level possible," he says.
"To have a Papua New Guinean team compete in [the Intrust Super Cup] week in and week out and to be able to give our players that level of exposure means that's going to rub off on the international program and provide a pathway to the youth to aspire to play in one of the best competitions in the world.
"It's going to do nothing but good for the game of rugby league [in PNG].
"We can't rely on outside help, we need to do that ourselves and this is the first step of that. Team Kumul has been put in place the past six months and we will see dividends of that in the next two to three years.
"It's not an immediate fix because rugby league over there has been so neglected by local administrators for so long... we've fallen 10 years behind the rest of the rugby league-playing nations."
With financial assistance from the PNG Government to the tune of 1.5 million kina (almost $650,000) a year for the first two years and a major sponsor in SP Brewery, the PNG team is on track to meet the financial obligations required in subsidising the travel of Queensland teams to PNG.
If their financial position is sound at the end of 2014, their inclusion will have proven to be a major success in not only PNG but also Queensland and international rugby league.
Discussions are progressing with potential broadcast partners in PNG and providing a direct link with the National Rugby League will invigorate players in PNG who dare dream of playing in the game's toughest competition.
Coming off the back of another disappointing World Cup campaign, rugby league in PNG was in desperate need of assistance. But rather than propping them up with cash, the persistence of the QRL to work through the logistics and risks associated with such expansion will give the game in PNG the strength it needs to once again stand on its own two feet.