The year 2017 will be remembered for many reasons in rugby league land – but none may be as good for the soul as the re-emergence of Papua New Guinea.
Both at a local level with their premiership triumph in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup competition and the stunning scenes witnessed at Port Moresby's Oil Search National Football Stadium last Saturday, the Hunters and Kumuls combined have provided some of the feel good stories of 2017.
In their past two World Cup appearances the Kumuls scored a combined 46 points and lost all six games that they played; last Saturday they defeated Wales 50-6 and must now face the gritty Irish team in what will be the defining match of Pool C.
Only one team will emerge from Pool C to advance to the quarter-finals where they will likely face England in Melbourne and a win over Ireland this Sunday would almost certainly ensure that team is PNG.
Prior to the tournament, starting Kumuls captain David Mead was optimistic about his side's chances of progressing even further through the knockout stages should they win their three pool games in Port Moresby and Saturday's strong win over the Welsh will only have added to that belief.
Only six players who disposed of Wales last weekend are currently aligned with NRL clubs and two of those are yet to make their first grade debuts.
Mead, Nene Macdonald, Kurt Baptiste and James Segeyaro are the only members of the squad to have played NRL this year; but with a strong representation of Hunters players within the Kumuls, Mead has no doubt there are more who could handle the step up in class.
“I've got no doubt that there at least a dozen players in that Hunters team who are capable of playing NRL,” Mead told NRL.com.
“Moses [Meninga] was great for the Hunters. The other guy I'm pretty excited for is Nixon Putt.
“There are a couple of guys who played really well for the Hunters – Enock Maki is another – so I'm looking forward to seeing those guys run out and run hard and put some big hits on and play smart as well.”
Ever protective of his players, Hunters and Kumuls coach Michael Marum told NRL.com that he will wait until after the World Cup before exploring potential NRL opportunities with his players, but there may not be the rush on recruits as could be expected.
Transitioning from a life in PNG into a full-time NRL system at one of Australia's largest cities can be a daunting proposition and clubs who do recruit players from PNG need to show great patience before they get their pay-off.
Kato Ottio has had an injury-disrupted two-year stint at Canberra without breaking into the NRL team, while Storm officials are confident that Justin Olam – whom they signed after only a half-dozen Intrust Super Cup games for the Hunters – will push for an NRL berth in 2018 after a year of major adjustment to life in Melbourne this year.
The professional nature of the Hunters system has increased the willingness of NRL clubs to at least explore further the chance to bring PNG players into the NRL and a strong World Cup campaign can only help the cause of Kumuls players who harbour NRL dreams.
These are the five players we think clubs should be looking at right now.
Premiership-winning captain of the Hunters, Courier-Mail Medallist as the Intrust Super Cup’s best and fairest and Duncan Hall Medal winner for best player in the grand final; Boas's 2017 season speaks for itself. Possessing the much-admired traits of a half of skill and poise, Boas captained his country in the mid-year Test against the Cook Islands and boasts a tremendous right boot both in general play and kicking for goal. When the grand final was on the line, Michael Marum's instructions were simple; give it to Ase. He grubber-kicked into the in-goal with a minute to go for Willie Minoga to score the try that changed the Intrust Super Cup forever. Who wouldn't want a player of that class on their books?
A teacher by day, Meninga dished out some lessons in rugby league in his maiden season with the Hunters in 2017 that allowed him to force his way into the national team for the World Cup. A towering presence in the middle of the field, Meninga is a destructive runner of the ball and a powerful hitter in defence, an impact that would only increase if he was able to add to his impressive frame at an NRL club.
A crafty dummy-half whose only loss in four Tests for the Kumuls was in his 2015 debut against Fiji. He was masterful in PNG's upset win over the Bati a year later and scored a try in the Test against the Cook Islands earlier this year. Such has been his influence on the Hunters and Kumuls over the past three years, coach Marum left two recognised NRL hookers on the bench for the World Cup opener against Wales.
A Mount Hagen native who spent some of his junior football with the Newtown Jets, Maki played two games of the 2013 World Cup as a 24-year-old and is a barrel-chested front-rower who takes a power of stopping. He came off the bench against Wales and rolled forward for 138m from just 13 carries in 41 minutes on the field.
Along with younger brother Stanton, Wellington Albert spent three years with the Penrith Panthers before returning to PNG to play for the Hunters for the first time this season. At 194cm and 110kg, Wellington has the physical stature to match it with any prop in the NRL and his experience with the Panthers helped him quickly became a leader with the Hunters. Amassed 148m from just 12 carries against Wales along with scoring a try.