NICK CAMPTON | Daily Telegraph
THE strides Papua New Guinean rugby league has taken in the last few years alone are quite staggering.
The PNG Hunters’ victory in the Queensland Cup grand final can be counted as one of the finest days in rugby league’s history for that country, and perhaps as one of their greatest wins in any sport.
Forget what you saw at ANZ Stadium on NRL grand final day, when the overmatched Hunters were flattened out mentally. Their achievement the week before, the performance of rugby league in Papua New Guinea is finally matching the passion.
Rugby league law dictates I must divulge the well known fact that rugby league is the national sport in Papua New Guinea, but the stories of the locals’ hunger for the game are well known. The love for the code in that part of the world is intense beyond almost anything you’ll ever see in Australia.
Converting passion to progress has always been the challenge for PNG.
The trick has always been to harness that devotion and channel, while navigating a thousand and one other challenges that have no established solution because there is nowhere else in the rugby league world like PNG.
More than 800 different languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea. It remains a developing country and one of the least explored nations in the world. Lack of resources, funds, disorganisation and infighting have plagued PNG rugby league since they played their first match against England in 1975.
For most of the 40 years since, the story’s remained the same. Plenty of passion, emotion and bruising tackles. Always a force to be reckoned with at home. But a lack of exposure to elite rugby league environments always cut their legs out from under them. Heart can only take you so far.
The Kumuls have scored wins over New Zealand (1986) and Great Britain (1990), but they also went from 2000 to 2016 without winning a game away from home and have been outscored in their last four matches against Australia 224-18. A lack of regular fixtures means they’re ranked 15th in the world and are therefore the second lowest ranked team in the World Cup.
But the knock-on impact of the Hunters is already being felt in the national side. The Kumuls have won their last two Tests, against Fiji in 2016 and the Cook Islands earlier this year.
The Hunters have provided 10 players for this year’s World Cup squad and four other players began their careers at the club before taking up deals with NRL, Super League or other Queensland Cup sides.
Papua New Guinea have only made the knockout stages of the World Cup once. But this is the best team they’ve ever assembled, certainly the team with the most exposure to elite football programs, training methods and matches.
The NRL contingent of skipper David Mead, centre Nene Macdonald and hookers James Segeyaro and Kurt Baptiste gives them craft and firepower. State Cup stalwarts Luke Page, Rod Griffin, Rhyse Martin and Super League veteran Paul Aiton lead a hard-nosed and grizzled forward pack.
Winger Garry Lo is poised to join Super League side Castleford after dazzling for Sheffield Eagles over the past two seasons. Another outside back, the towering Kato Ottio, scored 29 tries in 23 games with Canberra Raiders feeder club Mounties in 2016 and will push for an NRL debut next season.
Of the Hunters’ contingent, the star performers are rangy fullback Stargroth Amean, impact utility Willie Minoga and the Boas brothers, who formed a dynamic scrum base combination for club and country over the last two seasons.
The Boas boys hail from Kokopo, on the island of New Britain. Their home games for the Agmark Rabaul Gurias were played in the shadows of Tavurvur, an active volcano that last erupted in 2014.
Halfback Watson Boas enjoyed a fine season and scored a try in the grand final victory over the Sunshine Coast Falcons and five-eighth Ase Boas was the Hunters’ best player.
The Kumuls will be favourites in all three of their group games.
In picking up the Courier-Mail’s Queensland Cup player of the year award and winning man of the match in the grand final, Ase Boas proved he’s one of the top players outside of rugby league’s elite competitions and he could be playing for a possible NRL contract in this World Cup.
A compact, powerful runner with a good turn of pace and an excellent short-kicking game, Boas is also a dead-eyed goalkicker and is David Mead’s deputy.
Boas is one of the Hunters’ biggest success stories and the Kumuls are poised to produce players of his calibre for years to come. After just four seasons, the impact of the Hunters has helped the Kumuls name their strongest World Cup squad ever.
With all three group matches at home, PNG will be heavily favoured against Wales, Ireland and the USA. A quarter-finals berth should be the goal, which would mark just the second time in PNG history they’ve escaped the group stages.
Progress in international footy is always slow but the strides the Kumuls have made over the last few years are monumental. Mastering the chaos of rugby league in the country that loves it most is close to impossible — but channelling that passion into the proper avenues is a challenge worth undertaking, and one that will pay off in the long run for PNG.
SQUAD: Six players in the PNG squad have NRL experience but only two (winger Garry Lo and halfback Lachlan Lam) are playing at a level below Super League or NSW/Queensland Cup. The Kumuls have never had this kind of experience and cohesion in a World Cup before, despite playing only two Tests over the last two years. Kumuls coach Michael Marum also leads the Hunters on a weekly basis and has intimate knowledge of the 10 local players selected in the squad. Of particular interest is how Marum will handle dummy half — veteran Paul Aiton, the returning James Segeyaro and Canberra livewire Kurt Baptiste will compete for the job with clever Hunters man Wartovo Puara Jr.
BEST XVII: 1. David Mead 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Thompson Teteh 4. Justin Olam 5. Kato Ottio 6. Ase Boas 7. Watson Boas 8. Stanton Albert 9. James Segeyaro 10. Luke Page 11. Rhyse Martin 12. Rod Griffin 13. Paul Aiton 14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Moses Meninga 16. Wellington Albert 17. Willie Minoga
RANDOM PNG FACT: From 1996 until 2005 the Kumuls were coached by Bob Bennett, brother of Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett.
PREDICTION: Everything is set up for PNG to claim a spot in the knockout stages. Wales, Ireland and the USA will all travel to Port Moresby for the three group matches and the fanatical home crowd will no doubt lend the Kumuls a tremendous advantage. They’ll be warm favourites in all three games and should they win their group they’ll take on the runners up of Group A in Melbourne in the quarterfinals — we’re expecting that to be England. Look for the Kumuls to push the Poms hard and go down swinging in a physical encounter.