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The SP PNG Hunters compelling 2024 campaign continues to gather momentum and faces its next challenge this Sunday, 26th May at BB Print Stadium, Mackay. 

The 11th-placed Mackay Cutters lie in wait for the Hunters in Round 11 of the QRL Hostplus Cup following a run of three straight victories for the Papua New Guinean-based club. Big wins over Townsville and Ipswich were complemented by a more complete Round 9 performance against the then first-placed Northern Pride, highlighting all of the Hunters improvements made under Head Coach Paul Aiton this season. 

While Aiton stresses there is still plenty of work to be done, it’s been difficult to deny the way PNG have kicked off their premiership campaign.

“We’re still quite a young and inexperienced team and we’re learning every day,” said Aiton.

“A lot of our boys are in their first or second year in the Hostplus Cup and it can be challenging to get up every week, not just physically but mentally too.”

“It’s been really pleasing to see the players embrace the grind throughout a difficult start to the year.”

A challenging opening draw saw the Hunters face some of the top clubs in the QRL over the opening months and Aiton credited those experiences for PNG’s steep learning curve this season.

“It wasn’t exactly a smooth start but that’s part of the game we took a lot out of those experiences,” Aiton said. 

“We’re slowly adding parts to our game every week and it’s been encouraging to see the players hungry to learn and keen to keep working hard for each other.”

A key feature of the SP PNG Hunters resurgence this year has been their ability to play to a plan and stick to their systems, on both sides of the ball.

There is a significant difference between how teams defend in the Digicel Exxon-Mobil Cup compared to the QRL, and Aiton has set these young Hunters up for success by ensuring their defensive systems are to standard. 

These improvements are evident in all the little key technical areas of the game – marker play, dual-contact, inside pressure, defensive spacing, etc – and PNG have impressed at different times this year to maintain a connected defensive system while under pressure and fatigue.

The Hunters have also made considerable changes this season to how they use the ball in attack.

Having identified their strengths in the middle of the field, the Hunters have built an identity around a power game through the ruck area. Spearheaded by Judah Rimbu at dummy-half and Captain Ila Alu at lock, PNG have found a winning formula in their direct approach with the ball. 

By repeatedly turning players back against the grain and flooding the ruck area with hard running forwards, the Hunters are injecting fatigue into their opponents middle early and setting up games to win them late. It is not a coincidence that the SP PNG Hunters have scored most of their points so far this season in the back end of each half once fatigue has set in. 

Not only have Aiton’s Hunters found a gameplan that complements their best qualities this year, they’ve also created systems to support what is traditionally one of the least experienced outfits in the QRL Hostplus Cup. 

The best and latest evidence of these systematic improvements is the fill-in performance of Finley Glare at five-eighth for the Hunters last week against the Jets.

“Joshua [Lau] has been a big part of our development this year and it was unfortunate to see him go down injured last week,” said Aiton.

“In saying that, Finley [Glare] did a great job in his absence and it was pleasing to see us stick to the plan despite having different guys playing in new key positions.”

Despite spending limited time in the halves across seven Hostplus Cup games to date, Glare didn’t miss a beat filling in for Lau last week on the Hunters strike left edge. He played to a plan in yardage to drop his backrower and centre in towards the ruck before executing a number of well-constructed and familiar attacking actions in good-ball, finishing with one try and another assist. 

For Glare to fill-in seamlessly at five-eighth for Lau last week after deputising at halfback for the injured Jamie Mavoko one week earlier is credit to both Glare’s own development as a player and the improving systems introduced by Aiton and his coaching staff. The better clubs are those who can slot new players into new positions without disrupting their playing style and the SP PNG Hunters are doing exactly that to kick off the 2024 regular season. 

The Mackay Cutters present the next challenge for this evolving Hunters outfit on Sunday in the latest instalment of what has become a healthy rivalry between the two Hostplus Cup clubs. 

The PNG faithful will fondly recall a famous Hunters win over the Cutters to close out the 2022 regular season before the Hunters made it back-to-back victories over Mackay in Round 7, 2023. Both of those wins came on home soil for the PNG-based club however, who will have to do it without the support of a raucous Santos National Football Stadium crowd this coming Sunday. 

The Cutters come into QRL Round 11 on the back of four straight losses including a recent heavy 52-6 defeat to the Northern Pride. No doubt Mackay will be desperate to get back in the winners circle and into premiership contention with a much-needed win on Sunday afternoon. 

Player to Watch

SP PNG Hunters fan favourite Solo Wane is no stranger to the weekly highlights reel. The speedy winger has an impressive 26 tries from 55 QRL appearances to date, making him one of the most prolific try scorers in the club’s proud history. 

With just one try from nine games to start the year however, Wane’s current strike rate is a far cry from his career average. Instead, the speedy winger has found other ways to contribute to the Hunters hot start to the regular season. 

With an average 125 running metres per game, Wane is putting up career-best numbers in yardage this year. No longer simply an expert finisher, Wane is getting through plenty of work in exit sets to help the Hunters work out of their own half. He mightn’t be the name troubling the scoreboard every week, but rest assured Wane is playing a role in the lead up to any PNG scoring action. 

Wane is also benefiting from the Hunters improved defensive systems this year to make some smart decisions under pressure on the edges. 

With a number of inexperienced players on his inside to start the year, Wane has helped introduce the likes of Elijah Roltinga, Robert Mathias, Clent Lama and Joshua Lau into Cup grade while offering nice leadership in defence. With an average 83.64% tackle efficiency this season, Wane is again putting up career-best numbers under Head Coach Aiton in season 2024. 

A return to the highlights reel in QRL Round 10 – courtesy of a miracle offload assist to his centre partner Roltinga – is hopefully a sign of more to come for the Hunters try scoring specialist on Sunday afternoon. 



Papua New Guinea's team participating in the Queensland Hostplus Cup

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2022 Hostplus Cup