As the Australian government looks to combat Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands, plans are afoot for rugby league to follow the lead of Super Rugby and have a Pasifika team in the NRL competition.
Plans are afoot for rugby league to follow the lead of Super Rugby and introduce a Pasifika team to the NRL competition.
Just days after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese raised the prospect of forming an NRL team to represent the Pacific Islands during a visit to Fiji, The Sun-Herald can reveal that the initiative is being considered by a prospective Papua New Guinea-led franchise.
The development comes at a time when the NRL is seeking $60 million in federal government funding to help grow the sport in the region.
Former Bulldogs and Rugby League World Cup boss Andrew Hill has been tasked with driving PNG’s bid to become the next NRL franchise. Given it is unlikely that PNG will earn the league’s 18th licence as a stand-alone entity, one of the options being explored is forming a super bid comprising players and resources from PNG, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji.
“A Pacific option is definitely being considered,” Hill told The Sun-Herald. “There’s three options: a PNG outright team, a partnership model and a Pacific model.
“The PNG government is very genuine in getting an NRL licence based in PNG, whatever option is being considered.
“The PNG bid will look at every opportunity to bring more content to PNG, that’s the primary goal of our bid. A Pacific team is gathering support and if there’s an opportunity to lead that bid, then we will absolutely consider that as a viable option.
“We’ve seen how engaged our players across the NRL are in representing their Pacific heritage, culture and families. That passion the players have is getting stronger and gathering momentum.
“We’ve seen in Super Rugby recently that they have taken the jump over rugby league and established a Pasifika team. Whilst we think rugby league in the Pacific is far stronger, it gives us the confidence to discuss what a Pacific team might look like.
“Obviously PNG would be leading those discussions, but clearly the genuine goal of the PNG government is to get more content in PNG and a licence based in PNG.”
Albanese watched the deciding State of Origin game with PNG Prime Minister James Marape on Wednesday night as part of the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji. Speaking to reporters during the trip, Albanese expressed a desire for the region to have its own NRL team and to host State of Origin matches.
“I’ve had discussions with the NRL, very directly, and I have spoken to [ARL Commission chairman] Peter V’landys and [NRL chief executive] Andrew Abdo about the Pacific’s engagement with rugby league,” Albanese said during the visit.
“It would be a good thing if we gave consideration about how you get a Pacific team, a team with connections to PNG, Tonga, Samoa.”
The Australian government is investing heavily in the Pacific at a time when China is making its presence felt in the region. Gas, mineral and resources companies, including Shell, Exxon, Santos and TotalEnergies, are prominent in the area and could be prepared to support the expansion of rugby league.
PNG is the only country where rugby league is the national sport and the NRL is keen for retired players to help further the game in its schools.
The team behind the PNG bid is independent of any political party, with all sides of politics expected to back the bid regardless of the final results from the controversial national elections.
Players of Pasifika heritage make up of 45 per cent of the NRL’s playing ranks, at a time when Tonga is No.2 in the global rankings, ahead of Australia. Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, PNG and Cook Islands are expected to field strong teams in the upcoming World Cup, an opportunity to further highlight the influence of the Pacific.
The NRL has indicated a desire to eventually expand to 18 teams just as Moana Pasifika begins to make its mark on the Super Rugby competition.