Let’s include our neighbour in the fun and games
One element of the Rugby World Cup came through loud and clear. This was a Pacific event.
Three Pacific island nations competed to rapturous receptions. When the Tongan team arrived in New Zealand they were greeted by 10,000 members of the Tongan community who lined the streets from Auckland airport.
From Papua New Guinea to Samoa to Niue there were Pacific players representing teams from Wales to Australia to the All Blacks themselves.
The Kiwis were keen to project the Pacific through the World Cup. Next to Auckland Harbour, the main public live site was an incredible facility called the Cloud. As thousands of fans gathered here to watch their heroes play they found themselves in a magnificent pavilion celebrating all things Pacific.
The cultural lesson from this is that sport plays a massive role in the identity of the contemporary Pacific.
Significantly it is Australia’s sporting traditions more than any other which permeate the region. While the World Cup has been huge in the Pacific, on an annual basis the biggest sporting event in the region is the League State of Origin. When these games are played the light from TV screens across the Pacific burns bright.
Acknowledging this, the Australian Government has committed $15million to the development of sport in the Pacific from junior soccer programs in Kiribati to supporting netball coaches in Samoa.
These programs are tackling obesity which is becoming endemic. They are providing a sense of purpose to adolescents who might otherwise make destructive choices born of despair. And they are developing leadership in a new generation who are the hope of the Pacific’s future.
But the benefits of sport are not only derived by those who play. Being a sports fan, as the World Cup demonstrates, is a positive choice as well and one which is deeply rooted in culture.
Last week, as the All Blacks and France were preparing for battle, I spent the week in Papua New Guinea where an intriguing prospect is emerging for PNG sports men and women and sports fans alike.
There are now credible plans afoot for PNG teams to take their place in Australian sporting competitions.
It has been a long held dream in PNG to have its own team in the NRL. While this may not be a prospect for a long time, establishing a team in the Queensland Rugby League is a serious proposition within the next few years.
Such a team would be highly competitive and provide a pathway to the NRL allowing many more Papua New Guineans to follow in the footsteps of former NRL stars Marcus Bai and Adrian Lam. Games could be broadcast in PNG and from there a fanatic fan base would be inevitable.
The AFL also has its sights set on PNG. Last week I co-chaired the first meeting of the PNG AFL Taskforce along with the PNG Foreign Minister Ano Pala. AFL has a long tradition in PNG with the game having been played there for decades. A handful of PNG players are already on the international lists of a number of AFL teams and they hope to emulate their countryman Mal Michael, who was a three time premiership player with Brisbane.
As with rugby league, the focus is on grass roots development leading to establishing a PNG team in a second tier competition – the North Eastern Australian Football League – allowing it to compete against teams from the Northern Territory, Queensland, NSW and the ACT. Developing player pathways to the big time and broadcasting the game back into PNG are similarly on the table.
There will be many challenges to overcome before these aspirations are met. But realistic thinking and progressive planning in PNG is giving them a chance. And with a booming economy, even private sponsorship of PNG teams looks plausible.
PNG teams playing in Australian sporting competitions would be a revolution in PNG. They would provide, on a weekly basis, the kind of pride and identity that has been pulsating out of the Pacific during the Rugby World Cup. In a country with an large number of ethnicities and languages they would be a wonderful force for national unity. And with the many development challenges that face the country they would be a persuasive vehicle to deliver public messages.
There would be benefits on the Australian side of the border as well. The World Cup has been the stage for Will Genia to introduce many Australians to PNG. To have PNG teams playing regularly in our competitions would introduce Australians, in a much larger way, to the very best young men and women from Papua New Guinea.
And it is these men and women who in turn would surely become a powerful symbol of both an emerging neighbour and the bright future of the Australia–PNG relationship.
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