Brothers pave way for PNG recognition
There are few things more powerful than a man with something to prove so when Wellington Albert arrived in England for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, he didn't want to just show that he was worthy of the NRL but that Papua New Guinea was full of talent just like him.
Albert was to be the star of the new PNG Hunters franchise introduced into the Intrust Super Cup in 2014 but before he ever pulled on a Hunters jersey he was whisked away to join the Penrith Panthers on a two-year contract.
Twelve months later his younger brother Stanton – player of the tournament at last year's Commonwealth Rugby League Championship – joined him in Penrith and is now lining up on a weekly basis for the Panthers' Holden Cup team in the front row.
While other teams taking part in Saturday's Pacific Test double-header at Cbus Super Stadium consist almost completely of NRL-aligned players, the Kumuls boast just two players to have lined up in the NRL this season: Ray Thompson and Nene MacDonald.
It is for that reason that Wellington believes Saturday's Test is of such important to the PNG players as they strive to reclaim their place as one of rugby league's strongest international nations.
"It's great exposure for us. Most of the PNG guys [think] 'All the other Pacific nations boys are playing in the NRL but why not PNG?'" Wellington said. "This is our great opportunity for us to expose ourselves in this big game so all the boys will be looking forward to it.
"Back at home, all the younger ones and all the boys, they want to play for NRL. Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the other Pacific nations, most of their players are coming from the NRL, but PNG, none of them. Our dream is to play [in the] NRL."
Kumuls captain Israel Eliab is also captain of the Hunters team which now serves as the pathway for aspiring rugby league players in PNG to make their way through to the NRL.
Such has been the success of the Hunters that their Facebook page has more than 27,000 followers, compared to just a few thousand for the Kumuls page, and they have captured the imagination of rugby league mad youngsters at home in PNG.
"If you want to go to the Kumuls you have to go through the Hunters system so it is a pathway that is linking the boys to the highest standards," Eliab told NRL.com.
"It motivates the young ones to try and play for the Hunters. Everywhere you go it is Hunters.
"We're sort of celebrities. Everywhere we go kids want to come and take photos with their parents and their kids and everywhere we go to do promotions there is a big following for autographs and stuff so it is something that motivates the students, especially the young ones coming up."
Prior to grabbing the attention of rugby league followers at the World Cup, Wellington Albert was a star in PNG's Digicel Cup, recruited to play for both Lae Tigers and Mendi Muruks, while Stanton stayed at home and represented the local Hela Wigmen.
The pair crossed paths just once – which fittingly for the Albert family finished in a 10-all draw – and are now living in Penrith together with their NRL dream within reach.
In the past two years Wellington and Stanton have both played against the Australian Prime Minister's XIII in PNG and rather than being intimidated by his idols, saved for them some extra special local hospitality.
"For us, we only watch them on the television so when we get a chance for us to play against [them] we give our best and make sure we smash them," Wellington said. "If they come here they will feel us and say that PNG guys are tougher."
For Eliab, seeing players leave the Hunters to link with NRL clubs is the primary objective of their existence and he has a tip for any NRL scouts on the lookout for the next PNG prospect capable of cracking it in the big leagues.
"Kato Ottio. He's got a big size, height, he's NRL material, so I'd say Kato is the next one to go soon," Eliab said. "We just need more exposure and this weekend will do a good exposure for the boys.
"Definitely proud of these boys because this thing is seen as a pathway for the country, to come and get picked or stay with the Hunters. The main thing is that we come to expose our boys through the Hunters system so it's a good thing that two of our boys have gone through to the NRL system."
All that remains now is for Wellington or Stanton to be handed an NRL debut and when that day comes it will be a selection with wide-ranging ramifications.
"I'm in the NSW Cup and most of the Panthers this year, a lot of guys are injured so I'm just waiting for the opportunity for (Panthers coach) Ivan Cleary to call me up," Wellington said of his NRL aspirations.