There are very few second tier sporting sides in rugby league that capture the imagination like the PNG Hunters.
They offer something different in a rugby league world that too often is predictable and at times tedious. They have brought a freshness, a brand of exciting, devil may care rugby league, and thankfully they return in 2016.
2016 is an important milestone for the Hunters as they enter their third Intrust Super Cup, which surpassed the two year tenure of the previous incarnation of a PNG based side in Queensland’s top rugby league competition – the Port Moresby Vipers – which lasted from 1996 to 1997 but left due to the costs of travelling.
Those same fears look like they could be repeated last year with reports they were struggling financially in the middle part of the season as the toll on paying for theirs and visiting teams transport took hold.
Thankfully the Hunters finished the season, and finished it in style. An unbeaten run from April to the end of season got 7 million and more hoping, only for them to lose both finals matches. Maybe a home final would have made the difference, but that’s another story…
Financial factors aside, it will be an important year for so many other reasons as well, as the success of 2015 brings new opportunities and challenges for the Hunters.
The biggest change is the permanent move to Port Moresby. From out of the far flung former home in Kokopo on the island of New Britain they move to Port Moresby in 2016 to the National Football Stadium where the stadium will be filled with 15,000 plus each week.
The Hunters played three games in Port Moresby in 2015 where all games featured 15,000 sell outs, all ending in home wins.
To have all games with such a crowd is going to be a huge advantage, especially for a team For a team that was unbeaten at home in 2015 and lost only twice at home in their first year. Not one team in the Intrust Super Cup will be able to boast an average home crowd of 15,000, in fact a few NRL clubs will be struggling to match the Hunters for home fans this year. Very few rugby league team will be able to match the atmosphere if reports from their trial games against Penrith are any guide.
One of the main challenges for 2016 is like many other well performing second tier sporting sides – keeping a hold of as many good players as possible. This is a hard task given one of the main purposes of a competition like the Intrust Cup is to provide a career path to further careers, and with the Hunters huge profile they attract admirers like few others.
But it is a challenge the Hunters have been through from their first year to the second, and the improvement on the field was from a finishing position of 6th to an improvement of 2nd in 2016. Mark Mexico and the 2014 competition’s leading try scorer Gary Lo were amongst some of the Hunters stars who moved on in 2014, yet improvement was achieved. While Israel Eliab (London Broncos), Willie Minoga (Townsville Blackhawks), Kato Ottio (Canberra) and Warren Glare (Cronulla) have all found new homes in 2016.
That’s the beauty of the Hunters and indeed following any up and coming side – the discovery process of finding a new star or favourite player. All the players that I have admired that have left the Hunters were all unknown to me before I attended their first game at Dolphin Oval in 2014, so I’m sure the new faces in 2016 will bring as much joy to the fans as their predecessors.
Anything written on the Hunters usually starts the debate of NRL inclusion, and another good season will certainly not stop that, but the prospect of a full time team in the NRL is highly unlikely in the short and long term. This means we should enjoy the Hunters for who they are and at the level they are right now, and following some of the individual success stories as the players move on and take the next step. Although surely an official feeder club arrangement, with added NRL games in PNG is an idea that a forward thinking club will benefit from, and rugby league.
So, how will the Hunters go in 2016?
Surely they are looking at a top 6 finish at minimum, and depending on how the new talent comes through, will push the favourites Townsville for the minor premiership again this season. Given their home form since their inception, and the improvement away from PNG from 2014 to 2015 that looks achievable.
But for all the faith in the new faces mixing with the established stars, two questions remain.
- Is there a hangover from last year’s exit from the final series?
- Is the pressure and the unique expectation of the huge crowds at home games, and a nation of 7 million strong that loves its rugby league like no other nation actually a hindrance?
I certainly hope not, and just in case someone was asking, or handing out three wishes, here’s some of the things I’d to see from the Hunters in 2016.
- More of the same from 2014 and 2015. Don’t change the playing style or the intensity that most of us have come to love.
- That every game at their new Port Moresby stadium is a sell-out, and a lot of that money goes back into developing even more PNG stars for the future.
- A new favourite player to take over from the departed Willie Minoga.
- A grand final appearance would make my sporting year.
- The PNG Hunters v Townsville game in Round 6 televised. C’mon Channel 9 and QRL – That round hasn’t been decided on TV yet – just do it.
- If the Hunters finish high enough for a home final give them one. The financial arguments from 2015 are valid, but so is the potential benefit of 15,000 at an Intrust Super Cup final series game. Add to that the benefit on Grand Final day if the Hunters make it. The crowd would double at least.
Finally, here are the details of this year’s PNG Hunters squad.
THE 2016 SQUAD
Stargroth Amean, Bland Abavu, Ishamel Baikawa, Anderson Benford, Ase Boas, Watson Boas, Nixon Borana, Sailas Gahuna, Warren Glare, Edward Goma, Benjamin Hetra, Philemon Kimiseve, Adam Korave, Tuvi Lepan,Timothy Lomai, Enoch Maki, Justin Olam, Brandy Peter, Wartovo Puara, Esau Siune, Thompson Teteh, Henry Wan, Ate Bina Wabo, Adex Wera, Noel Zeming.
Additional Player: William Aquila
Development Players: Konnie Bernard, Simon Peter and John Ragi.
The 8 new players you need to get to know throughout 2016 are: Ishamel Baikawa, Benjamin Hetra, Justin Olam, Watson Boas, Sailas Gahuna, Anderson Benford, Philemon Kimiseve and Tuvi Lepan.
Club Captains: Noel Zemming, Adam Korave.
With thanks to PNG Today and PNG Supporters Club for Squad Information.