The question of whether Papua New Guinea (PNG) can field a team in the NRL has been a topic of discussion for over a decade. Recently, the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) has given the most positive indication to date. ARLC chairman Peter V’landys stated that plans for an expanded NRL competition by 2026 include PNG, with PNG being at the “top of the list” and any Pacific licence being spearheaded by PNG. This announcement came after ARL commissioner Kate Jones joined an Australian Federal Government trade visit to Port Moresby last month. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also publicly endorsed a PNG NRL team, both directly to PNG‘s Prime Minister Marape and in various official forums.
This push for a PNG team in the NRL is also part of Australia’s strategy to maintain its influence in the Pacific region amid concerns of China’s growing presence. The national security value of having an NRL Pacific or PNG franchise is evident, with the Australian Government likely to provide financial support. The exact amount of funding is still uncertain, although News Corp has reported figures of up to $20 million per year.
There is some tension surrounding whether PNG should have its own NRL team based solely out of PNG or be part of a broader Pacific team representing multiple nations, potentially with an Australian partnership. The ARLC and the Federal Government often mention a “Pacific” team alongside a “PNG” team. Australian organizations are also expressing their interest in being part of a Pacific team strategy, with the mayor of Cairns and second-tier clubs like the Brisbane Tigers and Sydney Bears stating their willingness to partner with PNG in creating a Pacific NRL team.
However, the CEO of the PNG NRL Bid, Andrew Hill, believes it is too early to decide on these matters. He emphasized the focus on pursuing a PNG team, but acknowledged that discussions about a Pacific team could become significant as they get closer to establishing a PNG franchise. One aspect that is vital to Hill is that the team is PNG-led and managed.
Over a decade ago, Brad Tassell, a sports administrator from North Queensland, was invited to join the previous PNG NRL Bid following the resignation of Paul Broughton and his wife Bev. The PNG bid faced difficulties after Broughton, who is known as the founding father of the Gold Coast Titans, left the bid at odds with the board, causing momentum to stagnate. Tassell advised that it would be better to abandon the NRL bid and instead focus on creating the PNG Hunters, a franchise that plays in the Queensland Cup, the second-tier competition to the NRL.
Tassell believed that having a team in the Queensland Cup would demonstrate to the NRL that a franchise could be successfully run in Papua New Guinea. It would showcase professionalism on and off the field, crowd attraction, sponsorship potential, and the ability to safely host teams on a week-to-week basis. Tassell argued that PNG needed to prove itself in the Queensland Cup for ten years before they could realistically expect an NRL license.
The PNG Hunters have since become a great success story, achieving everything that was hoped for, including winning the Queensland Cup premiership in 2017. According to Andrew Hill, the CEO of the PNG NRL Bid, the Hunters will remain an essential part of the pathway to an NRL franchise. The focus currently is on building pathways for young talent to progress from the PNG national competition to the Queensland Cup and eventually into a PNG NRL franchise.
Hill states that small steps are being taken to ensure long-term, sustainable outcomes. The bid team is primarily focused on improving and enhancing the pathway structure, enabling more talented players like Justin Olam and Elsie Albert to have opportunities to play in the national competition in PNG. This approach aligns with the belief that the bid should not be rushed and that lessons from past mistakes must be considered. Brad Tassell points out that one such mistake was investing heavily in branding too early when the team did not exist, resulting in significant financial losses.
Despite the challenges, Tassell is confident that PNG can have its own NRL team based out of PNG without the need for partnerships. He argues that with the success of the PNG Hunters and the impressive performances of the national team, the Kumuls, in international competitions, travel, security, facilities, and professionalism are no longer concerns. Tassell predicts that when PNG does enter the NRL, they will have the largest home game crowds, sponsorships, and fan base of any NRL team.
In conclusion, the prospect of a PNG team in the NRL seems more promising than ever. The ARLC’s endorsement, government support, and the success of the PNG Hunters have created a strong foundation. While there are still decisions to be made regarding partnerships and the structure of a potential Pacific team, the focus remains on building sustainable pathways for young talent in PNG. With patience, persistence, and continued success, it is only a matter of time before PNG achieves its dream of having a team in the NRL.