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Rugby league is an important educational tool in PNG

Adam Reynolds and David Nofoaluma (Daniel Potuku)TOM DECENT | Sydney Morning Herald

JOHNATHAN Thurston and Greg Inglis are helping educate schoolchildren in Papua New Guinea, even though they might not know it.

The popularity of rugby league is being used as a vehicle to teach PNG schoolchildren the importance of education and respect.

PNG is the only country in the world where rugby league is its national sport. The game plays such a big part in the lives of PNG children, who are not afforded the same benefits as kids the same age in Australia.

Education only became free in PNG five years ago, and since then, there has been a marked increase in the number of enrolled schoolchildren.

Two years ago the Australian Rugby League Commission – represented by the NRL – combined with the Australian and PNG governments to launch the Rugby League in School Pilot Program, more commonly known as the League Bilong Laif program.

As of this month, the program has been rolled out in more than 80 schools to more than 32,000 participants (48% female) and trained more than 800 teachers.

What makes this initiative different to other programs run by other sporting bodies is that education is the focus, rather than talent identification. Each participating class receives five sessions of rugby league-related on-field and in-classroom activities, but it is what happens inside that matters most.

One of the components is reading specially made league magazines that feature some of the kids' favourite NRL stars in Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis.

"We know that these students love rugby league," said former Papua New Guinea Kumuls player Mark Mom, who is the in-country general manager of the program. "When they see the resources with their superstars Johnathan Thurston [and] Greg Inglis, they're more inclined to enjoy what they're doing.

"We get the opportunity to reinforce the importance of having an education, the importance of being able to read and write and learn numeracy because these are life skills that a student needs to be happy and prosperous."

Half of the Prime Minister's XIII squad, who are in Port Moresby for a game against the PNG Kumuls on Saturday evening, helped out with video recorded  messages for the schoolchildren.

Players such as PNG legend James Segeyaro, skipper Trent Merrin and Canberra fullback Jack Wighton were more than happy to give a brief recap of their own educational experiences and spoke about what they had planned for life after football.

Meanwhile, the Australian squad was given some education of their own when they visited the Bomana War Cemetery located just south of the Kokoda track.

Players and coaching staff walked around for about an hour on Saturday morning and learnt how there were more Australian soldiers buried at the cemetery than any other in the world.

The ages of the soldiers, some as young as 16, hit home for some of the players as they paid their respects.  "It's something every Australian should do," coach Ivan Cleary said.  "These boys I'm sure will take a lot out of it. It makes you grateful for what you have." 


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