Cronulla would seriously consider playing an NRL premiership match in Papua New Guinea and another club contacted chairman Dino Mezzatesta hours after Saturday night’s historic trial against Canterbury about doing so.
Players and officials from the Sharks and Bulldogs could not speak highly enough of the four days they spent in PNG for the match and word has quickly spread to other NRL clubs.
Mezzatesta said he had received several messages asking about the quality of the facilities and the overall experience, including one from a club which is keen to take a match at the 15,000-seat National Football Stadium.
It is believed the rival club would even be willing to be the home team with the Sharks as their opponents, given Cronulla’s growing involvement in the Pacific through their association with Fiji’s Kaiviti Silktails, who will enter the NSWRL’s Ron Massey Cup this season.
“It is up to us to grow the game and look for opportunities so it was wonderful that the Sharks, together with the Bulldogs, took this opportunity in Papua New Guinea and experienced it first-hand,” Mezzatesta said.
Match Highlights: Sharks v Bulldogs
“From here on I think it is all about continuing to develop and grow that so we would definitely be at the table for any discussions about bringing another trial game here, or even a premiership match.
“I have already had a couple of calls and messages to ask how was it and if there is any interest in taking a game up there we should explore it further.
“That has come directly from another club within the NRL, and it is not the Bulldogs.”
Broadcast costs a hurdle
The game was the first of a three-year agreement between the Federal Government and the NRL to stage one trial per season in the Pacific to support the PacificAus Sports initiative promote DFAT programs promoting social inclusion, participation, equality and health and wellbeing.
Canterbury and Cronulla are likely to be given the first option of playing in Fiji next year due to their willingness to go to PNG when other clubs were reluctant.
The Bulldogs were the first club to put their hand up as CEO Andrew Hill has a long association with Papua New Guinea through his role in charge of the 2017 World Cup, which featured three matches in Port Moresby.
Hill convinced coach Dean Pay and the players it would be a worthwhile exercise and the Sharks agreed to join them in the pioneering exercise after no other club expressed an interest in playing in PNG.
With the facilities being better than some NRL clubs have and the experience exceeding the expectations of players and coaches from both clubs, Hill believes the only obstacle to PNG hosting a Telstra Premiership match would be broadcast costs for Nine or Fox Sports.
“What we were able to achieve in the World Cup was enormous for both the game and the country, and we saw the passion for a trial game,” Hill said.
“It would be something to be seen to be believed if we could get a premiership game there.
“Unfortunately, the logistical challenges will take some time to overcome, primarily around the broadcast considerations, but for most other categories there is no reason why they couldn’t host a premiership game and we saw it in the World Cup.”
With PNG boasting a population of eight million and being the only country in which rugby league is the national sport, an Telstra Premiership match would be all but guaranteed to sell out.
Completed just before the World Cup, the National Football Stadium has better facilities than any of the suburban grounds Sydney clubs call home, with air-conditioned dressing rooms and 15,000 seats close to the sidelines.
The accommodation was world class for both teams and security was not an issue as police escorts were provided any time they went anywhere, mainly to protect passionate fans from running in front of the bus.
As the players discovered from the moment they landed and during visits to schools, hospitals or any time they went anywhere, Papua New Guineans don’t just love rugby league, they love it.
Just one example was Samson. Dogs centre Will Hopoate gave his training shirt and some other gear to the young boy after he sneaked into the Canterbury dressing room and later becoming the team’s ball boy.
Samson was in tears when told he needed to leave after the match but he turned up at Jackson’s Airport to farewell the team on Sunday in his Bulldogs gear.
When players asked how he had got there Samson told them he had walked.
Hopoate said he would like the NRL to take a premiership match to PNG.
“I don’t see why not, we are taking games to Darwin, to Perth and to other parts of Australia,” Hopoate said.
“There are probably more supporters here than in other states that don’t really support rugby league.
“These people obviously love it so much and the more games they get the more people will come as well so I think it would be good for the expansion of rugby league.”
Sharks exploring the Pacific
The success of the PNG Hunters in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup inspired a bid for the Kaviti Silktails to join the NSWRL’s Canterbury Cup competition and Cronulla has formed a partnership with the Fijian club to provide a pathway for its young players.
Mezzatesta said the Sharks were keen to return for another match.
“Given the experience that we have just had in the last few days and given the passion of the country I think it is something that we definitely need to explore,” Mezzatesta said.
“There has got to benefits all round and not only the Australian Government and the Papua New Guinea Government working together but I think the NRL would benefit tremendously.
“The way they managed it, the way they looked after us and the logistics of moving us around, with the quality of the facilities and it being only a three-hour flight from Brisbane I think it has a lot of merit.
“When you get a nation so passionate and a stadium with a 15,000 capacity it would be a guaranteed sell-out.
“With the Sharks so heavily invested in our own Pacifica strategy, and the recent Kaviti Silktails partnership, this trip just reinforces our ambition and willingness to cement our position in the Pacific.
“We will continue to explore every opportunity available in the Pacific and PNG is a major player and destination we want to be involved with.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.