Papua New Guinea is a land of 1,400 islands, 1,000 ethnic groups, 800 languages and one great love: rugby league. The game’s players are PNG’s high priests, from Australian legends like current national coach Mal Meninga, to home grown stars such as Melbourne Storm’s Marcus Bai and the latest batch, the PNG Hunters. Led by Marum, the Hunters are selected from the best of PNG’s national competition and since their establishment in 2014, have become the drawcard of the Intrust Super Cup, Queensland’s state rugby league competition.
After missing the finals series by one point in their 2014 debut season, this season has been a revelation. The Hunters lost three of their first six games, then went unbeaten in their final 17 matches, finishing just one point shy of the minor premiership. Their exciting brand of ‘calypso’ rugby league, featuring long range tries, free spirited backline play and fearless physical defence, has been supplemented by Marum’s strict discipline.
“The Hunters are the only professional rugby league team in the world that all live together 24/7,” said Marum. “It’s unique. They all get paid exactly the same amount every fortnight and for our society it’s good money.”
This sporting socialism has reaped collective and individual rewards. The softly-spoken Marum won the 2015 QRL Intrust Super Cup Coach of the Year, an extraordinary achievement in only his second year of coaching in Australia. He was joined on the honours board by Hunters players Israel Eliab and Wartovo Puara, who won five-eighth of the year and the Peoples Choice Award respectively.
Marum’s breakthrough achievement has been in bringing together players from PNG’s four major cultural groups: Highlanders, Papuans, Momase and New Guinea Islanders. In the time before Europeans, or “long taim bifo”, prior to a Highlands war raid the village big man would “make ropes”, creating a network of social obligations (via pigs and weddings) to ensure a sizeable war party.
To make the Hunters’ “ropes” strong, Marum ensured players from each cultural group roomed together, a simple philosophy that built team culture and deftly meshes this band of disparate warriors into a tight group of “wantoks”, or family.
“We speak in pidgin on the field but I keep teaching them English because some of them will need it,” explains Marum. The idea is for the Hunters to funnel players into the professional game, and in 2014 alone, five players left the Hunters to play in the NRL and England including Mark Mexico for Cronulla Sharks and Stanton Albert for Penrith Panthers.
This is not the first time a Papua New Guinea team has been represented in Queensland. In 1996 a previous attempt to enter a team in the competition ended in failure. The Port Moresby Vipers were like a voyage of the damned with management mishaps, sponsorship issues and diabolical results. The team sank without a trace after two seasons.
For Marum, the fires of indignation burned. “I was part of the Port Moresby Vipers failure,” he says. “We have learnt some very hard lessons including naming this team for the whole of PNG, not just one city.”
The previous attendance record at Jack Manski Oval in Townsville was 4,000. Then the PNG Hunters turned up for the QRL Intrust Cup major semi-final against Townsville Blackhawks last Saturday. Their supporters came from all over – fly-in, fly-out fans from Port Moresby and a convoy of cars from Cairns merged with those from Townsville’s local PNG community. The estimated attendance was a new record 5,000, the bursting black, yellow and red army of the Hunters sitting side by side with the green and white of the “home” team.
“Everywhere we go in Australia, sometimes under strict secrecy, even in the middle of nowhere, ‘wantoks’ will find us in two minutes,” explained Jason Tassell, the Hunters strength and conditioning coach. “It’s like the relatives have a ‘wantok’ radar.”
Students Zetro and Kaystar, Highlanders from Enga Province who were living in Townsville and studying engineering, were amongst the crowd. Painted as mythological bird men and decorated with miok feathers, their local bird of paradise and regional emblem, they believe rugby league is “perfect” for the people of PNG. “Our country comes here for one day and we are so proud,” said Zetro. “They are putting our name on the chart and if we win the cup it will make our case for an NRL team.”
At the first ever PNG Hunters game in Brisbane, fans were just grateful for the opportunity. Now, they have an expectation of excellence born from a deliriously successful season. Indeed the on-field success of the Hunters has echoed like birdsong across PNG, delivering regional television audiences bigger than any NRL club.
