By Tony Webeck
The first time Josh Hannay visited Papua New Guinea as a member of a North Queensland Cowboys team in the late 1990s, he and other players encouraged the local kids to help clean up Lloyd Robson Oval with the lure of training gear as a reward.
When they returned with a garbage bin full of glass, tin, metal, bolts and nails; members of the Cowboys playing squad looked at each quizzically.
“All we were thinking was, ‘Bloody hell, we've got to play on this in two days’ time’,” Hannay recalls.
“We were just praying that they got most of it.”
When Tweed Heads Seagulls players arrive at Port Moresby’s new National Football Stadium via police escort to take part in the undefeated PNG Hunters' first home game of 2016 this weekend they will be greeted by a far different scene.
After two years playing mostly out of Kokopo the Hunters returned to their nation's capital towards the end of the 2015 Intrust Super Cup season to a heroes’ welcome.
Hunters games are broadcast on Digicel in PNG and with only a small percentage of the population having access to a digital set-top box, a capacity crowd crammed into a still unfinished Sir John Guise Stadium to watch them play Souths Logan.
The Hunters’ ability to qualify for the finals in just their second season last year was testimony to their toughness and natural skill as they prepared each week in makeshift facilities on the island of Kokopo.
As in the past two years, the Hunters players will be domiciled together, but this time in Moresby and with access to brand new facilities that were constructed for last year’s Pacific Games and will next year host matches of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
“It's a big, big change this season from the last two seasons,” coach Michael Marum said.
“It was a bit hard on the team, travelling around but we’ve got a base with our new home ground, a training field close by and we're setting up a gym as well.
“It's quite easier now with the new facilities there and also for all of our home games there we will be expecting a big turnout. Everyone's looking forward to all of those games in PNG.
“The people had only been watching us on TV out of Kokopo when the games were on up there but now as word got out that we were playing at Sir John Guise Stadium people were lining up to get tickets.
“There were 15,000 tickets and they sold out within a day so everyone is really behind the team up there.”
Joanna Lester spent 12 months on secondment with the NRL working in PNG to develop rugby league pathways and said the impact on the nation has been significant, with the locals revelling in any chance to see their Hunters beat a team from Australia.
“When you drive over the top of the hill on the freeway in Port Moresby, you are greeted by a huge Hunters billboard before you turn the corner and the spectacular harbour comes into view,” Lester said.
“The excitement is partly about the Hunters brand, partly about how good they are, and partly about the chance to see them play and beat Australian teams. The standard of the Hunters is really far, far better than other rugby league in PNG.
“The players – who are now household names – remain very humble despite their relatively rapid rise to a totally different lifestyle and are incredibly grateful for the opportunity they have been given.”
With sell-out crowds expected for every home game played at the National Football Stadium this year, game-day will be a vastly different experience for many of the visiting players from Intrust Super Cup teams.
But rather than being daunted by a pre-game atmosphere that Hannay likened to a State of Origin build-up, the Souths Logan coach says visiting teams can use the greatly reduced travel time and the incredible spectacle to their advantage.
“We obviously sensed that we were going to be part of something pretty special for PNG and Port Moresby and rugby league over there and that certainly was the case,” said Hannay, whose Magpies were the first Intrust Super Cup team to play a premiership match against the Hunters in Moresby last year.
“Getting the bus to the ground on the day of the game, it was almost like that State of Origin, fever pitch type scenario with the streams of people, traffic backed up for miles, people lining the streets.
“It was an exceptional occasion for Cup players to be able to experience that.
"Certainly the occasion and the atmosphere really helped us to get up for that game.
“With the reduced travel time it may actually play into the travelling team's hands more this year than playing at Kokopo.”
Let's see if Seagulls players are saying the same thing when they return next week.
A former editor of Big League, Tony Webeck is the Chief Queensland Correspondent for NRL.com.