Inside Papua New Guinea’s bid to become the 18th team in the NRL

Inside Papua New Guinea’s bid to become the 18th team in the NRL
  • PublishedDecember 18, 2023

The sun has just risen, humidity is already sky high, and the heat is beating down but the Papua New Guinea Hunters (PNG Hunters) are barely bothered as the players sweat through a pre-season hit out.

Australian rugby league teams know these brutal training sessions well, but there is another level to it in Port Moresby’s tropical climate.

The club has played in the Queensland Cup for the past decade, and now PNG is pushing for a team in the top competition.

“There is no other country in the whole world where you have rugby league as its number one sport; PNG has that title,” PNG Prime Minister James Marape told 7.30.

“It is our national sport, and it will do justice to rugby league for the 18th team of the NRL to be stationed out of Port Moresby.”

14 men are lining up on a field, behind them is a large crowd, they all wear red and yellow sport shirts and black shorts
The PNG NRL bid board has already begun assessing the fields in Port Moresby.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) wants to expand the NRL within the next few years.

Perth, Brisbane, North Sydney and New Zealand would all like to be home to the 18th team, but PNG has emerged as the front-runner.

The PNG NRL bid board is in charge of turning that momentum into reality and is working on a concrete proposal over the next six months.

The board has already begun assessing the fields in Port Moresby and has just started developing a financial model for how a club would operate.

Putting the building blocks together

Earlier this year, the board worked with reigning NRL champions, Penrith Panthers, to develop a junior players academy, which the Australian government also invested $5.5 million into back in July.

“We [are] basically learning from Australian clubs to start to put those building blocks together,” bid chairman Wapu Sonk said.

“We have the right sort of ingredients to make it a very strong proposal.

“We have the population there which will be our biggest supporting base, we have Telstra in [the] country now for televising live across the country.”

Man in a navy suit with a white shirt and red tie.
Wapu Sonk said that Papua New Guinea has the right sort of ingredients for a strong proposal.( ABC News: Craig Hansen )

There isn’t yet a name for the proposed club, but the PNG Hunters is the proposed feeder team, developing young players who could then join the top competition side. 

The board plans to initially set the club up in Cairns and eventually move to a permanent base in Port Moresby.

“What [the] NRL is basically saying to us is that if there was a successful PNG team [bid], it would enter the competition in 2027; it could be brought forward to 2026, it really is subject to the NRL,” Mr Sonk said.

‘A national unity strategy’ 

Mr Marape is hopeful a decision will be made before 2025 — ahead of his country’s 50th independence anniversary — because the proposal means more to him than just another footy team.

James Marape wearing a black suit and a blue shirt with a black and red tie.
James Marape, PNG Prime Minister, says that 12 million enthusiastic rugby league supporters will be on board right away.( ABC News: Craig Hansen )

“In our country of many diversities, having a rugby league team will unite a nation just like Nelson Mandela united his nation behind rugby union,” he said.

“So in our bid to the NRL it will include that dimension, other team bids will not include that dimension, it’s just another sport for them.

“For us, it is not [just] sport, it is a national unity strategy.”

Australia also sees benefits beyond the field.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has vocally backed the bid and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade believes a “PNG team in the NRL would resonate deeply in the bilateral relationship”.

Dr Gordon Peake is the host of Statecraftiness, a University of Adelaide podcast which investigates foreign influence in the Pacific.

He believes Australia is onto a “winner” with a potential NRL team based in PNG. 

“Presently Papua New Guinea is at the centre of a game that is going on in the Pacific, where different countries in the region, Australia, China, the United States, France, India … are competing for influence in the Pacific,” Dr Peake said.

“Rugby league is part of Australia’s efforts in this game of statecraft that is going on.

“Let’s be clear about it. This is not just a selfless act, but I think that it is tapping into something that is definitely tangible and real.”

A rugby player poses for a selfie with members of the crowd, they all smile.
Dr Peake believes Australia is onto a “winner” with a potential PNG NRL team.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

The proposal, however, would rely heavily on Australian government funding.

7.30 understands the two countries are in discussions about a potential decade-long agreement worth more than $100 million.

“It is very crucial for funding support … we have very strong support from business houses so they will step in and eventually take over and replace that government support so it will be sustainable going forward,” Mr Sonk said.

“I want to give assurance to the Australian taxpayers and everyone that we don’t intend to be spoon fed or baby fed for a long time … we intend to stand on [our own] two feet going forward into the future,” Mr Marape said.

Australia already invests heavily in PNG and this financial year it is forecast to spend $616.2 million in foreign aid going towards measures such as infrastructure and border security.

‘The greatest untapped market for rugby league’

Dr Peake believes spending money on sport may garner greater support from the people of PNG.

“Most technical assistance programs are quite dry and mechanistic in nature that are meant to appeal to the head,” he said. 

“The difference I think with this NRL bid is that it’s in many ways trying to appeal to the heart of Papua New Guineans, tapping into Australia’s uniqueness when it comes to rugby league.

“Australia has tried to maximise the advantage that it has there by using something that no other state could actually bring.

“Papua New Guinea has two religions: one is Christianity and the other is National Rugby League. It’s really hard to overstate the importance.

A crowd of NRL fans is pictured, they are cheering. Some hold flags and wear team jerseys.
PNG considers rugby league its national sport.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

“Papua New Guinea is probably the greatest untapped market for rugby league.”

The ARLC is trying to increase the competition’s audience globally and will kick off next year’s season for the first time in Las Vegas.

It will have to weigh up if the PNG bid is viable and fits in with its expansion plans.

“The assurance I could give to NRL and everyone is that you brought on board right away 12 million crazy rugby league supporters behind NRL and behind the team,” Mr Marape said.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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