THE LAST time a mob at John Kerr Park (JKP) was treated to a men’s rugby league game was more than two years ago in March 2020.

Covid restrictions cut the four-match Wallal cup competition in half and the last time the Cunnamulla Rams managed to raise a team was an exhibition game for domestic violence awareness in Charleville six months later.

So the Hostplus Queensland Cup clash between the PNG Hunters and Brisbane Tigers last Saturday 23 July was a treat.

It was part of Country Week, the QRL’s way of rewarding backwaters with displays of robust, comparatively disciplined football from the state’s A-grade competition, the rung below the NRL.

Languishing at 12th on the ladder, second from the bottom, the Hunters travelled to the flat lands of far southwest Qld in need of inspiration.

They’d been in exile on the Gold Coast for two-and-a-half years, transplanted from Port Moresby to sidestep travel restrictions to keep playing.

Cunnamulla proved a happy hunting ground for the boys from across the Torres Strait, as they muscled back from 0-14 to win 32-24.

That was despite three Melbourne Storm players – Jonah Pezet, Bronson Garlick and Jayden Nikorima – in the line-up for the Tigers, a feeder club for Storm.

Hunters head coach Matt Church, an Australian, said PNG was the only country in the world where rugby league was the national sport.

He said he loved coaching the team, although his players had grown up with little routine or structure in their lives.

Their approach to football was mostly off the cuff and too much structure curbed their natural flair.

“I call it freedom within a discipline,” he said. “We have points of play and targets that we want to get to, and they have multiple options off that.

They’re encouraged to play what’s in front of them. The three things we really bring to the game are speed, evasion and intent.”

Church said his men had been struggling with the Gold Coast posting.

But they would be returning home to Port Moresby’s national football stadium on 10 August to play the last three rounds at home, where they had a 73% win rate.

Before the match, the Watchman asked sundry people in the crowd if they were gunning for the Hunters or the Tigers.

Few were inclined to back the boys from PNG.

“I’m going for the Tigers because my uncle Clayton Coleman played for them,” said Charleville under-12 player Ben Williams.

“But the Hunters are solid little fellers, so I would hate to be versing them today.”

Former Rams coach Dougie Widgell declined to declare either way, saying he hoped for a good close game.

“I used to play for the Tigers, although my family are from PNG,” said Geoff Rynne, a Rams juniors coach.

Brodie Smyth, aged 17 and playing rugby union these days, joked he’d have given the Hunters a hand, but for a leg injury.

“They’re just dangerous! Knock your head off!” he said.

For the first 20 minutes, the Tigers looked slick, scoring three tries.

But the Hunters wound the difference back to six points at the break and put the pedal to the metal in the second half, running in four tries to one.

After the game, the players huddled for photos with juniors and the battered Tigers linked arms with their rivals in a prayer circle.

No doubt about where Yowah opal miner Julie Stoverink’s loyalties lay.

Born in PNG, she said the crowd didn’t realise the Hunters were swearing a blue streak in pidgin throughout the match.

“They all gave me a hug and said, What the hell are you doing out here? I said, I live here. They said, You must be mad to live out here. I said, I love it.”

Rams junior league vice president Lawrence ‘Cheesy’ Anderson said he had to back the brothers.

“No slow gear in those fellers, only flat out,” he said.

Colleen Higgins said she’d never taken much notice of the Qld cup competition before.

“I think I will now and I’ll be following the Hunters,” she said.

The curtain raiser to the main game was a women’s match, in which the St George Dragons beat Western Ringers 40-16.

After showers and dinner at the bowls club, the players joined the festivities at JKP, which featured a band called Just Us and security guards wearing earpieces, like NRL and Hostplus cup referees.


The Tigers handed over signed jerseys to the junior league and several players joined the band on stage.

“It wasn’t karaoke, they were real singers,” said Rams secretary Carla Mills.

“We sold a lot of grog and took a lot of money.”

The players returned to the bowlo on Sunday morning for breakfast, before boarding their respective buses for the two-hour trip to Charleville.

There they shared the chartered plane that had delivered them from Brisbane.

Flying time Port Moresby to Brisbane is three hours.

About the same as hopping on Rex’s turboprops to Charleville or Cunnamulla.

So, PNG Hunters playing the Brisbane Tigers at JKP is not as far out as it might seem.

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