How PNG rugby league routed racism
27 April 2022
When Dr Clarrie Burke died in January 2019, there was an outpouring of grief in Papua New Guinea and Australia for a man who spent his life “in the service of educating and uplifting others”, as one PNG Attitude reader wrote. This article was published in September 2012 in Una Voce, the journal of the PNG Association of Australia (since renamed Kundu), titled ‘The times they began a’changing’ - KJ
BRISBANE - The time: 3 pm; date: August 14; year: 1960.
Anyone living in or visiting Port Moresby in the hours leading up to that time would have reckoned with the endless unbroken lines of cars and swollen streams of ‘native’* people on foot being directed by traffic police from both sides of Hubert Murray Highway into Lahara Avenue.
At the other end of Lahara Avenue an enormous swirling bottleneck had formed as cars and people converged, jostling at the entrance to the town's main arena of gladiatorial combat: The Boroko Oval.
The main event of the year was due to commence at 4 pm and the level of anxiety in the expectant crowd outside the ground rose as thousands of hopeful fans began to get the message: there were many more people than tickets.
A lot of people were going to miss out due to the limited capacity of the ground.
At the T-junction of Hubert Murray Highway and Lahara Avenue, opposite Kriewaldt's Service Station, stood a conspicuous, double-sided sign pointing towards Lahara Avenue.
It gave out a 24/7 message to maintain the faith of the true believers and also to catch the eye of the ‘unenlightened’. The sign read: ‘Rugby League – The Greatest Game of All’.
The cause of this mass movement was the 1960 Papuan Rugby League Premiership Final between minor premiers, Kone Tigers, and runners up, DCA-QEA.
The spillover crowd was testimony to the fact that Rugby League had widespread support as a contact sport, not only from diehard European Rugby League fans, but more particularly from the many thousands of zealous ‘native’ followers living in and around Port Moresby.
Despite having played for Kone Tigers, my memory of the event, staged over 50 years ago, is disintegrating in much the same way as a ‘breaking-up’ digital TV image.
So, as some assurance of the veracity of this account, supportive information will be drawn from articles in saved editions of the South Pacific Post (16, 19 and 26 August 1960).
Respected sports writer for the South Pacific Post at that time, Bruce Fisher, reported on the game. Excerpts from Fisher's game report give some idea of the tense, but exciting struggle that took place:
Kone Tigers won the 1960 Rugby League premiership at Boroko Oval on Sunday, defeating DCA-QEA 21 points to 17....
The atmosphere was tense as the teams took the field. Kone, minor premiers, was determined to take the premiership in a final.
Likewise DCA showed from the kickoff that there would be no quarter given.
Kone fought all the way raising their game especially in the forwards to play their best football of the season.… (16/8/60)
What the report did not mention was the spectacle of the bumper crowd in attendance, particularly the ‘native’ presence on the staggered tiers in the ‘outer’, looking for all the world like a tsunami made up of intense and excited black faces: the wave seemingly halted in its tracks at the perimeter of the field of play.
Following the final whistle, the human wave burst out on to the oval: football heroes swept up and hoisted high upon upraised hands, carried, as if floating above the surging flood of euphoric spectators, streaming from all directions.
Memorable as that spectacle was, an issue of considerably greater significance for the future of rugby league in TPNG was being played out in 1960: an issue which was evident in games during the season, including the Premiership Final. A flashback will help put the issue in perspective.
I had just returned from a two-year Cadet Education Officers' Course conducted at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA). My first-year appointment was to a primary school in Port Moresby.
Early in 1960 I was contacted by the doyen of the Kone Rugby League Football Club for many years, Bill O'Brien.
Short in stature, and as broad as he was tall, Bill walked with a distinctive waddle and always appeared with a half-smoked cigar firmly lodged in the right-hand corner of his lips.
But he was some master operator when it came to the needs and expectations of his beloved Kone Tigers.
Bill had worked alongside my father at Treasury in Port Moresby in the mid-1950s.
Through that contact, he recruited me to play for Kone in 1957 while I waited to commence my cadetship in 1958, following secondary schooling in Australia.
During that contact in 1960, Bill not only sought my assurance that I would play for Kone again, he also invited me to join the Managing Committee for the football team.
I had developed great respect for Bill as a football team manager and saw membership of the Committee as both an honour and potential learning experience.
At the second Committee meeting of the year, Bill announced that he wanted to raise an issue which could have deep ramifications for both the short and long term future of Rugby League in the Territory (so-called at the time), and perhaps relations between Europeans and ‘natives’ more generally.
It could also arouse great controversy.
Bill began by outlining what he considered a myth which had been perpetuated in the Territory: that ‘native’ people should not play heavy contact sports such as rugby league, because they supposedly had a disposition towards enlarged spleens and, if subjected to heavy physical contact, there was a grave risk of bursting their spleens.
He explained that, after talking with "a number of medico friends", he had come to the conclusion that there was no medical verification of the lay ‘burst spleen’ belief.
Moreover, none of the medicos concerned sought to discourage, or put obstacles in the way of ‘natives’ playing Rugby League.
Bill had another string to his bow.
In the late 1950s, while working in the Education Department, he was responsible for coordinating "native" scholarship holders for study in Australian secondary schools.
