Papua New Guinea is more than a country which has an incredible passion for rugby league.
It has a history deeply intertwined with Australia’s own.
From the horrors of war a bond was formed and that relationship has been strengthened every year for the past decade by a group of young rugby league players from western NSW.
At the end of this season, a group of young players, some of who have never even left the state before, will depart for Papua New Guinea (PNG) and honour those who gave their life for our freedom while also sharing their love for rugby league.
Players from a NSW Young Achievers side will take part alongside parents and Nyngan-based country rugby league stalwart and coach Col Wright, who came up with the idea of the tour in 2005.
They will trek part of Kokoda during the tour while also spending time in regional and remote villages running rugby league clinics before the team takes on the national under 16s side in the curtain-raiser to the Australian Prime Minster’s XIII match.
Taking on the Papua New Guinea under 16s side may seem the highlight but there’s an incredible amount more to the tour than that.
Young men from places like Enngonia or Walgett find themselves in a children’s hospital in Port Moresby, giving hope to someone close to their own age battling a serious and potentially deadly disease.
“I could talk for hours about what I’ve seen and what it’s done for our kids,” Wright said, adding there was some “awful sights” as well as moments of sheer joy.
“It works both ways for our kids and the kids there. You go to the hospital and you can make the kids there feel better for just a half hour or so and they treat us like movie stars, it’s like we’re Billy Slater or Cameron Smith to them.
“I’ve said it before, if we could harness 10 percent of their love for the game then rugby league would move on in leaps and bounds.”
Wright met then head of administration for PNG rugby league, Jeff Wade, in 2005 and a frustrated Wade mentioned how he struggled to attract high-profile players to his country.
Wright, ironically, felt a connection as someone who lived in the far west of NSW he had rarely seen big names in his local area either.
He decided he would start a tour of PNG with not necessarily the best players, roughly under 16s years of age, he would choose those who deserved it and who played rugby league the right way.
It took plenty of organisation but in 2008 a Far West side made the trip.
It has only grown from there and in 2015 the side not only promoted the sport and helped coach, it also trekked Kokoda, with young rugby league players walking 98km before beating the PNG side 14-12.
“The children’s hospital was always the highlight for me but to see what our soldiers did and how they saved our country, because they did, without Kokoda it would have been very different, was really important,” Wright said of the 2015 trek.
Wright is adamant he will run the tour for many years to come but his biggest fear is the cost involved rising and families from regional areas not being able to afford their child taking part in the experience.
With minimal support, Wright said he rarely receives replies from emails to NRL identities, he is concerned
In the coming weeks he will meet with Terry Quinn, the Country Rugby League (CRL) chief executive officer, while he is also expected to talk with Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant.
“I’ll continue to do it but we have to pay for this privilege, we get no funding,” Wright said.
The tour has helped shape many young players who have gone on to the top level of the game. South Sydney star and Australian representative Alex Johnson is the most high profile of those to take part while Nate Butcher and Cameron Murray are now making names for themselves at the Sydney Roosters and Rabbitohs respectively while Wellington’s Brent Naden is part of the Canberra Raiders system.
Wright added he was always on the lookout for any support or sponsorship to ensure the tour continues in the future. Anyone interested can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.