From gravel field debut to most capped Kumul: Martin proud of PNG legacy

Rhyse Martin (Photo: NRL)

Rhyse Martin expressed pride in the development of the game in Papua New Guinea as he prepares to become the most capped Kumuls player in Sunday’s Pacific Bowl final against Fiji at Santos National Football Stadium.

Martin’s 17th Test will eclipse the 16 international appearances for the Kumuls by Paul Aiton and John Wilshere, who are members of the current PNG coaching staff, and the legendary Stanley Gene.

It has taken 10 seasons for Martin to achieve the record but with the introduction of the Pacific Championships at the end of each season the Kumuls are now set to play more regularly.

“I’ve been playing for the Kumuls since 2014, but we’ve only probably had one Test a year for five or six of those years, so it’s a pretty special moment,” Martin said.

“For me, it’s a good personal achievement, but I’m just happy that I’m still capable to play and make this team, so I’m just proud of that.”

The former Bulldogs second-rower, who now plays for Leeds, was the only overseas-based player in the PNG team when he made his debut under Mal Meninga against Tonga at Lae.

Of the team selected to play the Bati on Sunday, only five don’t have NRL or Super League contracts but they play in Queensland Cup, while Storm stars Justin Olam and Xavier Coates are unavailable due to injury.

With PNG Hunters joining the Queensland Cup in 2014 and the possibility of a Papua New Guinea side becoming the NRL’s 18th team, the Kumuls are only expected to get stronger.

“The first time I came in and played for the Kumuls in 2014 we played Tonga up in Lae, and that was an experience I remember to this day,” Martin said.

“They didn’t have grass down the middle of the field, it was gravel.

“They didn’t have grass down the middle of the field, it was gravel. Everyone was just running to the sidelines because that’s where the grass was.

“It was a very special game for me. I was the one overseas player in that game, but fast forward to now, it is just a proud moment to see where the Kumuls were – and where we are now.”

Martin, who qualifies for PNG through his late father Steve, paid tribute to Aiton – the former Panthers and Sharks hooker, whom he played alongside at the 2017 World Cup – as well as Wilshere and Gene.

Wilshere, who played for the Western Reds, Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons before finishing his career in Super League, was a regular member of the Kumuls team from 2000 until 2009.

“It’s great to have Paul and John still as part of the Kumuls team,” Martin said. “The experience that they have and the platform that they put down for us to get to where we are, I have a lot of respect for those guys.

“I got to play with Paul, and I said to John the other day that it would have been nice to get a game alongside him too, so it’s great to have them here with the squad

“I am very grateful for what he is continuing to do for the Kumuls team, what he is putting into the squad, and how much respect the boys have for him, and what he’s done in the past.”

Gene is a legend of the game in both Papua New Guinea and England, where he played 205 matches for Hull KR, Hull FC, Huddersfield and Bradford, as well as 16 Tests for the Kumuls.

“I run into him occasionally in England as he is working at Hull FC now, so I see him during the year,” Martin said.

“He’s one of those guys who probably should have played a lot more Tests than he did because he was around for a long time.

“He’s a massive Kumuls legend, I remember hearing his name from day one.”

Like Aiton, Gene and Wilshere, Martin has had the honour of captaining the Kumuls, while the 29-year-old is also PNG’s greatest Test point-scorer and goalkicker.

“I am really proud of Rhyse, and I think it is really good that he is going to break the record,” Aiton said.

“For him to have had the opportunity to wear the Kumuls jersey so many times is a great thing for him and for the fans because it means that there is more international footy.

“Rhyse brings a lot to this team with his experience in the NRL and Super League, and his leadership. “He is serious when he needs to be, but he can also be light-hearted when he wants to be, so he is a really good leader and deserving of this record.”