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Australia scrape through in PNG - but Kumuls prove their case for an expansion side

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23rd September, 2023
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The Prime Minister’s XIII have picked up their customary win in Port Moresby, but were given an almighty run for their money by Papua New Guinean counterparts, with a back-and-forth game ending 30-18.

A late try from Tyrell Sloan put some gloss on the scoreline, but it came as the Kumuls pressed for a late equaliser following a performance in which they simply refused to go away.

The Australian outfit brought a bevvy of stars, with seven from last year’s World Cup squad plus the likes of Cody Walker, Nicho Hynes and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, but struggled to make inroads against a side largely without first grade talent.

There was an understandable lack of cohesion, but 17 errors across the piece told its own story. In previous years, this has been an exhibition, but from the moment Nene Macdonald opened the scoring after four minutes, it was clear that it would be a proper contest.

Every PNG charge was cheered by a packed house, and they grew in confidence as the game went on. This was the lowest points total they have conceded and the most points they have scored since 2012. The standard is cleary improving.

Moreover, with all eyes on a potential expansion, the fact that this side featured so few NRL players and yet performed so well speaks to how deep the river runs in PNG. 

Anyone wondering if there would be enough talent in a nation of 10 million that is utterly obsessed with rugby league was, again, given ample evidence that all it would take is pathways and cash to make it happen.

Anthony Albanese, watching from afar, might instruct the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to get the cheque book out.

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Hopefuls miss their mark

There are, of course, a lot of caveats here.This team met two weeks ago, and much as they are absolutely stacked with talent, that matters. The Australians played with 19 players, with only Josh Addo-Carr missing out from the travelling squad. 

The bulk of them also haven’t played for a few weeks, given the distance from the end of the regular season. It was very hot and very windy, which had a major impact on both sides.

But still: this was a Q Cup standard PNG side and Australia made very heavy weather of them. There were plenty of faces in there who would have wanted to advance their case for a Kangaroos jumper, but few did so. Indeed, the Foxx probably did by his absence.

Ben Hunt was smart and will certainly be in the squad. He played the game in front of him well, with two key assists from both dummy half and regular play. Murray Taulagi scored a nice try and keeps himself front and centre of the conversation for a wing role.

But beyond that, several cases were harmed rather than helped. None of Daly Cherry-Evans, Walker or Hynes made a case to be considered any higher than they were before today.

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With Cameron Munster and Nathan Cleary all but locks for the starting halves roles, that might not matter much anyway. 

For DCE or Walker, who do their best work as the smartest player in a system, a formless game with multiple halves against a defence for whom knocking your head off is their Grand Final is hardly an ideal situation. In a more conventional game, they would look better.

The centre role doesn’t look much more settled. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow got a long run, as did Zac Lomax, but neither set the heather alight. The big winners were Bradman Best and Kotoni Staggs. 

This game is a little like the first week of the Tour de France: you can’t win, but you can definitely lose. Last year, Selwyn Cobbo bounced himself out of a World Cup with a poor performance, and nobody today was bad enough for that to happen.

But, Hunt aside, it’s hard to say that anyone battered the door down either.

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PNG makes the case for the NRL

It’s impossible to even think of PNG rugby league at the moment without putting the performances into the context of a prospective NRL bid based out of the country.

As an event this was a success for PNG. On the day, it went off without a hitch and on the field, it brought all the good stuff that we love about the Kumuls: bell-ringing tackles, rocket-powered runs and passionate fans. 

On a more theoretical level, the squad assembled proved the raw materials are there. Don’t listen to people who tell you that there isn’t a talent pool for further expansion – just imagine what PNG would be capable of if they had had a fraction of the infrastructure that is available for Australians and New Zealanders.

This was a scratch team of guys from second grade and domestic competition, with only 100 or so NRL appearances across their entire squad, the bulk of them with Nene MacDonald, currently estranged from Leeds Rhinos.

PNG were missing all their best players and, as ever, looked a bit disorganised at times, but all the building blocks are there. 

There’s always a temptation to channel Shoeless Joe Jackson – “if you build it, they will come” – when discussing PNG’s prospects, but the feeling remains that they are the sleeping giant, rugby league’s great untapped resource of talent. 

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Albanese – who didn’t attend today – is intent on funding Pacific diplomacy through his favourite sport. He could do a lot worse than chuck cash at PNG’s pathways, because there’s gold in them thar highlands.

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