Kumuls can learn from the Kiwis

Focus, Normal

SOME Papua New Guineans have been criticising former Kumuls coaches Bob Bennett and Adrian Lam every time they picked Australian overseas-based players for the national team throughout their coaching careers since the 1990s.
When either Bennett or Lam announced his Kumuls line-up, opinion sections of the media would carry criticisms by “patriotic” Papua New Guineans who didn’t want the national team have anything to do with Australian overseas-based “white men” players.
Apart from looking for players from higher standard competitions, Bennett and Lam were coming from the view that the players raised in well organised competitions in Australia were introduced to rugby league at an early age. And such players have the right appreciation of the game and generally respond instinctively on the field of play.
It was considered that the attitudes and skills the Australian-based players brought into the Kumuls side could rub off on the entire team. With no junior programme in PNG, the local players were those who started playing rugby league late in their teens or in early adulthood and were not generally instinctive.
They were regarded as short on skills and attitudes that were regarded as second nature to the Australian raised players.
Those who took issue with the selection criteria accused Bennett and Lam of creating opportunity for their white men wantoks at the expense of locally-based “pure Melanesian” talent.
The critics charged that local players in the domestic SP Cup (now bemobile Cup) competition were mostly unemployed youths who work hard and deserve the national jumper more than their overseas-based compatriots who were already enjoying the privileges of a metropolitan country and
whose patriotism was doubtful.
They even claimed that the local competition was strong enough to provide all the players for the Kumuls team that can match the Australians and New Zealanders playing highly paid professional football in the National Rugby League (NRL).
 The commentators claimed in the same breath that PNG-based players needed to be “exposed” for possible overseas contracts.
That much had merit.
Every other criticism was something between xenophobic nonsense and patriotic hot air.
None of the armchair experts could acknowledge that Bennett and Lam were not breaking any law but were merely following international practice.
New Zealanders have been selecting their “overseas-based players”, many of who were not “pure Kiwis” but of Polynesian migrant background, for the Kiwis team for years.
The 2010 New Zealand team that thrashed our homegrown “pure Melanesian” Kumuls 76-12 last Saturday are “overseas-based players” who play mostly in the NRL competition in Australia and few  are from the Super League of England.
None of the Kiwis were from the “local competition” as whatever competition that is played in NZ is far below the NRL standard.
This year’s Kumuls squad is the kind of team that the critics cited above have been barracking for since Bennett inaugurated the concept of blooding overseas-based talent back in the early 1990s.
Gary Juffa and Stanley Gene have delivered to PNG a Kumuls team made up of “pure Melanesians” that critics have often wanted.
Only skipper Paul Aiton, Cronulla-bound fullback Ryan Tongia and reserve back Richard Kambo are products of the Australian game.
When Bennett resorted to scouting for talents across the rugby league landscape offshore, he identified some talented youngster and among them were the likes of Lam, David Westley, Bruce Mamando, Mark Mom, Ric Emmanuel and John Wilshere.
These players, along with their homegrown peers, went out to help the Kumuls stamp their mark on the world arena.
They competed well against the odds in the 1995 and 2001 World Cup tournaments when the Kumuls reached the quarter-final play-offs, the first time the national team had done it.
Along the way Gene, Marcus Bai and John Okul secured contracts in England during the 1995 World Cup campaign.
Whether these three products of the SP Cup would have succeeded had they played in a “pure Melanesian” Kumuls team without the involvement of Bennett and overseas-based players like Lam is debatable.
The new batch of Australian overseas-based and local Kumuls carried on the achievement of their predecessors into the 2008 World Cup and the inaugural Pacific Cup last year qualifying the Kumuls for this year’s Four Nations for the first time.
Suddenly, the Kumuls were becoming a force in international rugby league. The Kumuls’ ranking improved. The country was excited. The national government sponsored a bid for a PNG team in the Australian NRL competition.
Junior development was gaining the support that was long overdue.
The road ahead was suddenly looking clearer. This year’s Four Nations was a time to expound on the achievements so far. But, that is now not the case.
Those who feel that the approach, taken by the PNG Rugby Football League up to October last year, was a step in the wrong direction have to look no further than New Zealand.
The New Zealanders swallowed their Kiwi pride more than 20 years ago and courted Australian assistance. Period.
New Zealanders realised back then that they could not beat the Australia Kangaroos or be competitive on the international stage with players purely from their local competition.
The NZ domestic competition was mainly strong in the Auckland city region, with the rest of the country being the “heart land” of the 15-man game –  rugby union.
New Zealand was deemed a rugby league backwater and merely a breeding ground for potential talent for the Australian and English competitions where many New Zealanders were recruited to play.
The Kiwis realised that they are a small country, with a small population and economy that cannot sustain a strong professional competition to match the might of the Australia juggernaut and to a lesser extent England.
The rugby league fraternity in NZ also had to appreciate the dominance of rugby union with the All Blacks being a global phenomenon and an iconic benchmark of the sport.
Therefore, if New Zealanders were to be competitive in rugby league internationally, something radical had to be done.
The Kiwis thought out what was previously the unthinkable – a Kiwi team in the Australian domestic competition?
Serious investigations on the plan were carried out in 1988 for a NZ team in the New South Wales Rugby League (the predecessor of NRL) premiership then called the Winfield Cup.
On May 17, 1992, organisers announced that a New Zealand team called the Auckland Warriors, were to compete in the NSWRL beginning in the 1995 Winfield Cup Premiership.
The Auckland Warriors began their Winfield Cup campaign under the tutelage of an experienced Australian coach, John Monie, who was moving over from Sydney club, Parramatta Eels.
This successful NZ bid also benefited from the view of the Australians that if international rugby league was to remain viable, New Zealand had to be supported and an expansion of the domestic Australian competition was the way to go.
In due time, the Auckland Warriors changed their name to New Zealand Warriors with new owners taking over. The New Zealanders won their first premiership in the now very professional NRL in 2002.
With the New Zealand Warriors and its junior development programme and local competition making a head way, more and more talented Kiwi youngsters of the calibre of Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill William were making a beeline into the world’s toughest competition.
The lure of big money and big name in a big country has been too good a lure for the big Kiwi kids to refuse crossing the Tasman.
And, the young Kiwis are not ashamed nor feel unpatriotic for making it to Australia to play professional rugby league.
The New Zealanders would rather be realistic than be fazed by skewed patriotism when they are from a small economy living next door to
one of the largest metropolitan economies in the world.
The New Zealanders foresight has paid off 20 years on in  2008 when the “overseas-based Kiwis” wrestled the World Cup from the lengthy stranglehold of Australia and became world champions.
Does New Zealand, by no means a pushover economy and a first world nation, have a lesson for Papua New Guinea on how to approach rugby league? Yes, it does.
Would whoever is installed at the helm of the PNGRFL after the elections later this month be prepared to learn from the Kiwi experience?
We’ll wait and see.
Bennett and Lam and their backers in PNGRFL (Veratau, Sir Bob Sinclair, John Numapo, Eric Kuman, etc) started PNG off in that direction and this is an experience to build on including as part of the PNGNRL bid.
The bid is a very lofty undertaking. Though possible it requires time and appropriate investment but initial small steps are required for the Kumuls to be competitive including inclusion of a PNG side in the Queensland state wide competition as some have already suggested.
Having a Kumuls squad of “pure Melanesians” raised out of the bemobile Cup and expecting such a team to perform against the world’s best has its obvious shortcomings as glaringly exposed at this year’s Four Nations.