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Island gods high in a dream world

Dave Hadfield explains the game's remarkable hold on Papua New Guinea
NOWHERE in the world of rugby league will victory - any victory - in the World Cup be hailed with as much joy as in Papua New Guinea. The country occupies a special place in the game's geography as the only country where the code is indisputably the national sport.

Every pass and tackle from the Kumuls, as the national side is known, will be followed with obsessive interest back home. "If we win one game, there will be celebrations throughout the country. If we win the group and qualify for the semi-finals, the country will go mad," their coach, Joe Tokam, said.

Such is the enthusiasm there, that the PNG captain, Adrian Lam, fears many supporters actually expect them to win the Halifax Centenary World Cup. They are bound to be disappointed, but not to the extent that could dislodge the game from the nation's affections.

It was the Australians who introduced the game when they were put in charge of administering the country after the Second World War. By the 1960s, it had ceased simply to be a pastime for Australian expatriates.

Although PNG's record overseas is poor, players who have met them on their own patch tell an entirely different story. Great Britain and New Zealand have both lost matches there. "They are some of the toughest, hardest men you could ever play against," said Jonathan Davies, a veteran of a PNG triumph at Goroka in 1990, which sent the country into a delirium of delight.

Matches in PNG are unlike any elsewhere in the world. It is not unusual for spectators in full tribal dress to walk for hours through the countryside to watch major games. When grounds cannot accommodate them, there have been near-riots by those locked out. The smell of tear gas became all too familiar during the 1990 tour.

The flavour of their own trips overseas has been very different. In Britain in 1991, the Kumuls had to cope with a 30C drop in temperature between Port Moresby and the North of England. Not even wearing all their kit at once could warm them up.

In France, on another chilly tour, the players apparently spent most of their time in a pornographic cinema - not because they were unduly interested in what was on screen, but because it was the only place they could keep warm. They also appear to have been making themselves at home last week even if one hotel-room party ended up in the local police station (though allegations of sexual assault were later withdrawn).

The ethnic mixture can also present problems. There are 600 linguistic groups in PNG, and on one tour the management had to keep the news from two players that their tribes had gone to war with each other.

The bulk of the players still fall into two broad camps - subsistence farmers from the Highlands and players based in Moresby, many of whom augment their earnings from the army, police or prison service with modest wages for playing semi-professional league.

The yeast in the brew this time, however, is a sprinkling of players who have acquired experience in the totally professional Winfield Cup in Australia. David Westley and Bruce Mamando, of the Canberra Raiders, will give PNG forward know-how in their matches against Tonga and New Zealand, something that has been missing in the past.

The biggest difference is Lam himself. His family might have left PNG for Brisbane when he was seven, but he has always regarded himself as a Papua New Guinean. That attachment to his roots was tested earlier this year when an outstanding series at scrum-half for Queensland in the State of Origin matches gave him a real chance of selection for Australia.

Lam turned his back on that prospect. "I just couldn't let the people in PNG down," he said. Now the country expects him to use his Australian expertise to work miracles for them. "I don't feel too much pressure," Lam said. "The players who are based in PNG are like gods there. They are under the real pressure."

Despite spending almost 20 years in Brisbane and Sydney, where he plays for the Sydney City Bulldogs, Lam has found few problems communicating with the side he leads. Even after moving to Australia, he and his father spoke pidgin English at home. It is that language, which, along with rugby league, is one of the few unifying factors in a mind-bogglingly diverse country.

"For us," Tokam said, "rugby league is nambawan." They might not be able to claim to be No 1 in the world in three weeks' time, but they have their place in the game. No true rugby league fan would begrudge them a few moments of glory.