NRL and Australian federal government dosing in on $600m deal to launch PNG rugby league team

Photo: PNG Hunters/Facebook

The Australian federal government and the NRL are closing in on a deal worth up to $600 million (US$400 million) to secure a new NRL side based in Papua New Guinea.

NRL chairman Peter V’landys met with Minister for the Pacific Pat Conroy on the sidelines of the NRL’s Magic Round in Brisbane late last week to discuss the deal.

Conroy said the government and NRL were “aligned on a way forward” for the expansion club.

The government has been very public in its strong support for a PNG NRL side, despite the substantial complexities involved in launching and maintaining a side in Port Moresby.

It is understood a potential deal to launch the club could be worth $600 million (US$400 million in federal funding over 10 years.

That funding would go beyond just the NRL club, but into community outreach programs supported by the new club too.

Rugby league is considered to be a crucial cultural tie between Australia and Papua New Guinea, and “sports diplomacy” has taken on new importance as China seeks to draw closer to PNG and other Pacific countries.

The game is considered to be the national sport of Papua New Guinea, and the country’s Prime Minister James Marape has described the bid for an NRL side as a matter of “justice””.

Marape has indicated he wants a decision made before 2025, which marks 50 years of Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said they would like a side in the competition by 2027, but there were still hurdles to overcome.

“It’s been a long-held ambition to have a PNG team in the NRL, and we as a government are really committed to that,” he said.

“The time frame that we are looking towards is in and around 2027 — it might not specifically be that year, but that gives a sense of the sort of time frame that we’re working on.

“But ultimately, this does need to work for the NRL, first of all, it needs to work for the PNG government, and it needs to work for the Australian government.”

The size of the funding package the NRL is seeking to help launch the side speaks to the challenges that would come with taking on such a task.

There is already a PNG side playing in the second-tier Queensland Cup, the PNG Hunters, who are sitting sixth on the ladder in this year’s competition.

They play out of the Santos National Football Stadium in Port Moresby, hosting regular home games at the 15,000-seat venue.

But their time in the competition has not been without occasional complications, including concerns about the safety of players travelling into Port Moresby earlier this year during civil unrest.

Two years ago a newly elected Anthony Albanese publicly intervened to urge the Mackay Cutters to play a game in Papua New Guinea that they had considered abandoning.

But basing an NRL-quality side full-time in Port Moresby could create far greater challenges.

Attracting players and staff could prove difficult, and there have already been suggestions of tax breaks to make the offer more lucrative (though that would be a matter for Papua New Guinea’s government, not the Australian government).

And ensuring their security in a city that has grappled with very high rates of violent crime would also be an ongoing challenge, particularly given the very high profile they would bring. Despite those challenges, many in the government are confident a deal with the NRL could be landed within weeks.