Off-field there have been some administrative, financial and cultural challenges. Getting the players off betel nut, a native Pacific seed which is chewed as a stimulant, remains a hurdle. Sponsors have been late to pay their debts, causing some cash-flow issues. The former CEO of PNG Rugby League, Australian Brad Tassell, returned to Australia earlier this year.
His brother Jason stayed with the team, supporting Shane Morris, the new CEO of the Hunters, and all difficulties aside, the team has delivered an economic boon to the QRL and its clubs. In just two years the PNG Hunters have earned the respect of the Queensland football fraternity, overcoming the doubters and challenging assumptions across the state.
Already a budding rivalry is developing between the Hunters and the Blackhawks – Saturday’s major semi-final was the third match-up between them this season, with the Hunters winning the first two and Townsville taking out the minor premiership. As the teams ran onto the field, PNG fans of every shade and group cheered and hooted at the top of their lungs, expectant of a glorious trifecta.
In the crowd, a PNG man yelled “Blackhawk down” every time a Hunters player pulled off a big tackle, a mother scolded her young boy repeatedly for banging the sponsor boards, and a couple of likely lads discreetly chewed betel nut, flashing blood orange smiles at the rolling crowd banter.
By half-time the home side led 14-6, and a flash dust storm crossed the ground as the Hunters players trudged off. It seemed to spur them into action – the Hunters fought back to trail 18-12 with 20 minutes remaining. But the rigid discipline of the Blackhawks prevailed, closing out a 26-12 win and ending the Hunters 17-match undefeated streak. As the final siren blared, the PNG Hunters said a team prayer and “wantoks” flooded the field to greet their disappointed heroes. Selfies were taken and family reunions sprouted around each player. Marum left the ground scowling at nobody in particular.
This Sunday, 20 September, the Hunters have a second chance at making the grand final in a sudden death game against the Ipswich Jets. But after last weekend’s game, as the support team assembled massage beds and wounded, limping players did their best to avoid eye contact with their prowling coach, it became clear that this season has already been a victory for PNG.
From the ice bin, Noel Zeming, a Momase man from Lae, PNG’s second biggest city, said he has completed his practical training to be a school teacher and is engaged to his childhood sweetheart. His “wantoks” are proud of him and he is living the dream. “Every PNG kid now wants to be a Hunter,” he said. “On TV every week, a team from right across PNG, from our own system, playing a beautiful style and winning.”
Halfback Ase Boas is a recent addition to the Hunters. A policeman from West New Britain in the New Guinea Islands, Boas couldn’t find the time to play last season, but this season his game has thrived under the professional structures and mentorship of Marum’s team. He is enjoying the ride while it lasts.
“I love to play rugby league but it’s good to have another job,” he said. “Helping people and serving people makes me feel good.” When asked about his favourite Hunters moment, he smiled: “Karaoke… seeing the players trying to sing in English is something very special.”
Wera was abandoned by his parents and brought up by the church. Without rugby league he feels he would have followed the path of his brothers and friends who “went the wrong way” and became criminal “raskols”, serving time in prison. “I turn my back to them and choose rugby league,” Wera says.
Since playing for the Hunters, Wera’s family story has brightened. He has purchased a small bar in Goroka and hopes to employ his family members. “My family’s bad ways have stopped because of me,” he explained. “I have taken care of them and they are trying to be good.”
For others, such as Israel Eliab, Wartovo Puara and Thompson Teteh, an NRL professional contract is the dream. Puara and Teteh trialled with the South Sydney Rabbitohs in January, and already Eliab’s supreme athletic talent has attracted attention from several clubs.
Iced, hydrated and patched up, the players eat while the support team packs the gear ready for the 4am coach trip to Cairns and flight to Port Moresby. The moment of truth arrives as the players dawdle into the meeting room for the dreaded debrief with Marum.
“I was lucky to be mentored by great Australians such as Bob and Wayne Bennett, Mal Meninga, Craig Bellamy and one of our own greats Adrian Lam,” says Marum. Now, he and his band of Hunters have helped to create a pathway for the next generation of PNG rugby league players and unified a nation. In PNG Tok Pisin or Pidgin they call it “tromai lek”– to thrust out your leg and start a great journey