Stanley Gene: How old a man is Stan?

No one knows his age, but the Papuan great will provide a big test for England in the World Cup tomorrow. By Dave Hadfield in Townsville, Australia

Few issues in rugby league are as guaranteed to bring on the silly season prematurely as the question of Stanley Gene's age. The apparently timeless Papua New Guinea vice-captain is in Australia for the World Cup, which begins with his country's game against England in Townsville tomorrow. And the very sight of his weathered features has been enough to trigger a type of Dutch auction in the Australian media, on the theme of "How old a man is Stan?"

Those who have played or coached against him in England, where he has plied his trade since 1996, have been queuing up to be solicited for their best guess as to his age. The former St Helens centre, Jamie Lyon, settles for "pushing 40". The one-time Castleford and Wigan coach, Stuart Raper, goes for 41. The former Leeds coach, Graham Murray, and the ex-Wigan forward, Bryan Fletcher, have raised the bidding to 45.

"He's still a good player, though," adds Fletcher. "It's like tackling a piece of titanium." They have nothing on his Wikipedia entry, however, which says he could be anywhere between 32 and 58!

All wrong, says Stanley himself. "I'm 34 – I wouldn't tell you a fib." But he has studiously avoided ever producing a birth certificate to prove it.

In fairness, there were probably few birth certificates being issued in the Goroka area of the New Guinea Highlands 34 years – or however long – ago when he was born. Instead, people just look at Gene's battered warrior features and draw their own conclusions.

"People say that PNG people look older in the face," he told Australian journalists by way of explanation. "But I seem to be playing better football every year. I'm like good red wine."

Hull Kingston Rovers, the club he first joined after coming to England for the 1995 World Cup, would agree with that. They were so keen to re-sign him for next season that they appealed for and got a special dispensation from the new restrictions on overseas players. Stanley, they argued, was an adopted Humbersider.

This is his second stint with Rovers and he has also played for Hull, Huddersfield and Bradford. Wherever he has been, he has been a firm favourite with the fans, who might not be able to pronounce his name – it should rhyme with "many" rather than come out like the gene in Gene Autry – but chant it anyway.

No other player from the one country where rugby league is the national sport has been as popular in an adopted land, not even the Kumuls' current coach, Adrian Lam, when he was at Wigan. That does not mean that there were no teething troubles in a strange country, making the transition from village life among subsistence farmers to the bustle of a European city – even Hull.

In his autobiography, Daydream Believer, published this year, Gene tells a number of stories to highlight his own naivety in an unfamiliar culture . There was the time that a Hull angling shop decided to sponsor him with state-of-the-art gear after he claimed to be a keen fisherman. He was taken to a local stretch of river, but in the excitement of the moment reverted to the techniques he knew at home and threw several hundred pounds' worth of fibreglass rod at the fish. Even more embarrassing was the time he encountered a bidet for the first time at a team-mate's house and did not quite know what it was for, but used it for what he guessed was its function.

From those unpromising beginnings, Gene has become Britain's favourite Kumul, although he goes home once a year to his village near Goroka. His own affection for England will not stop him trying to embarrass them on Saturday. PNG have been given the dubious status of makeweights in the high-powered Pool One, where they are expected to be beaten by England, New Zealand and Australia.

Anything they can do to upset those calculations will make them instant heroes at home, where normal life will stop for the games on television. Apart from Gene and his Hull KR team-mate, Makali Aizue, they have seasoned, capable players like their captain, the Salford utility back, John Wilshere, and Canberra's Neville Costigan.

Few things are straightforward in Papua New Guinea, however, with its patchwork of diverse tribes and languages."He's probably the key to our team," says coach Lam. "Not only is this his third World Cup, he's played over there for more than 10 years and has a lot of knowledge about English players. And our local players really look up to him, because he shows that this is not just about playing in a World Cup, it could be about making a whole new life for yourself."

The England coach, Tony Smith, knows that the oldest Kumul is also the most battle-hardened and potentially the biggest threat to his side. "He's just a real competitor. He can play like a prop or he can play like a half-back," says Smith, who coached him at Huddersfield. "We know what we have to expect from Stanley."

Gene himself hopes that his own worldwide experience can inspire a new generation of Papuan players, including some of those who will be on the field at Townsville and in the games against the Kiwis and the Kangaroos over the next two weeks.

"It's a really tough group – full of quality," he says. "But we know we can win games here. A lot of us had very tough upbringings in PNG and we're not scared of anyone."

Papua New Guinea: Short history of nation in love with League

* Papua New Guinea, which only became independent from Australia in 1975, has a population of six million and boasts over 850 indigenous languages – more than any other country on the planet.

* The country is joined to Indonesia and covers 178,704 square miles, roughly the size of Sweden. It is so rugged in places that planes are the only viable mode of transport.

* The capital, Port Moresby, was once voted the worst place to live out of a list of 130 world capitals.

* Sea shells are no longer the currency of Papua New Guinea, as they still were in some regions until the 1930s.

* Rugby League is regarded as Papua New Guinea's national sport. During the 2000 World Cup a TV audience of two million – a third of the population – watched the Kumuls lose to Wales in the quarter-finals.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Peter Moores was criticised for failing to handle top players when he last led the England team
sportFive years after being sacked from the job, Peter Moores to be named a cricket coach
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit