Chaos reigns - situation normal

Dave Hadfield in Lae illustrates the strange ways of Papua New Guinea

If you have been wondering why the Lae Bombers blew up in the second half of their match against Goroka, I am now in a position to tell you.

"At half-time, one of our players who used to play for Goroka told them that Goroka had a potion from a witch doctor which turns them into super men," explained the Lae coach, the expatriate Australian, Nigel Hogan.

"After that they just gave up. There isn't anything in the coaching manual to help you with that situation."

There is much else in Papua New Guinean rugby league for which nothing could prepare you.

The international side that face Great Britain in Lae today, for instance, was without its trainer, who had been called up to fight on the rebel island of Bougainville, and the physiotherapist, who is unable to get out of his village in the highlands because of tribal warfare.

The manager has been around, but only when he has not been discharging his traditional responsibilities by ferrying his Wantoks, or clansmen, around in the team's sponsored car.

And then there is Ben Bire, the sole player in the squad from Kundiawa, who went missing when he calculated that he was heavily outnumbered by players from Mendi, against whom the cup final in Lae last week degenerated into a riot in which, depending on who you believe, two, three or four people died.

Bire has been persuaded back into the fold, but with supporters from the two highland towns still fighting each other in the aftermath of last Sunday's debacle the atmosphere must be a little more fraught than when players from Wigan and St Helens meet up for Great Britain training.

There were snakes in several rooms when the Kumuls, as the national side are known, arrived to set up camp this week in Bulolo and, as ever, the full-back, Robert Sio, had to have the television removed from his room.

"He's so fascinated by it that he sits up watching it all night and then he's completely stuffed in the morning," Bob Bennett, the national coach, said.

These problems, both serious and farcical, would faze most coaches, but Bennett, who bears an unnerving resemblance to Russ Abbott, treats it all as a huge joke.

Another who seems equally capable of taking it in his stride is the side's captain and PNG's most celebrated sportsman Adrian Lam.

"It's all part of the fun," said Lam, who leaves his luxury home in a beachside suburb in Sydney to fly here and play for the country of his birth. "There are a lot of different individuals, a lot of different ways of life, but I enjoy every minute of it."

Lam, who plays for the Sydney City Roosters and for Queensland, arrived on Monday night. On Tuesday, Bennett drove him - and me - three hours up into the hills to join up with his team-mates at the training camp.

You could have stopped at any point along the dirt road - apparently inhabited or not - and gathered a crowd around Lam.

At a halt for cold drinks at a village police station, everyone came out to see him, with the exception of four unfortunates in the concrete box that serves as the police cells - three breaking and entering, one possession of marijuana - so Lam went to see them instead.

There are few barriers in Papua New Guinea that rugby league does not cross. Such is the enthusiasm for the Australian State of Origin Series - especially when Lam is playing - that visitors would be well advised to time their flights so that they do not coincide with the telecasts.

They were so absorbed in it last year at Madang airport that they forgot to turn on the runway lights and an incoming plane finished up in the sea.

The endemic violence surrounding the game in PNG raises fears that it might bring about the end of the game altogether. There were smaller riots at other matches last weekend, the referee was beaten up after Great Britain's first match in Mt Hagen on Wednesday and letters have started to appear in the national newspapers suggesting the unthinkable, that rugby league should be banned.

Although the code remains dominant here there are signs of stirrings from other sports. PNG has won the Melanesian Cup in football for the first time and is one rung up the qualification ladder for the next World Cup, rugby union is applying for government funding and Australian rules has pockets of activity around the country.

When the showpiece Australian Rules match was held in Port Moresby earlier this month, that too ended in mayhem. It is almost reassuring to find that it is not only rugby league matches that can blow the lid off this volatile society.

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