Papua New Guinea. A country full of passion, and full of pride, but when it comes to stability, the nation is lacking. It’s just another reason why PNG shouldn’t have their own team in the NRL.
Papua New Guinea is the only country in the world’s entirety that recognises rugby league as its dominant sporting code, but that doesn’t mean it automatically deserves a spot in the sport’s elite competition, the NRL.
On the surface, it seemed like the Kumuls enjoyed a strong World Cup tournament. Big wins over Wales and USA broke records, as well as a tight victory over Ireland saw them top their pool and progress to the finals. But when you look at the team sheets of PNG’s opposition, the lack of NRL players paints a picture of how easy the win came.
And when finally faced with quality opposition in the form of England, PNG went down 36-6.
The country, carrying a population around a third of the size of Australia’s, made a giant leap in 2014 by entering their own team into the Queensland Cup. Surprisingly, the PNG Hunters were strong in the competition, winning both the minor and major premiership in 2017.
But when they faced a Penrith Panther’s reserve grade carrying fringe first graders like Mitch Rein, Moses Leota and Bill Kikau, they were humbled 42-18. Some of the nation’s best players lined up against Penrith, yet PNG were down 42-2 against a reserve grade side with fifteen minutes on the clock.
Ten players from that Hunters’ team would be named for PNG’s World Cup squad just days later.
The country has such a shallow talent pool in comparison to Australia, they would struggle to match it against even the lower tier NRL sides. Passion and pride don't put wins on the board, the players do.
Especially in the modern era, there is a seemingly sudden exodus of Papua New Guinean players in the NRL. James Segeyaro, Ray Thompson, Kurt Baptiste and David Mead spring to mind, but other than those scattered few, the selectors were forced to turn to the reserve grade squad for nearly half of the country’s World Cup squad.
The root of the problem starts at the junior level, with no scouting, no talent identification from a young age. It seems like every second week in Australia, there’s an article about a young sixteen-year-old tearing it up, and the NRL clubs already fighting for his signature.
Papua New Guinea doesn't have this luxury, with talent scouts so few and far between. There is no proper rugby league system in place, meaning development and grading, such necessities, are completely lacking when it comes to identifying talent. They don’t have the proper training facilities or equipment required to breed genuine stars at such a young age like Australia and New Zealand do.
Sure, funding would dramatically improve the situation, but they still don’t have access to the knowledge required to crack it at the big time. Every 12-year-old in Papua New Guinea practices how to run like Billy Slater, how to step like Jarryd Hayne, and how to flick pass like Benji Marshall. But they don’t see what the players do when the cameras aren’t there.
Every vigorous training session, the after-hours work, the lean diet, the mental focus, there is simply no way of gaining the knowledge on how to be that cut above without experiencing it. A healthy, nutritional and balanced diet is an absolute must for breaking through. And when they don’t have that healthy diet that most do, their fitness suffers when coming up the more elite players. With no one identifying talent, by the time players do become recognised, they’ve already passed their 20th birthday.
Age is everything in the NRL. A player debuting any older than 22 is such a rarity in modern-day rugby league and the few that do make it rarely play more than a handful of games. For a lot of the boys in the PNG Hunters team, most are already 24-25 years old, so breaking into the NRL from here would be miraculous, yet it takes them this long just to break into the reserve grade squad.
The salary cap in itself would create incredible problems for the NRL is Papua New Guinea did have their own team. The 2018 cap has been announced at $9.2 million, with most elite NRL players demanding around a $1 million annually. There is no way in the world that any of the current Papua New Guinea players are worth anywhere near $1 million per season. Under the assumption that the team would feature exclusively PNG-born and bred players, the team would need to fill its cap and pay a few of their players fairly high salaries.
So when a player like Jonathan Thurston sees the likes of a reserve grade halfback on $900K, he’s going to demand close to $2 million, and completely corrupt the whole salary cap worth.
If Papua New Guinea can gain some financial stability to implement a nationwide junior competition, as well as teaching young students the key to a balanced diet and proper technique, it could one day lead to Papua New Guinea one day finally having their own NRL team. But in saying that, it would be years before a junior system would be fully up and running.
So until that day comes, Papua New Guinea simply shouldn’t have a team in the NRL.