In a fitting tribute to a key figure in Papua New Guinea rugby league, Agmark Rabaul Gurias were crowned the 2020 Digicel Cup minor premiers following their final round win over Waghi Tumbe.
This year, the side dedicated their season to John Nightingale, also known as Papa Guira, who passed away in May.
PNG Hunters coach Matt Church has kept a keen eye on the competition and his players throughout the season and said it was special way for the club to honour Nightingale’s memory and would provide them with a boost before the finals.
“The Gurias were set up by founding father John Nightingale; and his company, Agmark, resources the program,” Church said.
“Unfortunately, John, or Papa Guria as he is affectionately known, passed away early this year. The Gurias have dedicated their season in his memory.
“Many young men from Rabaul have been provided this opportunity to play the sport they love (thanks to him), including many of the initial Hunters who were from the Gurias.
“Michael Marum was coaching the likes of Watson and Ase Boas, also Wartovo Puara jnr at the Gurias.
“These men would become the spine of the 2017 Hunters premiership-winning team, so to be awarded the minor premiership is a fitting tribute to the man who started it all for our players.”
Following the cancellation of the Intrust Super Cup aftee Round 1, it’s been a challenging season for Church who had hoped to be able to travel to PNG to play a more ‘hands-on’ role in overseeing how the members of the 2020 PNG Hunters squad were performing in the Digicel Cup competition.
However, he’s worked to overcome the difficulties of distance to remain in regular contact with players, coaches and staff to provide feedback in order to help elevate their skills.
“I download all the games, I try to watch as many as possible each week,” Church said.
“Obviously, it’s not the same as watching the games live, but it gives me a better understanding of players outside the Hunters program.
“The competition is set up well at management level and has been great for PNG to remain as normal as possible in these circumstances, (although) some of the franchises could do with additional resources around sponsorship and coach education.”
Like the many followers of the competition, Church is looking forward to seeing this year’s leading teams in action in the finals which kick off this weekend and is predicting the top two teams in the Gurias and Lae Snax Tigers battle it out on grand final day on October 11.
Both sides have the first week of the finals off, with the remaining four teams from the top six playing off this weekend.
“I feel the advantage of a week off after 11 straight rounds is a huge advantage,” Church said.
“This weekend, Hela Wigmen should account for the Mioks and I’m also expecting the Vipers with their experience to edge them past the Muruks; meaning those two sides will do battle next week and the Gurias and Tigers will do battle for the first spot in the grand final.
“Overall, I think it will be a Gurias v Tigers grand final; they have been a long way in front in terms of attack and defence this year.
“I just like the way the Gurias have built their season, the external motivation for Papa Guria might just be enough get them home in the grand final.”
Throughout the season, Church has been impressed by the performances of several players, with plenty of current Hunters playing well. Some fresh faces have also put their hand up for consideration for the 2021 squad.
“I am really happy with how most of the Hunters players have passed on knowledge to their Digicel Cup team mates,” Church said.
“As well as this, our staff have also filtered back and shared their experience in the franchises.
“Stanley Olo has continued his strong year for the Guiras, initially he was overlooked for our season.
“He got an opportunity with someone dropping out of the squad and hasn’t looked back and I am happy to say he proved this coach wrong.
“Former Hunter and current Kumuls halfback, Watson Boas has also been outstanding for Gurias. Their whole squad has been playing strongly.
“Ase Boas, Keven Appo, Enoch Maki (Port Moresby Vipers), Stanton Albert (Mendi Muruks), Rahdly Brawa (Enga Mioks), Emmanuel Waine and Casey Dickson (Waghi Tumbe) and Terry Wapi at Gurias have all been good for their respective teams.
“Jordan Pat from Gurias was previously with the Hunters and has also been strong.
“I’ve been on the lookout for a couple of key areas to add to our squad for 2021. I think we need to bolster our middle forwards... I am also looking at some young halves, we have great experienced halves, so would be great to have a young half that can learn off Ase and Charlie Simon.
“I am not discounting our current players in those positions, but any challenger is only going to strengthen our 2021 squad.
“The end goal of our organisation is to get more Justin Olam’s playing in the best competition in the world, this then strengthens our national side.”
Fans were allowed back in the stands in Port Moresby for the last round of the season and many are set to venture out again this weekend, a positive sign for PNG.
“The return for spectators this past weekend in Pom is great shot in the arm for the game,” Church said.
“While games are televised, it’s just not the same experience – even a half-packed PNG stadium can make full stadiums in other countries look and sound empty.
“The crowds will relish the last few opportunities to watch games this year and I’m sure the players will wage a physical battle and provide fans with all they hope for.
“Outside the NRL, it was one of the first competitions to get up and running post COVID; so congratulations must go to all who got this up and running for our players and staff.
“Due to the world circumstances, it’s created one of strongest Digicel Cup’s in a long time.
“It should be a great finals series, I can’t wait.”