Papua New Guinea determined to do Kumuls fans proud against England

Humidity levels are set to tip 80% in Port Moresby on Saturday but that will pale next to the fever generated in Papua New Guinea’s steaming capital when their beloved Kumuls face England in the quarter-finals of the Rugby League World Cup.

Most of the country’s nine million inhabitants, spanning 7,000 different cultural groups and 800 distinct languages, will stay up until long after midnight to watch or listen to their team’s bid to emulate previous successes over touring British Lions teams.

Those triumphs – in Goroka in 1990 in a match known as the ‘tear gas test’ because of attempts to restrain thousands of ticketless fans from storming the gates of the Danny Leahy Oval – and again in the capital in 2019, emphasised the importance of their national sport.

Papua New Guinea v Cook Islands – Rugby League World Cup – Group D – The Halliwell Jones Stadium
Papua New Guinea barged past the Cook Islands in the group stage (Mike Egerton/PA)

A squad sprinkled with Super League stars, including Leigh’s Lachlan Lam and Edwin Ipape and their captain, Leeds Rhinos second-rower Rhyse Martin, has stoked expectations after pushing fancied Tonga all the way in their opening Group D match and subsequently sinking the Cook Islands and Wales.

Martin, whose father grew up in Hola in the country’s Central Province, says the obsessional support of the fans back home has been the driving force in his side repeating their run to the last eight, having lost to England at the same stage four years ago in Melbourne.

“It means everything to everyone in Papua New Guinea for us to play and win,” said Martin. “It’ll be something special over there this weekend, something that probably everybody needs to experience. Just the passion and love they have for the sport.

“It’s no burden for us, it’s excitement, the boys representing where they come from and generations of their families wanting to be a Kumul. Whether we win or lose the fans will always stand by the Kumuls, so we just want to do them proud.”

Rugby league was introduced to the country in the 1940s and soon attracted huge crowds, with thousands walking huge distances to watch matches against touring teams like New Zealand and the British Lions, who felt the extent of Papuan passion at the game in Goroka.

“You can’t put into words the passion the people of Papua New Guinea have for rugby league,” said Garry Schofield, the former Leeds and Britain great who was making his debut as Lions vice-captain that day.

St Helens v Leeds Rhinos – Betfred Super League – Grand Final – Old Trafford
Leeds Rhinos star Rhyse Martin is captaining the Kumuls at the Rugby League World Cup (Martin Rickett/PA)

“Every player is proud to wear their country’s jersey, but I’d say PNG players are the proudest of all.

“They play with pride, passion and commitment whatever the score, and England know if they don’t perform at their best on Saturday they will get turned over.”

The match – as well as the PNG Orchids’ clash with Brazil in the women’s tournament later on Saturday night – will be broadcast free-to-air in the country on EMTV, as well as live commentary on its radio partner, FM100, whose DJ Judah Memafu has been rallying support.

“It would go crazy if we were to beat England,” said Memafu. “There is a general feeling that we have a fighting chance, but more than that we would like to see our boys and girls given the respect we believe we deserve on the international stage.

“Rugby league is a sport that unites people from all our different cultures and languages. Whether it is the big man in the office or the cleaner, everybody participates in the conversation and sometimes they will go out and do crazy things, such is their love for the game.

“Stories like the tear gas do evoke images of a violent nation but if we can look at it in a positive context it just shows how much the nation loves the sport, and how we can hold our heads high and use it to make progress and become a better force.”