The National, Tuesday August 25th, 2015
RUGBY Union remains the “other rugby code” in Papua New Guinea but every once in a while it has its moments.
With rugby league the giant on the country’s sporting landscape the game made famous worldwide by the all conquering All Blacks has taken a back seat with the national team the Pukpuks starved of meaningful competition on an annual basis.
Sevens rugby has been the PNG Rugby Football Union’s main focus but despite funding support from the corporate sector and national government tournament wins have been few and far between.
That is a pity because rugby – as the world refers to the sport – has had a rich history in this country and has been played by some of the nation’s leaders and elder statesmen. Former Chief Justice Sir Arnold Amet, the country’s second prime minister Sir Julius Chan, former Lae MP Bart Philemon, PNG Olympic Committee president Sir John Dawanincura and even currently jailed former Pomio MP Paul Tiensten are some of the notable names that played the sport with varying degrees of success.
Sir John represented PNG at the first Pacific Games on home soil in 1969, while Tiensten for all his current problems was once a feared centre in the Port Moresby competition.
The Oceania Rugby Cup kicked off over the weekend with a new-look Pukpuks team beating Tahiti 32-10. The score line though flattered the home side.
The Sydney Wesley-coached team struggled for parity in the set-pieces and despite a brave effort were essentially saved by their backline which would be, on form, the best out of the tournament’s four competing countries.
Tahiti’s lack of execution did not help their course much even though their monstrous pack laid an ample foundation for victory.
One try from 80 minutes of football after having close to 60 per cent possession says the visitors had the muscle but not the moxie to pull off the win.
PNG to their credit held the men in red out and competed for every scrap at the break down.
The team featured many new faces some of whom are prospects for long term involvement with the national side – if they can stay committed to the code – while others are veterans who are giving their services perhaps for the last time.
Flyhalf Richard Aitsi, wingers Jacky Marcus and Jacob Wodo as well as halfback Nigel Genia played with the flair and ability one has come to expect from the Pukpuk jersey.
No doubt those in the rugby fraternity who had the opportunity to go and watch the match which was played at the Hubert Murray Stadium last Saturday would have noticed straight away the quality of the back division was superior to what the Tahitians had.
In the pack, a team effort was what made the difference with no single player standing out.
Perhaps that was how they needed to play, as a team to hold out the opposition who had the advantage in size and skill in the set pieces.
PNG will face a sterner test against American Samoa who beat the Solomon Islands 30-15 and so far look like the team with the balance of rugged forwards and hard-running backs to be a serious contender for the title.
The Pukpuks standing in the public’s eyes was painfully obvious with no more than 300 fans turning up to watch the matches at the Konedobu venue.
The previous weekend, 15,000 city residents packed the Sir John Guise Stadium to watch the Hunters beat the Wynnum Manly Seagulls 36-13 and that was on a Saturday.
In some regards it is a testimony the path that rugby is on. While the venue at Bavaroko in the city’s eastern side has carried the mantle as the home of PNG rugby, few of the sport’s loyal fans turned up to watch the Pukpuks play.
Sports Minister Justin Tkatchenko helped tournament organisers with a K200,000 contribution but this money was given literally at the eleventh hour, the day before the first round of matches, and accompanied by some chastising words on why he was not made aware of the PNGRFU’s plight earlier.
Rugby in the nation’s capital has been held back by circumstance and a lack of initiative over the past 12 months with no competition run for the period.
The Pukpuks have put the focus back on the sport and this should help the union get the code up and running again in the city for the benefit of all who love the game.