A dull and dreary morning in Redcliffe can’t dampen the spirits of The Dolphins NRL squad as they flock to the training fields, midway through yet another week of a gruelling inaugural preseason preparation.
The usual whoops and cheers of a footy team echo across the carpark as the entire playing group begins the morning’s session, and scattered throughout the laughter is the irresistable and undeniable tones of a Papua New Guinean accent – four of them, to be specific.
For Judah Rimbu, Rodrick Tai, Sherwin Tanabi and Emmanuel Waine, this is not just any other preseason.
All four current SP PNG Hunters players are a long way from home as they lace up their boots alongside NRL household names like Jesse & Kenneath Bromwich, Anthony Milford and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow this morning, but that’s not to say they look out of place. As the Hunters faithful know all too well, there is a wealth of rugby league talent in Papua New Guinea and for Rimbu, Tai, Tanabi and Waine, this preseason is a chance to showcase that talent thanks to an exciting new partnership between the SP PNG Hunters and The Dolphins NRL clubs.
That partnership sees four Hunters players undertake a full NRL preseason under the watchful eye of mastercoach Wayne Bennett, with two of those players promised a fulltime NRL contract with The Dolphins for the 2023 season – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The SP PNG Hunters in collaboration with the PNG RFL and the Australian Government’s PacificAus Sports program is currently in the process of ushering in a new era for rugby league in Papua New Guinea.
A strategic pathway designed to identify and develop home-grown rugby league talent is slowly being introduced in PNG across all levels – from grassroots football, the Digicel Cup and all the way through to international programs – with one key purpose; to create a genuine pathway into the NRL competition for players and coaches of Papua New Guinean heritage.
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for these four young Hunters and if this morning’s session is anything to go by, they are taking it with both hands.
As the players are all put through their paces, the power and skill of the Hunters representatives is evident. They all possess the brute strength and fearlessness in contact that is part-and-parcel of their Papua New Guinean heritage, growing up playing in regional junior comps and watching the notoriously physical Digicel Cup competition. But where the real growth and potential lies for these four Hunters is in the elite rugby league education they are receiving while training within an NRL system.
Indeed, while the distance between The Dolphins’ high-performance training facilities in Redcliffe and the hallowed turf of the Santos National Football Stadium in Port Moresby is long forgotten this morning, Rimbu, Tai, Tanabi and Waine are already keenly aware of the experiences afforded them.
As we sit down to chat following a gruelling two-hour session in the rain, there is a shared sense of appreciation for and awareness of the opportunity before them.
There is also a fierce pride for representing not only their friends, families and SP PNG Hunters teammates, but the country of Papua New Guinea as a whole. These four Hunters are living out a childhood dream shared by thousands of kids growing up in villages back home, and the weight of that expectation and responsibility is not lost on them. Instead, Rimbu, Tai, Tanabi and Waine are taking in every moment and soaking up every drop of information they can.
For Rodrick Tai – a breakout star of the SP PNG Hunters ‘22 campaign and a hero of their Round 20 win over the Mackay Cutters last season – the attention to detail required at this level has been eye-opening.
“Everything is done with great intensity and there is a real attention to detail,” said Tai.
“Getting the one-percenters right; positioning in defence, footwork, combinations and timing with the players around you. All those little things are so important and we’re working hard to ensure we pay attention to the details and get those moments right.”
For 21-year old playmaker Judah Rimbu, it’s the application to training and emphasis on building good habits that has been impressed upon him most.
“When we’re training there is a big focus on transitioning between drills quickly and moving onto the next job,” said Rimbu.
“There’s a real feeling of professionalism about the way we train. We’re expected to adjust quickly and always get ready for the next job, which is exactly how we need to play during games. You can’t switch off for even a second – you need to be ‘on’ all the time.”
That’s fair reflection from a rookie halfback with just 28 Cup games to his name and is testament to Rimbu’s eagerness to learn – a trait written all over his infectious smiling face.
For Tanabi and Waine – both standouts for the Hunters last season and recent members of the PNG Kumuls World Cup squad alongside Tai – the practical applications of training has made the biggest impact on them, three weeks into the latest preseason block.
“Everything we do is short and sharp. There’s a clear correlation between what we’re working on in a drill and how it might translate into a game scenario,” says Waine, as Tanabi nods in agreement beside him.
“There’s a purpose to everything which makes the training enjoyable. It’s easy to see how practising our footwork or positioning in a drill will help us defend on an edge in the game, for example,” Tanabi added.
“It’s challenging and done at high speeds which all helps to develop our skill and prepares us better for when we’re finally back out on the field.”
It quickly becomes apparent that the maturity of these Hunters players has developed out of sight since living and training within an elite NRL team environment. No doubt the challenges of a difficult 2022 Hostplus Cup season and the experience of a World Cup campaign with the PNG Kumuls has contributed to that, with the result being four young rugby league players desperate to make the most of the talent and opportunities presented to them.
A warm welcome from The Dolphins NRL playing squad has certainly helped with their transition this year, with all four Hunters representatives paying tribute to The Dolphins senior players for supporting the move.
“Everyone has been really welcoming and made sure we feel a part of the team,” said Waine.
“There is no seperation – we’re all here to learn and get better as a team and the senior players really drive that on and off the field. It’s been really good so far.”
Of course, we couldn’t talk footy without mentioning a man who is revered both back home in Papua New Guinea and in the wider rugby league community, too.
The Dolphins NRL Head Coach Wayne Bennett has long been a proponent of the relatively untapped football talent coming out of Papua New Guinea, and to be training and learning under his guidance is proving as inspiring as it is surreal for the four young Hunters.
“He’s just so wise,” says Tanabi with a big grin on his face.
“He’s very motivational – he always knows exactly what to say to get you focussed and working in the right direction. He has so much experience and it’s awesome to be learning from him every day.”
Whether or not their preseason efforts eventuate into an NRL debut for The Dolphins this year, Rimbu, Tai, Tanabi and Waine all know they are working towards more than just that single goal.
The experience and lessons taken from Bennett and The Dolphins NRL squad this preseason will undoubtedly set them up for success with the SP PNG Hunters in the upcoming 2023 Hostplus Cup competition.
All four players will be available to play for the Hunters this year when not selected in The Dolphins NRL side, giving the proud PNG-based club a foundation of NRL talent and experience that has long differentiated them from the majority of the QRL competition. Having four players like Rimbu, Tai, Tanabi and Waine to set the standards at training and lead the way in games will be a major boost for the club looking to improve on their 12th-placed finish in 2022.
When you consider that the SP PNG Hunters will also enjoy a home-crowd and home-ground advantage this season after being relocated to the Gold Coast for the past two years, there is plenty to be excited about for the footy-mad fans of Papua New Guinea in 2023 and beyond.
Written by Oscar Pannifex for SP PNG Hunters Media
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