Pacific games

WILL GENIA, RATED by many as one of the best halfbacks in world rugby over recent years, is one of the few Papua New Guinean sportspeople to have made it to the top in Australia. He is now playing in France but is still available for selection by the Wallabies, having played more than fifty Tests for Australia. Will’s father, Kilroy Genia, a former PNG minister for foreign affairs and defence, sent him to school in Australia where he played for the Brisbane Boys College First XV for several years and the Australian Schoolboys. He was then signed up by the Queensland Reds.

Another Papua New Guinean, Aidan Toua, is playing fullback for the ACT Brumbies in the Super Rugby competition. He’s another product of a Brisbane boarding school – ‘Churchie’, the Anglican Church Grammar School. Those two learnt to play their rugby union at those two GPS schools. Rugby union is played in PNG but it has nowhere near the fanatical following that rugby league has.

Papua New Guinea is the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport. That is a result of PNG having been an Australian colony for most of the first three-quarters of the last century. Australians introduced rugby league to PNG, and for some reason (possibly related to the passions that arise in tribal fighting) it appealed mightily to Papua New Guineans.

But what is really surprising is how few Papua New Guineans have been recruited to play for any of the sixteen teams in the National Rugby League competition. It is not for lack of talent. James Segeyaro, who plays for the Penrith Panthers, was hooker of the year in the NRL in 2014.

The handful of Papua New Guinean NRL players are heavily outnumbered by Samoans, Tongans, Fijians and Cook Islanders, where rugby union is the national sport, not rugby league. But not one of those countries was ever an Australian colony. I will delve into the issue of why there are so many more Polynesian players than Melanesian in the NRL a little later. But I have a very personal reason for thinking that there is something seriously amiss here.

FORTY-ONE YEARS ago, in 1975, the year Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia, I was fortunate enough to be selected in the very first Kumuls squad to represent PNG in rugby league. (‘Kumul’ is Melanesian pidgin for bird of paradise, one of the symbols on the PNG national flag.) I had gone to PNG in 1974 to work for the then newly created National Broadcasting Commission of Papua New Guinea. I spent three years there seconded from the ABC. I was in my early twenties and played halfback for the Port Moresby club, Paga Panthers.

That very first Kumuls squad was picked after inter-zone trials, and the players from all over PNG went into a training camp on the Sogeri Plateau, inland from Port Moresby. We played in what was then called the Pacific Cup – a competition involving the Kumuls, the New Zealand Maoris, Victoria and Western Australia. The Northern Territory should have been involved too, but Darwin was still recovering from Cyclone Tracy. At that stage, PNG was the only Pacific Island country to have a domestic rugby league competition. The Kumuls went down to the Maoris in the first game but then, following wins against Victoria and Western Australia, we came up against the Maoris again in the cup final, losing in what was a thrilling and hard-fought match.

The following year, 1976, I was selected again, and my fellow Kumuls elected me captain. We defeated a touring representative team from country New South Wales that included a very young Peter Sterling. I even scored a try. It was a very eventful time for me because I had just married my wife, Pauline, an NBC radio broadcaster from Manus Island.

A month or so after that match, we visited Pauline’s village on Manus. I’m comparatively slight but Pauline’s uncle, Wamok, who listened to the pidgin broadcasts of rugby league on NBC radio, was apparently looking forward to meeting the Kumuls’ captain, whom he assumed would be an impressive physical specimen. When we hopped off the boat onto the beach at the village, Uncle Wamok said something to Pauline in their native language (there are almost nine hundred distinct languages in PNG). I asked her what he had said, but she didn’t tell me. Some years later, when she was cross at me for something, she said, ‘You know what Uncle Wamok said that day? He said, “If you were a fish we would have thrown you back in!”’

Some years later, when I was the ABC correspondent in PNG and had retired from football, I served on the judiciary panel for the Port Moresby Rugby League – so my interest in PNG’s rugby league fortunes has remained strong.

