PNG EXPERIENCE MORE THAN JUST A GAME

By Shaun McRae (Tweed Heads Seagulls CEO)

There had been great excitement and anticipation leading up to the Aussie Painters Network Tweed Heads Seagulls’ journey to Papua New Guinea to play against the Hunters in round 7 of the Intrust Super Cup.

First and foremost was the safety and security meeting held at February’s CEOs meeting where every detail was covered.

Next was the collection of passports in preparation for visa applications and of course, who can forget the vaccinations! Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Typhoid, Tetanus, Whooping Cough, Flu, and the Malaria tablets.

Due to the timeframe these shots were required to be delivered, we all felt like we were like dartboards at one stage. Keep in mind although a party of 24 travelled, visa applications and vaccinations actually totalled 34 people.

***

On Thursday night at practice before the game (the ‘Captain’s run’), coach Aaron Zimmerle is pretty sure he knows who’s making the trip.

I meet with the players and staff prior to training and we go through the itinerary and discuss any issues. The players take the field and come in at the end of the session for their final Hepatitis B shot.

They also collect a bag of clothing to pack in their suitcases which will be handed out to the locals upon arrival in PNG.

A lot of the clothing had been collected by St James Primary School at Banora Point, with the Tweed Heads Seagulls Juniors also making a significant contribution.

***

It’s now 4.15am on Friday and my alarm goes off. I need to meet other members of the travelling party at Seagulls Leagues Club in order to depart at 5.15am.

We have several pick-up locations on the way and finally arrive at Brisbane Airport at 7.15am, before beginning the process of clearing Immigration and security in preparation for the 9.10am departure to Port Moresby.

After the three-hour flight and a few hours stop over at Moresby airport, we board another plane for Rabaul, with the flight time this time about an hour and 25mins.

From the Airport we went straight to Kalabond Oval and coach Zimmerle put the players through a light 45 minute team session.

There were locals everywhere and our players were somewhat overwhelmed by the friendly nature and enthusiasm of the Kokopo people.

After practice, the players and staff posed for photos and some players decided to give some of the clothing away. You would not believe the frenzy this created!

The players and staff again were in some respects taken aback by the local people’s positive manner and genuine gratitude.

Darkness was soon upon us as we made our way on the very short drive to our accommodation.

***

Saturday, April 12 and it’s now game day.

The players were able to go through their pre match routine, including their usual walk after breakfast.

This walk however would prove to be slightly different and unique.

The players and staff -with the donated clothes still in their possession- decided to go to the markets and hand out their gear.

Well, this nearly caused a riot! People came from everywhere to benefit from the gifts. Some of the players commented they had never seen nor experienced anything like this before.

All of a sudden, it hit us as to how fortunate we all are back home and it was quite an emotional experience for some.

***

Due to the fact there are no change room facilities at Kalabond Oval, all pre-match preparations took place at the Kokopo Beach Bungalows where we were staying.

The players jumped onto the bus and immediately off it to go straight onto the field to warm up.

It was extremely humid and I doubt if any of the players had ever encountered humidity as high as this on a rugby league field before, with club captain Matt King describing it as the toughest conditions he’s ever had to play in.

The crowd of about 2000 people at Kalabond Oval were fantastic; they were loud, excitable and yet they were supportive of us as well. It was a great atmosphere.

The result didn’t go according to plan for us, but the team showed great courage and determination to put themselves in a winning position, particularly after being down 12-0 after two minutes!

After the game, the players did a lap and engaged with the crowd and a couple of players even gave their boots away.

The streets were lined with fanatical supporters as we returned to the hotel, somewhat exhausted from the match and yet I couldn’t help but see in some players’ eyes the reality of life in this country and the realisation of who you are and what you have.

After a recovery session involving the hotel pool and ice baths, the players made their way to the restaurant for the post-match meal.

It was there our skipper Matt King was presented with the biggest cake you’ve ever seen and we were all able to help Matt celebrate his 30th birthday.

***

Sunday morning would see us effectively reverse what we did on Friday and start the long haul back home. Everything went like clockwork with regards to travel and nothing could be faulted.

Even though it was a long and exhausting trip, the PNG Hunters have delivered on everything they promised to make the journey as stress-free as possible.

So we didn’t get the desired result, which was the main objective, but I believe this trip is also about education. It’s about cultural awareness and realising where we live might well be the best place on earth.

One of the player’s best summed it up: “I had only ever seen poverty and third world pictures on the TV, I will never forget the smiles on the faces of children who were so grateful to receive a gift from me. It definitely puts life in perspective.”