‘Our players deserve better opportunities’: NRL clubs urged to sign PNG talent

Photo: NRL

Kumuls coach Justin Holbrook believes PNG’s Pacific Bowl triumph is just the first step in a dramatic rise for the league mad nation and predicted more of his players would soon be playing in the NRL.

Holbrook guided the Kumuls to their first tournament win since 2009 and is keen to continue in the role after his experiences with the PNG players and fans in the past six weeks since 23 September Prime Minister’s XIII clash with Australia.

While Sunday’s Pacific Bowl final, won 32-12 by the Kumuls against Fiji at a sold-out Santos National Football Stadium, was a brilliant advertisement for a PNG team in the NRL, Holbrook urged existing clubs to look at his players now.

PNG captain Kyle Laybutt is among seven members of the winning side selected from the Queensland Cup, while a further five returned from the Super League for the Pacific Championships.

Centre Rodrick Tai, who will play under Sam Burgess at Warrington next season, is understood to have attracted interest from the Dolphins, while hooker Judah Rimbu and prop Epel Kapianis are others who showed they are capable of stepping up.

“It was pretty challenging when you’ve got different groups coming together and flying a number of players out from the UK and things like that, but we got there in the end and had a really good performance,” Holbrook said.

“I just think that it’s great we’re playing international rugby league and guys like Kyle, who is an outstanding player, deserve some better opportunities so I hope they get them.”

With NRL CEO Andrew Abdo watching on after flying from New Zealand, where he saw the Kiwis triumph 30-0 in the Pacific Cup final against Australia on Saturday, the Kumuls bounced back from a 43-16 loss to Fiji the previous week.

The atmosphere generated by the14,809 crowd, which included PNG Prime Minister James Marape, was Origin-like as they cheered the Kumuls to a 26-0 halftime lead and then braced themselves for a gripping second half.

“It’s been terrific. I’ve loved it right from the start when I came up for the Digicel Cup grand final and saw the atmosphere here,” Holbrook said.

“I couldn’t wait to be part of it and to get to coach in the Prime Minister’s game was outstanding.

“Obviously we had a big setback last week, so we had to get it right this week and we did, so I’ve loved it. Playing in front of these fans was outstanding. Hopefully I can be a part of it again.”

The Pacific Bowl is expected to move to Fiji at the end of next season and by then a decision may have been made on the NRL’s 18th team.

If PNG get the nod, it is expected that players like Tai, halfback Lachlan Lam, hooker Edwin Ipape – the man-of-the-match – and second-rower Rhyse Martin would be targeted to return from Super League.

However, Holbrook said work was being done now to ensure that more talent from Papua New Guinea found their way to the NRL and that would strengthen the Kumuls, who are currently No.6 in the IRL World Rankings.

“I’m thrilled for everyone; the staff, the players and obviously the whole country. It’s great to win the Pacific Bowl,” Holbrook said.

“It was very enjoyable to be a part of and with the development that they’re working hard on with the pathways here in this country, the rugby league and the players are going to really accelerate quickly and be a force in the future.”

Martin, who received a special presentation on match eve for becoming the most capped Kumuls player, also believes that PNG is on the rise, and he said the players would take confidence from winning the Pacific Bowl.  

“I was getting goosebumps straight after we got the trophy,” said Martin, who played his 17th Test in the final.

“We’ve played a lot of games and we’ve always probably fallen a little bit short, in quarterfinals or the mid-season Tests, but to win a trophy here in front of our fans in PNG is special.

“It’s something I will probably have as a career highlight when I look back after I decide to hang the boots up.”

Lam, who believes Martin’s milestone had provided additional motivation for the PNG players, said the Kumuls were aiming to retain the Pacific Bowl next year.

“I think a lot of people underestimate what PNG can do on PNG soil,” Lam said.

“After being together for a long time in camp and bonding, you’d have to be a very good team to come here and beat us on our best day. “Next year in Fiji will be an unreal time too and as a group we are definitely looking forward to that.”