The National, Wednesday February 26th, 2014
IT IS the first month of the Papua New Guinea Hunters’ revolutionary rugby league experiment being conducted in a dilapidated police academy.
Their 25-man squad, all of whom arrived with talent but most without shoes, are about to discover how serious coaches are taking the team’s entry to the Intrust Super Cup.
The players inside this Big Brother-like compound of league devotion, a three storey brick dormitory called Hunter House, have returned from their inaugural “free day” and are surprised with breath tests.
One player, a star player, returns a low alcohol reading.
He is instantly dismissed from the camp, dreams evaporated, the celebrity status he earned stripped.
Welcome to the most intense and dedicated rugby league club in the world.
The Hunters are the first league side where players and coaching staff eat, drink and sleep together every day.
Their strength and conditioning coach Jason Tassell lives on the floor of the compound’s lounge room to act as a security guard.
In a river-bed town called Bomana where tourists occasionally visit the Pacific’s largest war cemetery, housing 3,823 graves, the Hunters train three times a day, six days a week.
Their gym is across the road from the dormitory, inside a Chinese-built hall now loaded with $200,000 (K460,000) worth of equipment.
Open the back doors to the gym and you find their training field.
It is functionality NRL clubs dream of but few NRL players would submit to.
Each Hunter is paid exactly the same weekly wage, deposited into bank accounts set up by management.
From 20-year-old’s to the five Kumul Test players in the team, the pay-packets are identical.
It has been six weeks since the inaugural cull and every Hunters player understands NRL-level professionalism is the benchmark.
Despite their rookie status the Hunters will become the code’s most watched club this season, attracting television viewership numbers NRL clubs would never get close to outside of a grand final.
Performance expectations are tempered inside the camp, where players wash their own laundry and dry it on the pavement outside their six by three metre rooms.
As a stray cat leers at softly spoken Hunters captain Israel Eliab, he says the share house has already made them better players.
Eliab’s first kicking coach was infamous ex-Brisbane Bronco Julian O’Neill, who has been coaching rugby league while working in PNG’s mines.
Those who have watched five-eighth Eliab closely, including Kumuls coaches Mal Meninga and Adrian Lam, predict an NRL future.
“We are dedicated to rugby league now. We are cut off from our families and just send them money,” the 23-year-old says.
“We have been away for almost two months now.
“It is normal for us. We all have different cultures and languages and this helps us bond. This is about us coming together.
“There are so many different provinces so we all just speak pidgin english to communicate.
“We are still adapting to the new lifestyle. The food is different.
“There’s no rice anymore.”
The players need to be dedicated to the team to persevere through living conditions a German backpacker would hesitate to sleep in.
While the gym is far removed from the Rocky-like cliches many predict, the rooms are everything you expect from a barely used PNG police academy.
Beyond the random dogs, cats and toads that meander through the dormitory there are single mattresses which cut into your back and paper-thin walls.
Yet the Hunters have a ball, playing guitar, singing, and wrestling.
Local children from the area have become part of the club.
Ten-year-olds finish school and rush to the ground to help set out cones for the coaching staff.
Those coaches predict consistent performances are 18 months away.
However, without their 24/7 league life, win streaks would be several years in the making.
In a rented office inside Port Moresby’s Holiday Inn, Hunters chief executive Brad Tassell says the reason for this fascinating Big Brother-style experiment is necessity. Tassell has led the country’s rugby league administration out of the dark ages when officials wasted money attempting to win an NRL licence.
Tassell even has a league field in the remote village of Chimbu named after him because he was the first white person to visit since independence in 1975.
He loves this country and its people but said the bad habits of players had to be broken.
“We have to play catch up,” Tassell said.
“They began training in January and debut in the Intrust Super Cup at Redcliffe next Sunday.
“We had 12 weeks to train these guys before the first game and the first two weeks were teaching the technique of lifting weights.
“Most of these guys had never done a squat before. A gym in Papua New Guinea has 18 bench presses and that’s it.
“All players and coaches are drug tested and breath tested regularly.
“No one is allowed to chew betel nut (a natural mild stimulant that paints teeth red) as it is an appetite suppressant.
“It had to be done this way because we have players from throughout very remote regions all coming to Moresby to play football.
“There are 800 languages and 16 provinces in this country.
“They live together and are a true team. They are great guys and have really bonded.
“This country has a real hunger for success. We think with the talent here, if managed correctly, we can be a success.”
The Bomana police academy is only a temporary base.
In April they move to “Hunter Village” in Kokopo, a collection of purpose-built rooms and halls that will be a more liveable camp.
Kokopo is an idyllic slice of Pacific paradise on the edge of a volcano.
The team’s home games will be played there in an 8,000 seat stadium with volcano views.
The violent myths of Papua New Guinea have never rung true in Kokopo, a 90 minute flight from Moresby.
Visiting clubs will not want to leave.
In Kokopo, where the local league team is called the earthquakes, the streets are free of the burning rubbish that suffocates Port Moresby.
The region will be shown off this year as Hunters’ management and the Queensland Rugby League are poised to sign a broadcast deal with mobile network provider Digicel, which is using the Hunters to launch their own television channel.
The broadcast will reach five million people and network officials expect a minimum viewership of two million for all games.
The station is flying their own production crew to all Hunters games, from Kokopo to Ipswich, their cameras will be there.
Moving the team to Kokopo is a stake in the ground.
The politics, in-fighting and violence which plagued the sport will no longer be tolerated.
Rugby league is this country’s national pastime yet it is cloaked in a cultural cringe.
For 20 years the sport was banned in schools. The ban was lifted only recently when the Hunters began restructuring the way league was administered.
“Rugby league is thought of as a sport for people with brawn not brains,” newly instated Hunters chairman Sandis Tsaka said.
“This is like a Phoenix, we are building from the ashes.
“In the past, the organisation did not have, for a lack of a better word, competence.
“There was no institutional structure. The big task on my hand now is delivering pathways. The last six or seven years we had political infighting within rugby league.
“My challenge is creating a rugby league body that is competent and effectively delivering rugby league throughout the country.
“Only people’s passion for the game has kept it alive.
“This is the rebirth.”
– The Sunday Mail