Rugby league resembles a tribal fight in these parts
of PNG. Today I had the pleasure of playing my first match on the
hollow turf (most precisely shin deep mud) of the Payam Rocks'
home ground. The visiting time were The Station Eagles, players
from a collection of villages some 5 KM from Payam. One would assume
that the players and spectators from both teams would be good friends
since they live in close proximity of each other. This proved not
to be the case!
Just how I came to playing a game of rugby league
eventuated after I met the husband of Kaspina, one of the teachers
at Porgera International School. His name is Jonathan and he just
so happened to be coach of the mighty Payam Rocks. This team
is named after the huge cliff (perhaps it really is a large rock)
that towers over the town of Payam. Often the mascot name of a team
personifies their personality. Certainly the players of The Rocks
are a tough and sturdy collection of muscular individuals. Anyway,
I mentioned to Jonathan that I enjoy rugby and have coached at various
levels back in Australia. The next moment I found myself accepting
an invitation to play in a semi-final match against The Eagles.
Pre-match preparations involve lighting a smoke fire.
This signifies to the other team a "declaration of hostilities".
The Rocks consisted of a squad of about 20 players, some
of whom wore rugby boots, whilst other ran around in old shoes and
the brave ran out in bare feet. All players wore a collection of old
shorts and jerseys in various states of decay. The only exception
was myself who just so happened to be wearing brand new boots, much
to the admiration of the observing crowd. Stretching is not a big
part of the warm up routine, rather energy is spent giving and listening
to long speeches. This by all accounts is deemed a more appropriate
means of preparing for a rugby match. I lost count after about the
15th speech was given, although several of them notably mentioned
"the white fella from down-under".
As The Rocks ran out onto the ground (wrong
term - pig pen), I became the first outsider to play for the team.
After match reports indicate that when spectators observed a white
man playing rugby, they notified many of their friends to come out
of their nearby abodes. In all about 3000 spectators turned out to
observe the match. By the time I had reached the centre of the ground
I was already covered in mud up to my shins. The Eagle players
were somewhat surprised to discover that their opposition had resorted
to importing players, although I suspect my small frame did not strike
fear into these warriors!
Play did not start for another 15 minutes because
it was time for the referee to give a long speech about the rules
of the game and the spirit he expected it to be played. Much of his
dialogue stressed that he did not want any spectators questioning
his decisions. I particularly admired his headwear, being a dirty
So The Eagles eventually got around to kicking
off the ball to formally start the game. The ground was surrounded
by spectators from both sides, most dressed in the usual rags and
old apparel worn by most locals. A small number of spectators had
painted their faces with various tribal markings. The next 40 minutes
were a personal struggle of heaving my feet out of the mud. I made
a couple of tackles bringing shrieks of laughter and cheers from the
spectators. Overall my contribution was minimal. By half time the
score was 0-0, although both teams continually threw the ball around
as if playing a game of sevens. The handling skills and particularly
the hard running of most players was most impressive.
Half time signified the end of my contribution and
the start of another 15 minutes of speeches.
Events started to warm up after The Eagles
scored an excellent try after 5 minutes of the commencement of the
second half. To this point of play the game had been played in excellent
spirit and without any nasty violent play.
At about the 10-minute interval one of The Eagle
players tackled a Rock player around the sternum. To the
referee's naked eye it was a fair tackle, but not to several of The
Rocks' spectators who demanded a penalty be given. The referee
refused to award a penalty and this firstly led to several flying
mounds of mud being lobbed at the unfortunate referee. Some of these
mud balls hit Eagle players who ran towards the offending
spectators. Within a few seconds literally most of the viewing spectators
for both teams had left their perches and charged like a light horse
brigade towards to spot where the referee had stood just a few seconds
ago. At this point I charged in the opposite direction taking two
escorts with me to offer protection if required. What happened next
were numerous fights breaking out, before The Eagle players
and many of their spectators reminded themselves that they were in
the heartland of enemy territory. Within a blink of my eye I observed
The Eagle delegation sprinting up a big hill and down a long
road chased by about a thousand local Payam residents including many
students at my school. The police fired several rounds from their
guns, not to scare anyone I suspect, but to signify that the real
action of the afternoon had commenced!
By all accounts The Eagles were chased and
fought for approximately 4 KM along the road leading to the gold mine
before the Payam crew decided to call it a day. The good news is that
there will be a replay of the match next week, so everybody will have
a chance to have some more fun!
>So this was my introduction of rugby league, Engan style.
Paiam Township, Enga