AHMAD KHAWAJABY | Real Sport
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TODAY: PNG Hunters v Penrith Panthers: 2.40pm (Queensland time) at ANZ Stadium, Sydney. Watch the game live on Channel 9
PORT MORESBY - “We will put up a fight for you. We’re gonna do it, and we will never back down.”
Those words from their team song are enough to tell you what the PNG Hunters are all about. A loyal following behind them, they are the only non-Australian based side in the whole of the National Rugby League, and they are out with a point to prove.
Four years after their formation, they were crowned as the first non-Queensland side to win the Queensland Cup (reserve grade) after defeating the Sunshine Coast Falcons in a dramatic final.
Today they have their biggest clash so far, against NSW Cup champions the Penrith Panthers in the In-Trust State Championship blockbuster.
How did they get here?
After finishing just outside play-off contention in their inaugural season in 2014, the Hunters were eliminated in the finals series in 2015 and 2016 but showed the positive steps being made.
This year was another step in their development as they dominated the competition from start to finish. They lost only four games on their way to the minor premiership.
The team has the ability to incur those basic errors but the physicality in their pack has meant they have been able to contain teams when required. It has meant on some occasions this season they have been able to grind out wins late in the game.
And while it was not their best performance of the season, the season culminated in their historic first premiership with a dramatic last-minute win over the Falcons.
It isn’t full of big stars, which shows the effort they have to put up just to get to this position. Eleven of the squad featured for the PNG national team, the Kumuls, in their international win against Fiji earlier in the season.
The Kumuls will also line up in next month’s World Cup held in New Zealand and Australia. Michael Marum, a four-test hooker for PNG, has been at the helm as head coach since their inception, besides having recently taken over the reins of the Kumuls as well. He was named Queensland Rugby League coach of the year at the annual awards recently held.
They have been able to recruit PNG-born players this season, including props the Albert brothers, Stanton and Wellington, who had come up through the NSW Cup ironically for the Panthers in their NSW Cup side. They have been instrumental in the Hunters’ success this season.
The team will also look to Queensland Rugby League player of the year and inspirational captain Ase Boas to be running the show as he so often has during the season.
Boas has been a point-scoring machine during the season, with the ability to kick a goal from anywhere on the field. He was also responsible for that miracle grubber kick that sent Willie Minoga in for the try that brought them level in last week’s grand final.
The journey back
This is PNG’s second inclusion into the Queensland Cup, with the Port Moresby Vipers representing them in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. This was in the pre-Super League era and the PNG side did not have a home base. As a result, costs of transport to and from Australia were too much to manage for the team’s financial situation, and they were not invited back to the competition the following year.
Back in 2011, the idea was to form a PNG based side to enter the NRL. An agreement was reached to send them into the feeder competition again at the insistence of former Hunters CEO Brad Tassell, however, this was not without reservations.
This included logistics of sending teams from Australia over to PNG, health risks and safety (pointing to instances of over-invested crowds having tear gas sprayed at them during the annual Prime Minister’s XIII match). Queensland teams indeed had to be looked after in this respect.
That it took nearly another two decades for the Hunters to be provided their platform was disappointing, but having seen the professionalism displayed on and off the field in their time in the competition, and the subsequent scenes that unfolded after their win against the Falcons, administrators are confident the right decision was made.
One which has helped extend rugby league’s reach in the right direction going forward. As QRL’s former General Manager of Major Competitions reflected on the Hunters’ journey back, he noted, “whilst rugby league is a business, it’s a business built on emotion and that was on complete display last Sunday.”