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Oz players on playing league against PNG: ‘I got hit by granite’

Australia v PNGJAMES BUCKLEY | Fairfax Media | Edited extract

SYDNEY - Speak to anyone that's played rugby league in Papua New Guinea, and they will all furnish you with unbelievable stories of the insatiable passion the locals possess for their national sport.

PNG is a developing and diverse country with more than 800 languages, high crime and significant unemployment, but rugby league is the constant that unites its eight million people.

But when their Australian heroes come to these shores for the annual Prime Minister's XIII fixture against Papua New Guinea, played yesterday, quite often that lust for the game bubbles over into tragedy.

Cronulla back rower Wade Graham played his first PM's XIII match in 2012 and it's an experience he'll never forget.

"The grandstand collapsed the year I was there and a few people died, it was pretty full on," Graham said.

"It's the passion they have for the league here, it's very unbelievable.

"It's one of those things you can try to explain it, but until you experience it you just don't understand it."

From the moment the Australian contingent lands in PNG until they depart a few days later, the players are treated like rock stars.

Everyone wants a piece of them, from machine-gun wielding security guards who crave nothing more than to pose for a photograph with their idols, to the locals on the street who sprint after the team bus.

But it's the children who leave the most lasting memories, both good and bad.

They know all of the players, and religiously refer to them by their surnames. At a clinic on Friday morning, screaming cries of "Dugan" preceded his swamping by a delighted mob of local schoolkids.

Tedesco, Klemmer, Maloney and co all received the same treatment.

The Australian players are strongly advised not to throw team kit outside the team bus while in transit, particularly when they're surrounded by fans on leaving the airport.

One year a prized piece of merchandise was flung out to the masses and a young boy barely six years old arrived first to haul it in.

Just seconds later an older kid, still not even a teenager, arrived on the scene, landed a few haymakers on the youngster and tried making off with the loot.

Almost instantly two burly security guards appeared, one of whom thrust the butt of his gun towards the older child, breaking his jaw and knocking him to the ground. They then returned the prize to the first kid on the scene.

This is commonplace in Papua New Guinea, and there's certainly no age discrimination when it comes to controlling the crowds.

Sometimes the people take matters into their own hands, like the occasion when one of the team buses collided with another car on the road.

The gathering of excited fans who were following the team bus quickly turned on the driver of the car, and he barely escaped with his life.

The vehicles weren't as lucky, and upon driving past the crash scene a day later only two charred metal carcasses remained.

"It's a real eye opener," PM's XIII star Jake Trbojevic said.

"After that game the first year I did, kids were trying to get onto the field and the security were hitting them to get off. It's pretty different.

"You're like rock stars. Everyone's wearing jerseys and everyone knows that we're in town and they're all pumped up and chasing after the bus."

Rugby league is taking great strides in Papua New Guinea.

The Hunters play in today’s Queensland Cup grand final against the Sunshine Coast Falcons in just their fourth season in the local competition.

They're also one of three nations hosting the Rugby League World Cup this year, and the 15,000 capacity National Football Stadium, redeveloped two years ago, wouldn't look out of place in Sydney.

PNG is also growing rapidly as a nation, at least on the surface.

The mining boom is waning, but the government has still spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a sports infrastructure that could host the Pacific Games.

Next year Port Moresby will host the APEC summit, welcoming dignitaries from places like Russia and the USA. Such is the lack of first-class accommodation in town that three huge cruise ships will be docked in the port to house the international visitors during their stay.

Irrespective of the scoreline in the  Prime Minister's XIII clash, this is a game players never forget.

"I took the first hit last year and it was like I got hit by granite, it was that hard," captain Aaron Woods said.

"I'm sure they'll be coming out firing. We won by 50 last year but I felt that sore after the game, it was worse than an Origin."


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