Prime Minister's XIII a success for Australian-PNG diplomacy, player development, human rights not just footy – ABC News

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Prime Minister's XIII a success for Australian-PNG diplomacy, player development, human rights not just footy
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Last night's Prime Minister's XIII scoreline was predictable.
The Australian women's XIII dominated the PNG Orchids 64-6 and the Kumuls were taken down 64 -14 by the Aussie men at Brisbane's Lang Park.
Since the first clash in 2005, Papua New Guinea (PNG) have never won a game.
The event is nearly always scheduled at NRL finals time, and this year's edition also copped a clash with PNG's national rugby league competition's grand final week.
This prevented the selection of the best in-country talent.
But the Prime Minister's XIII serves a far higher purpose than a footy game – and on that measure, last night was a huge success.
The PM's XIII is proving to be an instrument of blue-ribbon international diplomacy, player development and a human rights initiative all in one.
With the Rugby League World Cup only weeks away, this year's PM's XIII also played a key role in World Cup selection — for both the Aussie and PNG sides.
And what other fixture brings two prime ministers together to walk their nation's team out on the field — and then sit side by side to enjoy a game of footy?
The Kumuls didn't field a single NRL player.
PNG edges Fiji to wrap up a day of Pacific Test football, after New Zealand beat Tonga 26-6 at an electric Mt Smart Stadium and Samoa thumped Cook Islands 42-12.
They were pitted against 13 of them, including some of the NRL's hottest talent like Manly Sea Eagles superstar Daly Cherry-Evans.
All but one of the 20-strong Kumuls squad were pulled from Queensland Rugby League (QRL) teams who play for the Queensland Cup.
But with the Rugby League World Cup just around the corner, Kumuls head coach Stanley Tepend is saving his best players for that tournament, which kicks off in England on October 15.
It was three months ago the Kumuls — who were the underdogs — triumphed over Fiji in the NRL's Pacific Test.
PNG fielded its NRL 'all stars' at the Pacific Test, including icons Justin Olam, Alex Johnston and David Mead as well as rising star Lachlan Lam.
All these players — except for David Mead who has retired — will be available for the World Cup. Lam is already in the UK after recently taking a contract with an English league team.
Historically, the PM's XIII is about providing PNG in-country players with international game experience.
Coach Tepend would have liked to use last night to run more players from PNG's national competition but couldn't because of the scheduling clash:
"We had the elections on back home so I think that may have caused a couple of delays to finals week.
"It would be good to see it planned better with no other games on the week just so it can be an event itself," said Tepend.
But for those selected, last night was a special moment in their life, with nine of the squad pulling on a Kumuls jersey for the first time.
PNG Hunters player Wartovo Puara was picked as Captain. He plays hooker for the QRL's PNG Hunters.
"I called my Mum and Dad straight away, they were very excited, it was a great moment of pride for my family," said Puara.
"I hope it can go back to PNG next year," said Tepend.
Last night is the first time the PM's XIII has been on Australian soil.
The stadium felt empty in contrast to the usual Port Moresby capacity-filled crowds of up to 10,000.
Australian PM's XIII vs PNG Kumuls (recent)
Australia vs PNG Orchids
It's been four years since PNG and Australia's PM's XIII have met at all.
The annual fixture is usually played in PNG. But in 2019 it moved to Fiji and PNG sat out. The previous two years it was canned because of COVID-19.
The ABC spoke to four representatives from the Kumuls camp and they all said they wish it to go back to PNG.
Coach Tepend said, "when the Australians [NRL Players] come up to PNG, that's significant for Papua New Guineans to have a chance to watch them.
"And it gives our boys the chance to play against Australia with their families and supporters watching them.
"When it's played at home, the week leading up to the game we roll out all the social messages and education to the PNG. That plays an important part of it all."
The NRL has unofficially said it will return to PNG in 2023.
The 'social messaging' Coach Tepend is talking about has been integral to the PM's XIII.
Rugby League and NRL players hold a very high status in PNG and pack loads of influence.
In recent years, the PM's XIII has focused on domestic violence, a rampant problem in parts of PNG.
Displaying the message 'Strong Men Respect Women' on the PM's XIII jerseys has been one initiative.
Prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS has been a cause championed in the past also.
Last night's event didn't have a humanitarian message.
Instead, it was a celebration of Australia and Papua New Guinea's friendship and shared passion for the game of rugby league.
Coach Tepend opted to rest Justin Olam for the game.
"With the World Cup coming up this is best. He's had a long tough season with the Melbourne Storm and the way that he plays is really aggressive," he said.
"[Resting Olam] also gives an opportunity to the younger players coming up."
But the biggest home-grown rugby league star to come out of PNG in a generation was a surprise late addition to last week's Kumuls camp.
Olam requested to join in, and flew up from Melbourne to be a part of the camp.
"Just to be around the boys, they're my team," said Olam.
When asked what his role had been over the camp he jokes, "choosing songs for them in the workout room".
His presence was no doubt inspirational to the young squad who consider Olam a hero.
The brotherhood generated in a Kumuls camp is palpable.
Kumuls Team Manager Tommy Butterfield said they don't need to do any team bonding, it comes naturally, "as a culture we [are] always together…"
In amongst the natural kinship and training, the team holds a weekly 'devotion' session. It is a prayer and worship service led by the players.
The PM's XIII is not about the scoreline and last night, Lang Park proved pride and nationhood can be summoned from much more than winning a game.
The friendship between Australia and PNG was on full display at the highest levels of power.
And with a likely return to PNG in 2023, the PM's XIII will continue to be a vehicle of positivity for the two countries, with Papua New Guineans once again receiving the full potential of the fixture.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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