Marles pushes ‘China Threat’ in PNG Rugby League talks

Nov 22, 2022
Rugby League World Cup 2021 group D Papua New Guinea team Image: Alamy Live News /Craig Cresswell

Defence Minister Marles and PM Albanese would like to see two Papua New Guinea rugby league teams join the Australian club competition as a way to counter China’s growing influence. Instead of banging on about China, why not start a new regional competition including one or two Pacific Islands teams, New Zealand and Australia? Sport will deliver much better foreign policy dividend if it is not used as a crude geopolitical instrument. 

Anthony Albanese has said he would like to see Papua New Guinea’s men’s rugby league team, the Kumuls join the Australian club competition , plus the PNG women’s team, the Orchids. Because Rugby League is highly popular in PNG, Albanese expects the entry of the Kumuls and the Orchids to the Australian competition would help counter any growth in Chinese influence in the country that has by far the biggest population (9.3 million) among the Pacific Islands.

But it’s not as simple as this. The biggest issue in the South Pacific is how to stop climate change inundating the low lying areas across the islands. The elusive China “threat” is not a serious issue among many islanders. As discussed below, if sport is treated as not just another crude instrument in geopolitical games, it can deliver a much better foreign policy dividend.

There is also a far more complicated issue about PNG gaining entry to the Australian competition and Albanese knows it. Despite its enthusiasm it’s not very good at the game. Why should PNG be let in but not the two Pacific Island countries, Samoa and Tonga, that excel at rugby league? This is despite them having a population of only 200,000 and 100,000 respectively. After talking to the Papua New Guinean PM James Marape in July, Albanese said, “We have to look at a team eventually in the NRL competition from PNG, and perhaps from the Pacific as well”. However, some reports say rugby league officials have agreed that the Kumuls will be the 18th team in the competition after it expands to 17 teams in 2023.

Speaking in Port Moresby in October 22, the Defence minister Richard Marles reportedly said he had spoken to NRL officials a number of times about the PNG rugby league team entering the Australian competition and stated “now is the time”. Marles, who is a big fan of the Geelong AFL team which won the 2022 premiership, also tried to keep alive the fear of China while in Port Moresby. He said Australia wanted to “plug” any gaps in PNG’s defence capability because it “makes sense to be working more closely with friends” given the growing tensions between the US and China

Both Samoa and Tonga performed extremely well in the just completed Rugby League World Cup which also includes countries from Europe and elsewhere. In one particularly exciting match Samoa beat Tonga 20-18. In an analysis for the ABC, Nick Campton said, “There is nothing that “makes the air crackle” like when Samoa and Tonga perform their traditional war dances, the Siva Tau for Samoa and the Tongan Sipi Tau, at the same time. He said, “Be it via an annual match or a series or whatever, if rugby league doesn’t find room for more of this it would be like having a winning lottery ticket and refusing to cash it in. Let’s cash in this ticket and spend the money. Let’s make real, concrete plans for it to happen again in Sydney, or Auckland, or Brisbane”.

Following this match, Samoa beat England by a single point to make the final against Australia which had a comfortable win 20-10. However, Australia’s long dominance of world rugby league could be reduced by measures discussed below designed to even up a new competition.

It would make little sense to add Samoa and Tonga, as well PNG, to the existing Australian club competition where there are already so many teams that there is a vast gap between the standard at the bottom and the top. If an overall team from the Pacific were included, it would almost certainly have no one from PNG in the team if based on merit. Yet the wide spread assumption created by Albanese and Marles is that single Pacific team would be led by PNG.

Another option would be to start a new regional competition including one or two Pacific Islands teams, New Zealand and Australia. Over time, this would give Australians greater understanding and appreciation of their neighbours. From a foreign policy perspective, it would do a lot more good than banging on about our Pacific Family while refusing to treat some members as sovereign countries who can have a good relations with China if they wish. So would having a higher target for reducing global warming.

Perhaps a regional competition over a few weeks could replace the existing State of Origin contest between NSW and Queensland. Given the expanded talent pool on offer from the Pacific, a new competition should prove highly popular. There are ample difficulties to confront. But they should be surmountable by others with a much better grip of the potential solutions than this writer.

There would be a strong push for a separate Indigenous All-Stars team to participate. That would weaken the Australia team, particularly in the backline. A Maori All Stars team would do the same to the New Zealand, including the forwards. Perhaps it would help if all teams were able to remedy weaknesses by adding two or three players from outside their core talent pool.

The two Rugby league playing states, NSW and QLD, have a combined population of almost 15 million. Yet most rugby league teams rely on an injection of talent from players with a Pacific Island heritage. Seven players in the Samoan team are contracted to the current premiers Penrith. In total, 45 percent of rugby league players in Australia have a Pacific Island background.

In these circumstances, it would seem reasonable to give a separate Pacific Island team, or teams, due recognition in a new competition divorced from geopolitical machinations.

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