The NRL stands at a pivot point, it must seek borders anew if it wants to remain relevant. While PNG might seem a radical proposition, their love for the game might re-ignite ours. Worth a try.
“The game needs to expand or it will die.” This was the stark warning which was given by the new National Rugby League Chairman, Peter Beattie. Sitting alongside CEO, Todd Greenberg, it was his first day on the job nd he delivered his remarks at the NRL’s Annual General Meeting. At the meeting, both Beattie and Greenberg outlined their vision for the game post-2022 and set the scene for the NRL to undertake what could potentially be the largest expansion of the code since the Super League folded back in 1997.
A number of proposed team bids have already been floated, and an expansion of the code will only help these existing bids further to become a reality. While domestic expansion will be a strong focus of the code’s expansionary vision (particular in South-East Queensland), perhaps the NRL should be taking a more serious look further ashore to fulfil their vision, in a “land of the unexpected”.
On a humid September Sunday afternoon last year, I found myself sitting amongst 12,000 other people at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, to watch the Intrust Super Cup Grand Final between the Sunshine Coast Falcons and the Papua New Guinea Hunters. While 12,000 people still made the large, 55,000 seat stadium look pretty empty, compared to the previous year’s grand final at the same venue, it was almost double the 6,500 strong crowd who had attended that match.
While the Sunshine Coast is only an hour’s drive due north on the M1, it was the Hunters fans that outnumbered the Falcons fans three to one, and many of those in attendance (including PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill) flew in from Papua New Guinea just to watch. I watched the game with a friend who has family in Papua New Guinea, and when I asked her a question about Rugby League being the national sport (of PNG), she said that “Rugby League isn’t just the national sport, it’s more like the national religion!”
The NRL now have a unique opportunity to consider such a bid and expand the game into a country where the people live and breathe their language every day, and where the sport is bigger than sliced bread.
The Hunters won that game, 14 – 12, and returned home to Port Moresby as national heroes. Upon their arrival at Jacksons International Airport, their flight received a water cannon salute on the tarmac, and they were greeted by thousands of people, who lined the streets of Port Moresby to see their victorious heroes drive past on their way home. It was through seeing the enthusiastic crowds at Suncorp Stadium that afternoon, and through seeing scenes such as the Hunters returning home after their Intrust Super Cup victory, that made me realise just how serious Papua New Guineans are about Rugby League.
On the 22nd of February, a few days after Peter Beattie delivered his stark warning to the NRL AGM, the Brisbane Broncos landed at Jacksons International Airport in anticipation for their pre-season exhibition match against the Hunters. As the team walked out of the terminal, they too were greeted by a few hundred cheering fans, in a scene not too dissimilar to the one the Hunters walked into on their return home a few months earlier.
The Broncos are by far the most popular NRL team in Papua New Guinea, so it was no surprise that their exhibition match at Sir John Guise Stadium against the Hunters sold out very quickly. There wasn’t a spare seat in sight amongst the 15,000 strong crowd who filled the grandstands, braving the glaring sun in order to see their sporting idols like Sam Thaiday, Darius Boyd and Anthony Milford play a game against the national heroes right before their very eyes.
Unfortunately for the Hunters, the Broncos were victorious in that display, but regardless of the result, the match, and the fanfare which surrounded the Broncos visit, was a strong showing of just how popular Rugby League is in Papua New Guinea, and it should ultimately pave the way for other clubs to host exhibition or pre-season matches in the land of the unexpected in the near future.
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The Broncos exhibition match, the Hunters Intrust Super Cup victory, as well as strong (sold out) attendance records for the three recent Rugby League World Cup matches that were held in Port Moresby at the end of 2017, can be used as strong evidence to help build a compelling case in support of a bid to establish an NRL franchise in Papua New Guinea. At the very least, it should compel the NRL to consider utilising Papua New Guinea as a staging ground for further exhibition and showcase matches to help build support for their existing clubs, particularly in the lead up to the 2022 season.
With the NRL outlining their expansionary vision, they now have a unique opportunity to consider such a bid and expand the game into a country where the people live and breathe their language every day, and where the sport is bigger than sliced bread. It is also an opportunity for existing teams to tap into new, under-resourced and under-utilised talent pools which exist right across the country.
Rugby League is in many ways, the essence of Papua New Guinea. It is a sport which is well engrained in the hearts and minds of its people. As my friend aptly put it that afternoon in September, Rugby League is more than just the national sport, it is the national religion. The time has come for the NRL to build a new church and allow an entirely new congregation to flock.
It is time for the Hunters.