I PLAYED SEMI-PROFESSIONAL rugby league in Papua New Guinea for more than a decade. And I was 20 years in the game overall.
I had the privilege of playing for the Kundiawa Warriors, Port Moresby Vipers and the Brian Bell Bulldogs.
Unfortunately, despite many years of intercity football, I played in only one grand final - the SP Intercity Cup against Rabaul Gurias in 2005.
At the club level I played for close to two decades and ran on in five grand finals: four in the Port Moresby Rugby League and one in the Kundiawa Rugby League.
I hung up my boots after that Gurias-Bulldogs grand final in 2005 and all I got from PNG rugby league after two decades were scars, a broken cartilage and a farewell spiel from the commentator at the final whistle.
That was it; no money, no pay cheque; not even any statistics kept of how many games I played.
Anyway, I think this track record gives me enough experience in PNG rugby league to write this piece.
I wish I had represented PNG in the Kumuls team but unfortunately I missed out, maybe for one of three reasons.
Maybe I didn’t play well enough to wear a Kumul jumper; or it could be that one or two of the administrators did not hail from the same tribe I belong to.
But there is another reason; I didn’t have the money and pretty sisters to appease some of the crooked selectors and administrators.
In those years I met a lot of PNG rugby league administrators and players. Some came into semi-professional football and the national team because of their relatives who served in various positions in the PNG Rugby League hierarchy.
Other players bought their way into the teams and others coerced their sisters to sleep with the officials to secure a place in the team.
Of course, there were tough and gifted players who were selected on merit to play for the Kumuls and the provincial teams. I am not saying all were elevated through impropriety.
If a player takes a beautiful girl off the dance floor to his room after the Sunday night bash, jealous officials might dislodge him from the team the next Sunday even though he played well and is in top form.
One guy I played with during the Kumuls selection trails dropped five money balls and still made the team. He played for the local club of two Kumuls’ selectors.
Sometimes MPs came with money and told the selectors to select their henchmen or relatives before lavishing them with so much grog they forgot their own names.
I learned about this when I had a deep gash on my eyebrow after a game against the Enga Mioks in Lae and ended up in a private medical centre with one of the rugby league administrators who had apparently been bashed up for being a crooked megalomaniac. Half of these faceless men are still hanging on and have made their way into the current set up.
Way back in the early 1960s, Papua Rugby League played its grand finals with glamour and the media made the game famous with accurate reporting.
Port Moresby rugby league carries on the legacy of the Papua Rugby League but now the media has taken to subjective reporting by rating or under-rating players according to the whims of tribal affiliation and hand-to-mouth bribery.
Alas, even journalists nowadays are not immune to the give and get virus.
A couple of the rugby league administrators and selectors who came in penniless and left with big tummies and assets from rugby league sponsors are still around.
I once witnessed a selector’s wife storming into the Port Moresby Rugby League club house and calling her drunkard husband a conman who was feeding out of the player’s pockets.
Players also cajole coaches and officials to make the final cut every Sunday unlike Australia where players take the field on form, merit and commitment.
At the Vipers during my day, we were not given a match payment for two years even though the sponsors donated money for everything, including match payments. Players were coerced when they tried to air their frustrations.
Unfortunately, the players are the biggest losers in this scenario. They mostly come from the city ghettos and villages to play the greatest game of all every weekend simply for the love of it.
Many young men with great expectations travel to Port Moresby to live with relatives and try their luck in rugby league. Some even leave school to play.
Most of them who travel down from the highlands, along the coasts or out of the schools to play in Port Moresby only realise 10-15 years later that they were wasting their time and will never go anywhere with rugby league, let alone get to sign a contract with clubs down under in Australia.
Eventually age catches up with them and they have to hang up their boots and go back home. They play their last game and at the final whistle there is no acknowledgment or pay cheque for devoting years of their lives to Port Moresby Rugby League.
They quietly walk back to a ghetto somewhere and their loyal friends shout them some stubbies and that is it. Nobody will hear of them again.
A few months later when the hospitality has been used up, the relatives in Moresby will contribute to get the retiree out of town and back to his village.
When they arrive home the players realise that their village peers have established themselves with a plethora of coffee trees and domestic animals and are happily married.
The rugby league retiree can’t cope with the demands of village life and can’t make a late start. Sooner or later they return to Moresby or Lae to make ends meet working as security guards or casual labourers.
Only a handful of the players who were students and coped with both studies and rugby league manage to make a decent life with good jobs after their playing days are over.
I meet some of my former team mates around Port Moresby once in a while and I really feel for them. They mostly struggle to make ends meet and live on the fringes of the city with their memories.
Only a few players like Stanly Gene, Mikali Aizue and Marcus Bai, who travelled from their tribal lands to try their luck, succeed. But they had to go to England to make their mark in the rugby league world.
Australians originally taught us how to play rugby league but have done little to get Papua New Guineans into the NRL. The Poms are our true brothers and sisters when we talk rugby league in Papua New Guinea.
Now that the government has set up a foundation to rid PNG of its faceless and deceitful culture, such as that I encountered in the days when I grazed the fields in club and intercity competitions, will it also work for rugby league?
I hear some of those regular faces have already jumped on to the bandwagon of the Foundation. That is a concern.
Happy watching as the NRL season gets underway.