LAST YEAR, DURING rugby league’s international fixture weekend on the Gold Coast, PNG played Fiji while Samoa played Tonga. When the Kumuls went down to the Fiji Bati 22-10, anguish burst out all over social media in PNG. ‘We used to be number four in the world,’ one contributor lamented, demanding to know why the team had not won despite then having Mal Meninga as the Kumuls coach. If you examine the team lists for the four teams that day you find that while the Kumuls had only two players on contract to NRL teams, quite a few of the Fijians were contracted NRL players and the entire teams representing Samoa and Tonga were first-grade NRL players.

How has this come about? Which of these four Pacific countries was the Australian colony? It is certainly not the case that Papua New Guineans are not any good at the game. The reason there are so many Fijians, Samoans, Tongans and Cook Islanders playing rugby league and rugby union in Australia is thanks to New Zealand’s migration program. Samoa was a New Zealand colony and eleven hundred Samoan citizens can migrate to New Zealand every year under what is called the ‘Samoan Quota Scheme’. The Fijians and Tongans get in under the ‘Pacific Access Category’, which allows six hundred and fifty migrants a year. Once they become resident, these people can apply to bring other family members to New Zealand under the ‘Family Sponsored’ category, and any migrant accepted under these schemes receives permanent residency. Cook Islanders automatically qualify for New Zealand permanent residency.

The New Zealand census in 2013 revealed that there were 53,000 people living in New Zealand who were born in Fiji and 51,000 who were born in Samoa. Once accepted by New Zealand these Pacific Islanders can then come to Australia. And they have in droves. Despite PNG having been our Australian colony, very limited numbers of Papua New Guineans have been allowed into Australia, and they are well outnumbered here by the Polynesians. Indeed, one third of Australian Pacific Islanders who identify as Polynesian were born in New Zealand.

Jonathan Pryke, a research officer at the ANU’s Development Policy Centre, has analysed the figures from the Australian Census in 2011. In an article titled ‘Pacific Islanders in Australia: Where Are the Melanesians?he says that of the 166,272 Pacific Islanders in Australia 65 per cent are from Polynesia and just 35 per cent from Melanesia. ‘We can compare these numbers with those of the populations… The ratio of Melanesians in Australia to Melanesians in Melanesia is 0.7 per cent; the equivalent ratio for Polynesia is 15.9 per cent… Why? Why are there more Cook Islanders in Australia than Papua New Guineans, when the latter has more than 430 times the population of the former and is our former colony?’ Pryke asks. ‘The explanation is simple: the New Zealand route.’

He found the ‘growth rate for migrants from both PNG and the Solomon Islands has fallen over the past ten years, while Tonga’s has increased and Samoa’s has remained the highest in the region. The increase in the number of Samoans living in Australia over the last decade (almost twenty eight thousand) is almost twice the total number of Papua New Guineans living in Australia (15,500). As a result, the proportion of Polynesians among all Pacific Islanders is actually growing, and the proportion of Melanesians is shrinking.’ So in signing up players the NRL teams do not spend a lot of money going out into the Pacific to recruit all these young men who are now on NRL contracts. The vast majority of them have finished their secondary schooling in Australia or New Zealand and come through the system that way.

John Wilshere, a former captain of the Kumuls, says the Polynesian kids have an ‘accessible’ pathway. ‘As families they come and settle in Australia and have that exposure to NRL grassroots development, New Zealand rugby league grassroots development. So they’ve put themselves in a good frame for them to excel in the NRL.’ It may sound weird, but there are far more Papua New Guinean rugby league players contracted in England than there are in Australia. ‘The UK is a better opportunity for our guys,’ Wilshere says. He spent five years between 2004 and 2009 playing in the UK for the Warrington Wolves, Leigh Centurions and Salford City Reds. ‘The UK immigration laws allow our players to go into the country as sportsmen or entertainers,’ he says, ‘which is easier than it is to get into Australia.’ Stanley Gene, a former Kumul who had a stellar career in the UK, and is now coaching there.

