March 7 and 8 will forever be remembered by the young Absolute Mackay Cutters squad that travelled to Papua New Guinea as part of the Intrust Super Cup round two fixture.
Players boarded a charter flight in Mackay on Friday morning for Cairns. On clearing Customs they then reboarded the plane for the direct flight to Rabaul.
Despite some ordinary weather on arrival, the spirits of the players lifted immediately as the hospitality and passion of the locals was on show from the very beginning. The touring party was greeted at the airport by traditional dancing and a group of more than a hundred locals who turned up for a glimpse of the team and a photo opportunity. The chance for a photo or video was not even passed in by the airport ground staff and customs officials who all had their phones at the ready as the group crossed the tarmac.
It quickly became evident that the police escort from the airport to the hotel was over kill as the locals lined the streets and stopped work to wave at the passing bus. Even the prison chain gangs who are used to clear bushland on the road sides (and who are seemingly loosely guarded) stopped work to wish the team well.
I was fortunate enough to make the trip from the airport in a private vehicle with Kevin (representative from the local team – Agmark Gurias) and his wife. We made a quick detour to the local school to pick up his kids. It was well worth the short stop as I hopped out and met with the school principal as we watched the kids playing while waiting to be picked up. Despite vastly different surroundings it was all very similar to what I experience when I pick my own son up from primary school.
We arrived at the Kokopo Beach Bungalows (KBB) at around 2:30pm and were ushered straight to lunch. The boys were very quick to comment on how the food and service was well above the usual standard. Donna and her staff at KBB catered for our every need. They could not do enough for us as a group and made us feel very welcome despite taking over most of the hotel. I definitely think our players will remember the people more than anything else.
At 4:15pm we again boarded our team bus for a training run and first look at Kalabond Oval. Our driver Lucas (former Kumul) was enthusiastic with his use of the horn and made it clear to locals that we had arrived and that he wanted right of way on the roads. Again the villagers lined the streets to greet the bus. Young children chased the bus up and down the street and as we neared the ground it did not stop once we were in the confines of Kalabond Oval. They simply climbed to stand on the fence or stood on the cross bar on the neighbouring field to get a look in.
On return it was dinner and for most a night watching the Broncos v Bulldogs game. With the rain continuing to fall it was hoped that there would be some relief for us to get out and about and to also dry out the already sodden playing surface.
A group of 15 players made the trip on Saturday morning to the local markets. Locals meet in this central location to sell hand-made artefacts and fresh produce. The market vendors seemed to have little interest in selling us their product as long as we stopped for photos, handshakes or to simply say good morning. Some of the boys were keen to buy a Bilam Bag, a woven over the shoulder bag used by locals. Two unnamed players returned to the bus proud of their purchase. However, like in any local market around the world it pays to do your homework as on close inspection we found the ‘Made in China’ label.
It was an unusual preparation for game-day. Again, the hospitality of the staff at KBB was evident as they allowed us to take over the hotel function room and create a make shift dressing room. The bus trip to the ground was also unusual as we had to travel in full playing kit as there were no dressing shed facilities at Kalabond Oval. It was straight from the bus to the field for warm-up.
The final leg on our homeward journey was without fault. The staff at KBB graciously washed the boys’ boots and jerseys to avoid issues with quarantine and the Customs officials and ground staff at Rabaul airport did not miss a final opportunity to get photos with the players.
Although we did not get the on field result we were after, the whole experience was extremely rewarding for our group. It would be fair to say that most players indicated it was the best life experience the game has given them.
The community of which we were a part of for a very short period of time was filled with friendly, beautiful people. They are very passionate and enthusiastic about life in general and fully appreciate the small things that we probably take for granted every day. On behalf of the Mackay Cutters I would like to sincerely thank all those that made it possible for us to have our young men experience what they did.
GLENN OTTAWAY is the Mackay Cutters CEO