280 Clubs, 15,000 Players - Papua New Guinea Has All The Feels For Rugby League

The Island nation has given Great Britain a raucous welcome
19:00, 15 Nov 2019

"The love from the people we receive, the smiles we get when we go into breakfast, it's like nothing I've ever seen before.

"It will stay with me for as long as I have a working memory."

Great Britain rugby league captain James Graham is loving life in Papua New Guinea as the two sides prepare to clash for the first time since 1996. The entire Lions squad has been visiting schools and villages of a nation completely in love with their national sport and the Brits have been treated like A-list celebrities ever since they touched down.

The GB coach, Wayne Bennett, has echoed Graham’s sentiments, telling the BBC: "I have a soft spot for PNG. They like their rugby league so much, it's overwhelming.

"They all think they know me. They see me on TV and think I'm a personal friend. It's nice."

So how on earth did an Island nation in the south Pacific become so obsessed with a sport which originated 8,500 miles away in the north of England?

Well, rugby league was introduced to the country during the gold rush in the 1930s when Australian miners introduced the sport to the locals. In the Second World War, the sport began to gain momentum as Australian soldiers who were stationed in the country continued to play and in 1949, following the end of the war, the Papua New Guinea Rugby Football League was founded. 

Over the next 20 years, crowds began to grow and rugby league became massively popular around the country, eventually being adopted as the national sport. Until that point though, the locals were largely just excited spectators rather than players, with Australians and New Zealanders regularly coming over to play. By the 1970s, however, the tide had begun to turn and there are now 280 clubs and over 15,000 registered players on the island.

Stanley Gene became one of the folk heroes of the British game after moving from his hometown of Goroka to play for Hull Kingston Rovers, Hull FC, Huddersfield Giants and Bradford Bulls in the Super League. And he remains one of PNG’s proudest exports to this day, having shown modern-day players what can be possible for a person of humble beginnings.

"Rugby league gave me everything," Gene explained to BBC Sport. "It helped educate me - the field was like going back to the classroom. It gave me confidence to talk and a language to speak.

"I appreciate that to this day and it's why I like to give back. And there is a lot in PNG to help with.

“The best thing I did in rugby league was going back to my village in 1997 and turning a tap on - seeing water come into the village and helping stop kids from going down to the river every morning. That first year in England I saved about £200 or £300 because I just had to sort it out and get running water."

With rugby league players becoming national heroes on and off the pitch, PNG has provided NRL and Super League stars such as Adrian Lam, Marcus Bai and current Catalans Dragons back David Mead. And the fervour among the country’s population has only grown as a result.

The game this weekend will be a repeat of PNG’s first test match, which Great Britain won 40-12 back in 1974. Eleven years later they played in their first World Cup and have been ever-presents in the seven tournaments since then, with their best result coming in the 2017 edition which they co-hosted, reaching the quarter-finals.

Already qualified for the World Cup in England in 2021, things are looking bright for this fanatical rugby league nation whose fans are setting them apart from the rest of the world.

Sporting Calendar