THE FORMER NEW South Wales State of Origin coach, Phil Gould, who is now general manager with the Penrith Panthers, is one of the few identities with any NRL club who takes a genuine interest in promoting rugby league in Papua New Guinea and looking at talent there. (I’m sure it is one of the reasons Penrith snaffled Segeyaro from the North Queensland Cowboys.)

John Wilshere says that most clubs would not think it worth the bother. ‘Say they look to sign a player from Papua New Guinea and he comes down as a fringe first grader, maybe on $50,000. The club will weigh up the options – do we invest in a Papua New Guinean player for this much money or can we invest in two juniors for the same amount who have already had that exposure to the development programs in Australia or New Zealand? The PNG player has possibly never been overseas before so you have to find him accommodation. And then it becomes a whole player-welfare issue where you need to ensure that the player is being well looked after.’

Over the past few years a PNG team, the Hunters, has been playing in the Queensland rugby league competition, the Intrust Super Cup. After their first game in which they defeated the Redcliffe Dolphins, the chairman of the PNG Rugby League Foundation and governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, who had attended the game, told me the aim was to get a team into the NRL proper. ‘Our goal is to get a franchise into the NRL. And we are halfway there,’ he claimed. ‘We are here to show that we qualify, that we’ve got everything we need to get us into the NRL. That’s our dream and we are not deviating from that dream.’ However, the prospects do not look promising. There seems little enthusiasm from the current leadership of the NRL to expand the competition into PNG. So increasing the number of Papua New Guineans playing for the existing NRL clubs should be the short- to medium-term goal.

An indication of how tough PNG finds it to make headway in rugby league in Australia is that to get into the Intrust Super Cup, the backers of the PNG Hunters, including the PNG government, had to guarantee that they would pay all the airfares, accommodation and other costs of all the Queensland clubs who fly to Papua New Guinea when the Hunters have a home game. It is hardly a fair arrangement when the PNG Hunters have boosted crowds – and so gate takings – at every venue they have played in Queensland.

AS AN AUSTRALIAN who played for Papua New Guinea how do I feel about the controversy over the Fijian winger for the Parramatta Eels, Semi Radradra, being selected for Australia in this year’s May test match against New Zealand?

Well, I am on the side of those who believe that if rugby league is to grow as a game internationally then the rules around eligibility to play for any country except for perhaps Australia, New Zealand and England need to be eased. So if Radradra does not make the Australian squad for the next world cup he should be allowed to play for Fiji.  

One Papua New Guinean player who is now back playing for the Kumuls after an enforced absence because he played for the NSW Country side is the Gold Coast Titans winger and fullback David Mead. According to an item on the site, Mead is looking forward to playing for the Kumuls in next year’s world cup, where at least one of the matches is to be hosted in PNG. However, the article went on, if the New South Wales Origin coach Laurie Daley was to come calling Mead would walk away from the Kumuls.

‘That’s the ultimate dream, playing at that level,’ Mead said of an Origin call-up. ‘It would be a lot easier playing Origin because I know how much people in PNG love the Origin anyway, and any player that chooses to play in that game PNG people will support that team.’

I can vouch for the fanaticism of the support for State of Origin in PNG. When I was the ABC correspondent, I did a number of stories on State of Origin night. In Hanuabada, the village built on stilts over the water in Port Moresby, one supporter picked up the family television set and threw it into the sea when his team lost. And in West New Britain a man was almost scalped when he leapt up in joy at a try only to have his head caught by the ceiling fan.

ONE OF THE great challenges facing Papua New Guinea is creating a sense of national unity. Rugby league does it.

Perhaps this is something Australia could look at under a sports aid program. For a modest outlay it could do wonders for PNG’s national pride and unity to help a few more Papua New Guineans get the sort of NRL experience that might help take the Kumuls back to being one of the top four national Rugby League teams in the world.

And that might do far more to improve Australia’s relations with PNG than many of our other aid projects, and certainly it is a better option than expecting PNG to solve Australia’s asylum seeker problem – especially now PNG’s Supreme Court has ruled that holding them against their will in the processing center on Manus is illegal.

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