In the midst of a battle for rugby league’s soul, it was John Ribot’s dream to see the game’s stars become household names in China. Despite it not eventuating – with the likes of Latrell Mitchell and Andrew Ettingshausen able to stroll through Beijing unnoticed – a quarter of a century later, China surprisingly holds a pivotal role in the NRL’s prospective expansion plans.
The Australian and Papua New Guinean governments share a common vision. Their grand plan involves the granting of NRL’s 18th license to the Pacific nation. It is a unique opportunity to tighten the bond between two countries, with just four kilometres of Torres Strait separating them.
However, the Australian government’s support goes far beyond sentimental motivations. It is emphasised by their $5.5 million promise to enhance the game in Papua New Guinea. With Papua New Guinea being the portal to Asia, it holds a progressive geopolitical significance for Australia, especially with China reaching out to strengthen its grip over the Pacific. Though Australia may not be capable of featuring in a financial battle with Xi Jinping, it does have the ability to offer the Pacific nation something China can’t – “rugba leegue”.
Papua New Guinea stands alone globally – the only nation where rugby league is considered the national sport, and NRL players are treated like demigods. The awarding of an exclusive NRL franchise will easily trump any monetary offerings or boatloads of yuan from competitors. This is set to captivate a nation’s heart and mind, making it a strategy that the Australian government fully supports.
In an unexpected twist, Australian Minister for the Pacific and Defence, Pat Conroy says, “I’d have to seriously consider changing teams if this comes off.” The Minister, who also happens to be a passionate fan of the Sydney Roosters, visited Papua New Guinea just last week. He is a key player in the Albanese government which is ready to assume liability for a significant proportion of the franchise costs. The predicted costs, in the tens of millions, come in far less than the hefty $300 billion spent on nuclear submarines for instance. Therefore, the move provides economical diplomacy and it also unifies two nations.
According to Conroy, “It would be a great thing for PNG because sport unites people.” He comments on Prime Minister James Marape’s vision for a Papua New Guinea NRL team and how it could consolidate his nation. In a nation as diversified as Papua New Guinea, where over 800 languages are spoken, unity can be elusive. However, that’s where sport, specifically their passion for NRL, can help.
Conroy sheds light on Prime Minister Marape’s aspiration to mirror Nelson Mandela’s success with the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995, when he managed to bring his nation together. Despite Papua New Guinea’s challenges being different and less post-apartheid, Marape seeks to echo its success and bring unity to his own country. Furthermore, his vision includes using the lessons from sport; teamwork, discipline and endorsing healthy lifestyles, to enrich their communities.
In the best possible outcome, the NRL might greenlight Papua New Guinea in 2025, the year they mark 50 years of independence. They would then be all set to join the competition in 2027. The lion’s share of home matches would be held in Port Moresby, while Cairns would act as a logistic hub and secondary headquarters to help tackle travel issues.
The team represents a national identity with potential for some Pasifika representation from Regional neighbours Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Consequently, the North Sydney Bears, constantly on the probe for partnering with potential bidders, will stay dormant for now.
The NRL could authorise the license with the assurance that the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments would take care of most of the bill. Any potential shortage will be covered by Papua New Guinea’s prosperous corporate giants, such as ExxonMobil, Santos and Newcrest – all of which would queue up for a partnership with the “greatest game of all.”
Chairman of the Papua New Guinea NRL bid board, Wapu Sonk, reveals, “There’s a growing interest with a lot of the corporate entities for its own team.” From the PNG’s viewpoint, he thinks, “the stars line up for us to be the 18th team when the time comes.”
Surprisingly, proving the point is Papua New Guinea native, Justin Olam. Born and raised in Chimbu Province, situated in the mountainside, Olam is the sole Papua New Guinean success story to make it into the NRL while playing all of his junior football at home. The star player, idolised when back at home, rakes in more sponsorships and endorsements, which ultimately equates to more money, than any other player in the NRL.
However, the New Guinea franchise’s primary challenge is to cultivate talent similar to Justin Olam in order to complete the roster. Olam argues that developing talent pathways, “is crucial to success and even without a franchise we need to focus here, so we can build our players’ presence in the game.” He mentions how clubs and agents are scouting for talent in Papua New Guinea, and adds, “We know we have athletes, so it’s not about talent identification, it’s about talent development.”
Joe Grima has been appointed the head of elite player development in Papua New Guinea to aid this mission. Grima, who has previously coached Sharks, Dragons and Eels, and recently served as Parramatta’s pathways coaching director, is currently honing the best young junior players from Port Moresby. The most promising players from 65 local schools have been identified and are being nurtured in under-14 and under-16 academies, where they receive the same quality of training as juniors in NRL systems.
Grima believes, “From a testing background – in terms of physicality, fitness and speed – they [Papuan players] are on par athletically with elite Australian players.” Using established data comparisons, Grima brings attention to the progress of those skills and the promptness of the players in following instructions, stating ‘It’s been really pleasing.’ One of Papua New Guinea’s best juniors has been signed by the Manly Sea Eagles and there are assurances of more to follow suit and integrate into NRL systems in the years to come.
Andrew Hill, PNG NRL bid Chief Executive, voices his perspective, “For the first time in the history of PNG, they have an NRL program being delivered under Joey Grima. Now some of those players who have been playing the game just because they love it, will be able to go to the next level.”
Not only will these young athletes have an NRL franchise to aspire to, but also they won’t have to wait long to experience exceptional football on their home grounds. This is due to the fact that there’s a push for Test matches to be played in Port Moresby at the end of the season.
The decision will be made at the International Rugby League board meeting in Singapore, attended by NRL chief executive, Andrew Abdo, and ARL Commission chairman, Peter V’landys. The proposed match series involves Australia, New Zealand and Samoa competing, while Papua New Guinea will face Cook Islands and Fiji in their dedicated series. In order for this Papua New Guinea series to proceed, the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments will have to contribute financially.
Addressing perceptions of rugby league playing a role in Australia’s foreign policy, Conroy states, “I’ve been frank with people that Australia wants to be the closest possible partner to Pacific nations.” He continues, “We’re a Pacific nation, we’re proud to be a member of the Pacific family. PNG is our closest neighbour and our dearest friend … nothing unites them like rugby league.”