The National, Tuesday September 22nd, 2015
DESPITE a somewhat disappointing end to their 2015 finals campaign the Papua New Guinea Hunters have proven beyond doubt that they belong in Queensland’s top rugby league competition.
Finishing second on the ladder in only their second year in a competition of the stature and quality of the Queensland Cup is something to be proud of and shows a bright future in store for the South Pacific Brewery-sponsored team, and indeed PNG rugby league.
If expectant fans were hoping to see their side make the grand final and win the competition in one fell swoop than they would be disappointed but the successes the team has had are worth mentioning when one considers this team was made up of players who had the potential to but lacked the opportunity to express that talent.
The Q-Cup gave them that chance and players like captain Israel Eliab, hooker Wartovo Puara, half back Ase Boas and fullback Stargroth Amean responded with inspiring performances that only underscored their value as footballers of a high calibre.
Noel Zeming’s goal-kicking (at an 80 per cent success rate) was another talking point with the Morobe man now considered the country’s best in the role.
As a team the improvement and progress made from one season to the next was quantifiable.
The statistics do not lie. The Hunters improved beyond expectation this season after an impressive debut season last year where Michael Marum’s side just missed out on a playoff spot.
That side won 14 matches, lost nine and drew one in a solid start to its journey in an Australian sports competition.
In 2015 the Hunters won 18 matches, lost three and drew two which saw the side go neck and neck with the Townsville Blackhawks for the minor premiership.
The Hunters built an unbeaten streak that stretched over 17 matches and included two tied contests but they were undefeated at home in 12 matches and more impressively turned a 2-8-1 record on the road in their inaugural year to a 6-3-2 in 2015.
They are the only side in the competition to have beaten this year’s grand finalists Townsville and Ipswich twice in the regular season.
Several stars were unearthed over the course of 2014 none more popular than winger Gary Lo. The Western Highlander took the competition by storm topping the try-scorers list with 24 touch downs and wowing the crowd in home and away matches.
But Lo disappeared back into obscurity after a failed attempt at a career in the United Kingdom which saw him return home and banished to the Digicel Cup.
His experience serves as a cautionary tale for fellow players on pitfalls of success in sport.
Coach Marum and his players proved that they were not just going through the motions in their second season.
The side showed more polish to their style and their attitude had been fortified after a full season of the Q-Cup under their belts as well as living and training in a regimented set-up.
The overall improvement in the Hunters was marked by quality wins over the Towsnville Blackhawks in Round 11 at Jack Manski Oval and the Ipswich Jets at the North Ipswich Reserve in round 22.
The Blackhawks game was won 22-16 and would perhaps be considered the best defensive performance the side put on collectively and individually so far.
The 32-14 win over the Jets 11 weeks later was proof that mentally the Hunters could rise to the occasion.
Of course there were memorable wins over the season with the side’s 38-32 come-from-behind victory over the Burleigh Bears to win the Kokoda Cup on April 26, a stand-out performances not because of the side’s skill and talent on display but its never-say-die attitude and self-belief when faced with adversity.
Marum was recognised for shaping a group of players with no Q-Cup experience into a formidable outfit capable of winning the competition a season after finishing out of contention of the playoff. That achievement was no small feat and the 41-year-old was bestowed 2015 coach of the year by the Queensland Rugby League.
Eliab claimed the five-eighth of the year while Puara had the respect and admiration of the fans who voted him the People’s Choice award.
The Hunters are a success story and should be viewed as a team, a group of men living up to their footballing potential as well as blazing a path and giving league fans in this country something to cheer for.