Matt Church was expecting a new challenge this season, having taken over the reins as head coach at the PNG Hunters; but little could he predict the way the season would pan out.
After his side mounted a stirring comeback to post a 32-30 win over Souths Logan Magpies in Round 1 of the Intrust Super Cup; the club were building well into the year, before the global health pandemic saw the competition cancelled and other leagues across the world put on hold.
Match: Magpies v Hunters
Round 1 -
Venue: Davies Park, Brisbane
Last weekend however, a number of the Hunters players were finally back in action, with the Dicigel Cup becoming one of the first major leagues outside of the NRL to return to the field.
Church was one of the many rugby league fans who followed the Round 1 games with interest.
While he is currently at home in Brisbane, Church has been in regular contact with his players – some who message him simply to wish him a good day – and staff; as well as officials from the PNGRFL and was pleased to see the performances of his charges.
“It’s really good for them to get back into that and playing ... there might be some in-and-about, but this is probably the highest profile [league] outside the NRL,” Church said.
“I thought the guys at the Lae Tigers (were impressive), they are the defending premiers so they will always have a strong team and they have a number of Hunters players and a couple of Kumul players who have come back to them.
“They were really impressive in their 28-8 win over Waghi Tumbe; the Gurias ... some our guys who were there were quite impressive.
“With the [Hunters] players, they were all made pretty aware in the pre-season and the lead-up to Round 1 about what our expectations were of them as players.
“We worked really hard on their skillset, so I am looking for them to go back to their franchises and be real leaders with that and show the way by action.
“My head of performance, Solomon Kulinasi, is monitoring the players with GPS programs and getting the data out of that which is saying they are going pretty well; obviously a bit less than what it would be at Intrust Super Cup level, because the intensity and game speed is slower, but they are getting pretty close to that for the guys they have tested in Port Moresby.”
For Church, while keeping connected with his players and staff has presented some challenges; this disrupted season has also allowed him more time to prepare for what he will face in his second year in charge of the side in season 2021.
“Next year, I am definitely going to have a better understanding not only of the playing group, but PNG in general,” Church said.
“It’s one of the most diverse countries in the world ... I think I have got a better understanding of the challenges I was going to face.
“Culturally we are different, Papua New Guinea and Australia are different ... next year, I will have a better understanding of what I am working with and the staff I am working with, so you can tailor your mindset and approach off that.
“Culturally, we are different, they do things that we would never do in Australia and they have a next level of connection in regards to the people and the community with who they are around or grow up around, so [it will be good] being able to go back into that where I don’t have to establish all these relationships; straight away they are all going to know who I am.”
While he is “missing the players and staff being back in Brissie”, Church will continue to watch all the games and provide feedback and direction to staff in order to ensure the high standard met by his players. And, he will not be the only one keeping a keen eye on the performances of all the players in the competition.
“As a basic one, (the players) have to retain their place in the Digicel Cup; their contract this year doesn’t guarantee them a contract for next year,” Church said.
“Our staff have spread out around the franchises as well, so we have got a couple of our junior S&Cs – one’s gone to the Vipers, one’s gone to the Tigers and we have Solomon ... based in Port Moresby and he goes to each game and works with the trainers and gives them advice and knowledge.
“(This) is just that opportunity for all of us – whatever our skillset is – to share that knowledge with the like-minded people in the franchises so we improve the standard across the country.
“The players have the understanding of what’s expected of our Hunters players, but this is a really good opportunity for them to put their name in front of the national selectors.
“It’s a World Cup next year, so I am quite sure (PNG Kumuls head coach) Michael Marum will be looking to fine-tune who he is going to select in that.
“There’s a really good opportunity for our players and for anyone else that’s not in the Hunters system who wants to make a name for themselves; because there have been plenty of players who have come straight out of Digicel Cup or even in the local leagues who have come out make the Hunters or the Kumuls programs, so there’s a really good opportunity for someone in the country to stand up and be counted.”
Round 2 of the Digicel Cup kicks off this weekend.