Where the national game is rugby league
19 February 2022
NOOSA – In 2020, Rob Corra took on the massive task of producing a podcast for fans of rugby league – the self-styled ‘greatest game of all’.
Rugby league is also, uniquely, the national sport of Papua New Guinea, the only nation that has awarded it such a high honour.
Corra’s podcast ‘That’s The Way It Was’ made its internet debut in January 2021 looking back at the history and traditions of rugby league.
As part of his diving and delving, Corra decided that no review of the sport would be complete without including PNG, where its fans are arguably the most passionate in the world, sometimes to a fault as they fight each other to a standstill.
And so it was determined that Episode 20 of ‘That’s The Way It Was’ would be devoted to, and titled, ‘The History of Rugby League in PNG’.
“In a nation where communities are far apart and many people live at minimal subsistence level, the enthusiasm for rugby league has been theorised to flow from its role as an alternative to tribal warfare,” Corra says.
“PNG had made history in the 2000 rugby league World Cup by finishing top of its pool and qualifying for the quarter finals for the first time.
“Led by Adrian Lam, PNG lost the game against Wales but showed the rest of the rugby league world how far it had progressed.
“When the players returned home they were greeted as heroes by thousands of PNG fans. Rugby league in PNG had come of age.”
In assembling material for the program, Corra encountered numerous difficulties.
He discovered PNG Attitude early in his research, but tracking down the origins of the sport in PNG was a challenge.
So was trying to locate the people who, in the 1960s and 1970s, had turned rugby league into an activity of almost religious power.
But fragment by fragment, Corra assiduously pulled together the podcast, however there were still many gaps – and then he found his woman.
He came across Urith Toa, who works for the Port Moresby Rugby League, and she told him he must talk with David Silovo.
“He knows everything about rugby league in PNG,” Urith said.
And so Corra lined up an interview with Silovo, whose knowledge of the sport in PNG is indeed mountainous and who turned out to be everything Corra needed.
As well as being a sport historian, Silovo is on the judiciary committee of the Port Moresby Rugby League and an independent match reviewer for the Digicel Cup, PNG’s national, semi-professional rugby league championship.
Their first interview was done by phone and the audio quality was so bad the recording could not be used.
Pressed for time, Corra interviewed Silovo, by Skype. It was a near thing but the late January deadline was met.
“I finally got it done!” Corra emailed me. “Massive communication issues!”
As you’ll find out listening to the interview, the audio quality is sometimes frustratingly poor.
But the story, and especially Silovo’s contribution, is remarkable. It had me enthralled, poor feed and all, right through.
You can link here to the ‘That’s the Way It Was’ website
As Rob Corra says, for Papua New Guinea, rugby league is another bird of paradise.
Last night, the game between Fiji and Papua New Guinea was a grand spectacle, and a win for PNG.
Good luck to the Kumuls this year and on the fly for the next.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 26 June 2022 at 08:40 AM
I used to frequently watch rugby league games in Hagen in the 1970’s, the main grounds were at Rebiamul. Some international matches were played there also.
Looking back I think that the game helped to build respect among the spectators for players from all the different provinces.
There were many great players from the Hagen area. Some I recall are Philip Ralda (who later also played for Bradford Northern in England), Nixon Koi, Michael Koi, Robert Wayne, Joe Tep, Malcolm Culligan (just recently deceased). From Enga, Joe Tomerup and Paulus Akis were outstanding, and David Tinemau was one of the many great players from Chimbu.
There were also well known players from Rabaul, Kavieng and Papua.
At that time there were also several expatriates still playing, such as Ken Vincin and Jeff Vincin.
Bringing so many players together from all the different provinces, in my opinion, did help to foster a sense of national identity.
Posted by: Garrett Roche | 22 February 2022 at 07:47 AM
Very interesting episode. I recall the heady days in Port Moresby in the early/mid-1970s when the annual Papua v New Guinea matches were abandoned a few times due to riots.
After one encounter Waigani Drive was closed for a couple of days until the riots ceased.
Mal Meninga once noted that the Kumuls built up a huge lead in one match against the Kangaroos because the tear gas used to quell the pre-match riot was still dissipating - the Kumuls were acclimatised to this, the Kangaroos were not.
I was lucky enough to be at the 30th Anniversary of Independence Kumuls v Kangaroos match at Boroko... a great memory, even though I am an Aussie Rules guy.
The sooner PNG gets a team in the National Rugby League Competition, the better. The Hunters already have done PNG proud.
