It was a first for Australia’s Intrust Super rugby league cup last weekend when the PNG Hunters hosted their maiden game at Kalabond Oval in Kokopo, defeating the Mackay (Queensland) Cutters 24-16. Cutters CEO GLENN OTTAWAY explains that it was an experience his team members will never forget.
THE first weekend of March will forever be remembered by the young Mackay Cutters squad that travelled to Papua New Guinea as part of the Intrust Super Cup round two fixture.
Players boarded a charter flight in Mackay on Friday morning for Cairns. On clearing Customs they reboarded the plane for the direct flight to Rabaul.
Despite some ordinary weather on arrival, the spirits of the players lifted immediately as the hospitality and passion of the locals was on show from the very beginning. The touring party was greeted at the airport by traditional dancing and a group of more than a hundred locals who turned up for a glimpse of the team and a photo opportunity.
The chance for a photo or video was even seized by airport ground staff and customs officials, who all had their phones at the ready as the group crossed the tarmac.
As the police escort guided us from the airport to the hotel, locals lined the streets and stopped work to wave at the passing bus. Even the prison chain gangs used to clear bushland on the roadside (and who seemed loosely guarded) stopped work to wish the team well.
I was fortunate enough to make the trip from the airport in a private vehicle with a representative from the local team and his wife. We made a quick detour to the local school to pick up his kids.
It was well worth the short stop as I hopped out and met the school principal as we watched the kids playing. Despite vastly different surroundings it was all very similar to what I experience when I pick up my own son from primary school.
We arrived at the Kokopo Beach Bungalows at around 2:30pm and were ushered straight to lunch. The boys were very quick to comment on how the food and service was well above the usual standard.
Donna and her staff at KBB catered for our every need. They could not do enough for us as a group and made us feel very welcome despite taking over most of the hotel. I definitely think our players will remember the people more than anything else.
At 4:15pm we again boarded our team bus for a training run and first look at Kalabond Oval. Our driver Lucas (a former Kumul) was enthusiastic with his use of the horn and made it clear to locals that we had arrived and that he wanted right of way on the roads.
Again the villagers lined the streets to greet the bus. Young children chased us up and down the streets.
After training, it was dinner and, for most of us, a night watching the Broncos v Bulldogs game. With the rain continuing to fall, we hoped that there would be some relief for us to get out and about and to dry out the sodden playing surface.
A group of 15 players made the trip on Saturday morning to the local markets. Locals meet in this central location to sell hand-made artefacts and fresh produce. The market vendors seemed to have little interest in selling us their product as long as we stopped for photos, handshakes or to simply say good morning.
Some of the boys were keen to buy a bilum, a woven bag used by locals. Two players returned to the bus proud of their purchase. However, like in any local market around the world, it pays to do your homework as on close inspection we found the ‘Made in China’ label.
It was an unusual preparation for game-day. Again, the hospitality of the staff at KBB was evident as they allowed us to take over the hotel function room and create a make shift dressing room.
The bus trip to the ground was also unusual as we had to travel in full playing kit as there are no dressing shed facilities at Kalabond Oval. It was straight from the bus to the field for warm-up.
The final leg on our homeward journey was without fault. The staff at KBB graciously washed the boys’ boots and jersey’s to avoid issues with quarantine and the Customs officials and ground staff at Rabaul airport did not miss a final opportunity to get photos with the players.
Although we did not get the result we were after in the game, the whole experience was extremely rewarding for our group. It would be fair to say that most players indicated it was the best life experience the game has given them.
The community of which we were a part of for a very short period of time was filled with friendly, beautiful people. They are very passionate and enthusiastic about life in general and fully appreciate the small things that we probably take for granted every day.
On behalf of the Mackay Cutters I would like to sincerely thank all those that made it possible for us to have our young men experience what they did.