Whenever Will Hopoate ran near the sideline or fielded a kick in his own in-goal, the crowd at Port Moresby’s National Football Stadium for Saturday night’s historic NRL trial would cheer him.
It was a similar story for his Bulldogs teammates, with prop Dylan Napa mobbed by fans as he performed a post-game lap of honour.
It was an atmosphere most players had never previously experienced and there was no doubt the majority of the 10,213 crowd were cheering for the Bulldogs to beat the Sharks, which they did with a 30-18 triumph.
“Rugby league is a religion here so it was good to get out and play some footy,” Hopoate said.
“From the moment we got off the plane, they have just been so welcoming and there have been kids chasing the bus. I have really enjoyed it.
Match Highlights: Sharks v Bulldogs
“It was funny, you’d run towards the sideline or one of the other grandstands and they just started cheering you or cheering for you. It’s been good. Both teams did a lap of honour just to show our appreciation for their support.”
Prop Aidan Tolman, who captained the team, said the time in Papua New Guinea for the first NRL match played in Port Moresby was one the players would never forget.
“It was trying conditions, it was very hot and humid and for our first game of the season I thought it was pretty good quality,” Tolman said.
“There were some great tries scored by both teams. In the first half the Sharks really put us under pressure and we had to defend pretty well but towards the back end it was just a game of possession. Whoever had the ball the longest pretty much got the tries in the end.
“There was definitely some things we need to work on but just the experience for the boys … I’ll never forget flying in and seeing the smiles on the faces when they see rugby league and it is something you don’t get in Sydney very often.
“To be able to come over here and showcase the game like this, it’s a great experience for everyone.”
While Cronulla fielded an inexperienced team, Bulldogs coach Dean Pay said his squad also had seven rookies who would benefit from the trip.
“For our club, some of our young boys went to a school the other day and a couple of them mentioned that the experiences they have had the last couple of days was something they would never forget,” Pay said.