Posted by: Rick Nehmy | 20 February 2022 at 12:43 PM
It was once described by Mike Carlton as a game played by a handful of men in northern England with cloth caps and funny accents who ate black pudding and tripe, kept coal in the bath and did strange things with ferrets.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 20 February 2022 at 11:08 AM
Thanks for the interesting post which got me reading some old PNG Attitude posts and especially the link you gave to 'That amazing schoolboy encounter' (23 November 2011).
Hang on, there was one post by me!
Then I read on to find out a namesake was a famous Kone's player. That's the trouble with my surname.
I was one of six Williams in my high school class. Several with first initial 'A' and two with first two initials 'AJ'. So for my six years was known as 'AJF'.
The Welsh Guards had so many Williams we were generally known by the last two or even four numbers of our army serial number.
I was friendly with Stephen Batia manager of Huli Traders owned by ex MP Matiabe Yuwi. Steve was apparently a rugby player from Rabaul and I seem to recall he may have played for the national side. Anyone know if he was League or Union? I last saw him running his small shop in Lorengau in the early 1990s.
One of my many grandsons in PNG was a good schoolboy League player and one day I forced him to watch a Union match and he laughed when he saw the ball being kicked back so many times.
I note that the Pacific Islands Monthly article of the 1966 Sydney schoolboy match mentions 'copybook' tackling around legs. Don't see much of that in either codes on UK television.
In 1949 we were taught 'around the legs' tackling in training for Union during my first term at Cardiff High School if we wanted to bring down the 'big-ones' - that is if you had the guts to dive at your opponent's rapidly moving lower legs just above their studded feet.
No wonder our heroes these days mostly seem to try and grab sports' vests and shorts or make a dive for the cameras from behind or the side.
So many in almost all sports now glance up at the big screen to make sure they look good. The mighty Ronaldo, or the UK's Rooney in his day, were especially aware of their sponsors needing good photo shots.
Sadly or fortunately I had terrible swelling from a kick to the shin and after a week or so of very hot poultices and then minor surgery at home by our GP, I was excused from Rugby for six months.
That took me to start of summer term. Only other sport available was swimming and with usual bureaucratic foul up I remained on the list as one of the six chosen from my school house to swim for the remaining 5½ years.
Did so all year around and was even destined for a chance of a spot in the pool at Cardiff's Empire Games. Sadly National Service put an end to that.
Mind, saved a couple of tiny kids from flooded Saula River during my time in PNG so Welsh Rugby's loss was their gain.
My other Rugby moment was when my headmaster at Bruce Rock (240 km east of Perth in Western Australia) made me take two teams for a sport that played on a field I noted had four goal posts.
'Oh!' I thought. 'Is that for some strange sport?" Perhaps Gaelic football or an inter-school challenge between Bruce and the neighbouring Narrogin or Ardath communities.
I found out it was for 'Ozzie Rules', or AFL as the head called it. So there was I a new boy complete with a whistle with about more than 30 Ozzie kids aged nine and 10.
There were more than 15 a side. I thought there must be surplus numbers too small for another teacher to supervise so they were letting all the boys play.
Without my aid, the lads took their positions and I guessed that a blow on the whistle would start the ball rolling.
Using the Australian adjective I have since learnt over the years, it was bloody chaos!
I blew up for what was obviously a foul only to be told by a forthright farmer's son, “You can't do that, sir!”
That was a slur on my role as his mentor and teacher, so in a teacher's voice I told him “I AM the referee boy!”
Back he came. “We don't have referees in Ozzie Rules, only umpires!”
My mind boggled at the name they had chosen for this riotous game.
Then I blew for a definite clear case of offside.
My erstwhile adviser chirped up in his pre-adolescent soprano voice, “No offside in footy!”
So the melee carried on and I learnt I was supposed to have two more breaks than just half-time, saw scoring kicks through the outer section between the post. Another little pupil taught me was a 'behind'.
If there was a scoring kick I will never know but just remember being thankful to Hermes that I survived the four quarters.
Was my headmaster spying my lack of effort from a classroom window? I will never know but from then on I was involved with a group of mixed sex younger kids (or should I write 'gender these days?) who playing tunnel ball and other like games assisted by a female teacher.
She must have had doubts about the efficacy of the Welsh teacher training colleges responsible for lumbering her school with this useless £10 Pom.
As it happened, my three years of UK training to be a teacher of commerce and accounts were not required anywhere in this junior high school to which I had been posted.
So it was at the end of Term 2 that the Western Australian press advertisement extolling 'The last unknown' and 'A healthy outdoor life' soon saw me being trained again.
But this time kit was at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, with another ex-colonial from WA, ' Peter Lofty Barton-Hackett. The rest is history.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 20 February 2022 at 12:17 AM