He cited one student in particular who had completed his scholarship in 1959 and was living in Port Moresby at the time. Bill described him as:
A superb athlete, with a good head on his shoulders, who can run like the wind. He excelled at schoolboy rugby union and was as fit and healthy, if not more so, than his European schoolmates before, during and after games. In short, playing football didn't curb his brilliance as an athlete or affect his health.
Bill further explained to the Committee that the myth of ‘burst spleens’ had not reached Australia, and needless to say, no ‘native’ youths had suffered from the condition while playing rugby union to the age of 17 or 18 in Australian secondary schools.
To be specific, the young ex-scholarship holder that Bill referred to was Sir John Kaputin, known to many for the controversy surrounding his personal life, as well as for his high-profile careers in business, politics and Government service.
After due consideration of the racial, social and ‘medical’ ramifications of Bill's proposal to invite John to join the Kone Tigers, the Committee decided that Bill should first talk with John about the possibility and the associated ‘issues’.
Then it would be left to John to make up his own mind in his own good time. If he agreed, immediate steps would be taken to enable him to join the team with a minimum of red tape.
Suffice it to say that John became the season's leading try scorer as winger for the Kone Tigers in the 1960Papuan Rugby League Competition.
He was fresh out of high school and this was his first experience of rugby league: the senior competition at that!
All the more amazing was that he made the Papuan Firsts representative team to play New Guinea in the first of two representative matches in his debut season.
Commenting on his preferred team for the second representative match between Papua and New Guinea in September, Fisher wrote in his column:
Kaputin has the speed and guile to worry New Guinea. His courage is beyond question. Fitness seems to be his biggest worry.
“He has been ill and has not been playing at his peak in recent games. Still he has the potential and should win selection. (19/8/60)
However, as it turned out, John was dropped to the Seconds representative team following his loss of form during the season. Fisher commented that:
Kaputin has not been defending well and rarely have we seen from him the ankle high tackles which marked his first games in the competition. (26/8/60)
While John's ‘ill-health’ undoubtedly affected his form as the 1960 season progressed, there were those who attributed his fading form to another, more sinister cause.
This matter must surely have preyed on his mind from one game to the next, and eroded his enthusiasm for playing in this (up-to-1960) essentially European competition.
The ‘issue’ mentioned earlier was reported in the South Pacific Post’s daily front page column, The Drum:
This season is the first year native players were allowed to join their equals on the great field of Port Moresby Rugby League, where, and here we quote the sages, "only ability counts".
But of course there are the morons. They had to have their say, and during these games, scattered through the general shouting, came the cries of ‘get the wash boy’ and so on.
You'd think the League committee would have got off their tails, or at least a few of the spectators taken it on themselves to dispense with a little summary justice. Ah, but no! (16/8/60)
It was obvious that John was the one targeted for that abuse.
While Fisher reported that "[Kaputin] has shown he has the strength to 'take it' [i.e. physical challenges on the field]” (16/8/60), it must have been immensely more difficult ‘taking it’ from prejudiced tormentors located anonymously in the tightly packed European Grandstand crowd.
There they benefited from the added protection of high fences which kept out those who did not hold Grandstand tickets, that is, ‘natives’, who at that time were not permitted to enter premises (such as the Grandstand) where alcohol was sold or consumed.
The situation must have been all the more intolerable for John, knowing that the contemptible gibes could be clearly heard all over the ground by thousands of his countrymen.
The smart aleck hecklers seemed to think that it was their colonial privilege to poke fun at or abuse ‘natives’ in whatever manner that drew laughter from their kind.
The fact that alcohol flowed to excess in parts of the Grandstand only served to bring out the uninhibited prejudiced state of mind in some, and the abuse that ensued.
I couldn't help but observe at the time how the utterances of this small minority cast a shadow over the great majority of relatively decent European followers, as well as the game itself, for some time.
Having a sense of John Kaputin's ability and potential as a young sportsman, I have often wondered since, what heights he may have reached as a rugby league player by the end of the 1960 season, had he been universally admired and respected for his exceptional skill and his unassuming nature as a man—and not victimised by a mean-spirited minority for his race and second class social status in the colonial society of the day.
I am sorry to say that I lost contact with John in the years immediately following his debut season in the Papuan Rugby League Competition, largely due to my postings away from Port Moresby, as well as his relocations.
I have bumped into him occasionally, later in the intervening years, but John's time with the Kone Tigers has never come up.
The life of John Kaputin outside of the 1960 rugby league season is beyond the scope of this account.
In the pages of rugby league history in Papua New Guinea, John Kaputin deserves to be depicted as a trailblazer who opened the door, setting the scene for the gradual ‘localisation’ of Rugby League in the Port Moresby competition.
In due course this laid the platform for the thriving indigenous rugby league competitions which exist today.
Perhaps it is fitting that history should also record Bill O'Brien's farsightedness and his astute untiring efforts to this end.
By way of postscript it should be mentioned that, despite John's "loss of form" in the games leading up to the 1960 Premiership Final, he still managed to score "two invaluable tries" in the Final which was marked by tight defence.
* Note: The word ‘native’ is used advisedly and with respect—in quotation marks—to indicate its official usage at that time and to relate the story in the 1960 time-frame
Dr Clarrie Burke was a Kone Tigers Player between 1957 and 1960 and played in Lae in 1961-62. He worked in the PNG Education Department from 1957-75. His final appointment before retirement was as associate professor and director of the Research Centre for Leadership and Policy Studies in Education at Queensland University of Technology
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