THERE’S Stanley Gene – the enigmatic playmaker with the mystery date of birth, Charlie Wabo – the dreadlocked assassin who terrorised World Cup defences, Raymond Kahl – nicknamed ‘cow’ because he looked and ran like so, or Marcus Bai – the man they called George.
Then there’s Keith Peters.
The 23-year-old has not reached icon status in Papua New Guinea. He wasn’t rumoured to have hunted down a garden duck for dinner upon signing with his first professional club like former team-mate Makali Aizue, nor has he been chaired 500m from the field to the team bus from crazed highlands fans like current coach Adrian Lam was after a win against Tonga in Wabag in 1998.
In this age of sports professionalism, Peters’ exploits for the Kumuls have remained strictly and expectedly on the field – but as Lam describes it, they are a major reason why PNG are just one win away from joining Australia, New Zealand and England in the next year’s Four Nations.
“In my eyes a lot of our success is down to him,” Lam said yesterday, as his side prepares to face Cook Islands in the final of the SP Brewery Pacific Cup this Sunday.
“Keith is literally my eyes and voice on the field as our organiser.
“In the past four years, he has matured like you wouldn’t believe.”
Last weekend at Lloyd Robson Oval against a Feleti Mateo-led Tonga, that maturity was there for all to see. Peters coolly directed the Kumuls side to an incredible 44-14 thrashing of the pre-tournament favourites. This Sunday, he has the chance to help take PNG football to the next echelon.
But it hasn’t been easy for the kid from Hanuabada village just outside of Port Moresby not by a long shot.
After moving to Australia in 1993 at the age of seven, Peters worked his way up the junior ranks to where he currently sits in the Penrith Panthers system.
A couple of surgeries following an impressive but wearing World Cup campaign at the end of last year left him struggling to break back into the Panthers first-grade rotation, and he saw out the majority of the 2009 NRL season with feeder club Windsor.
But don’t think for a second Peters is dwelling on his NRL season, or the Four Nations for that matter.
“The first thing that comes to mind is representing Papua New Guinea,” Peters said.
“This is where I was born … this is where I grew up before I came to Australia.
“I want to come here and make myself and my family proud. Playing for your country is something special and when (the Kumuls) get together it’s pretty much like we’re a family – everyone gets along so well.
“I still remember my first camp in 2004 with Paul Aiton – we came in and we’ve never looked back and I know all the other guys are the same.
“It definitely is special, you know, being part of the Kumuls.”
At the time of last year’s Rugby League World Cup, detractors criticised Papua New Guinea’s placement in a ‘Superpool’ with heavyweights Australia, New Zealand and England.
Despite not winning a match, the Kumuls went close to pulling off what would have been the upset of the tournament against England in Townsville. Peters admitted the experience hastened the development of the Kumuls side.
“The World Cup helped a lot,” Peters said.
“I think we learned a lot from it and gained a lot of confidence in that we can compete with the best teams in the world, and I think that’s starting to show now.
“We have lost some experienced players from last year but guys like Jessie Joe Parker, Rodney Pora, Anton Kui and a guy like Menzie Yere who has come along leaps and bounds … they’ve really improved.
“They’ve gained a lot of experience from the World Cup and they are the new generation that has come through and is leading the way now.”
Standing in the way of PNG this Sunday is a Cook Islands squad which has pulverised each of its opponents in the past two weeks.
Led by backrowers Fred Makimare (Melbourne Storm), Zane Tetevano (Newcastle Knights) and inspirational captain Tere Glassie, the Cooks decimated the hopes of Pacific powerhouses Samoa and Fiji in consecutive weeks to reach the final.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Cooks find themselves in a position usually reserved for the Kumuls – underdogs.
“They’ve come a long way,” Peters said of the Cook Islands.
“They beat Fiji and Samoa so I think they will come with a nothing to lose attitude and to gain a bit of respect like we were trying to do last year.”
After debuting in 2004, Peters is now 16 Tests into his Kumuls career and at just 23 years old, has already captained the team several times.
While he won’t have the (c) next to his name on Sunday, he is proud to count himself one of the leaders of a Papua New Guinean side on the verge of one of its greatest achievements.
“I’m still only at a young age but I like to see myself as a leader amongst the team,” Peters said.
“Hopefully I can step up for one more game against the Cook Islands and lead the boys around the park and get the job done.”