Lions tour 2019: Papua New Guinea’s history with Great Britain

Great Britain pay their first visit to Papua New Guinea for 23 years on Saturday when they take on the Kumuls in the final match of this winter’s tour.

The Pacific nation is the only country in the world where rugby league is considered the national sport and was a regular stop-off point for Great Britain tours in the past.

Ahead of the latest Test, we look back at the history of Papua New Guinea’s clashes with the Lions and Home Nations, plus some of the country’s stars who have made their name on these shores…

  • Great Britain wary of Papua New Guinea
  • Mead back for PNG to face Lions
  • Rudge shines for England against PNG

The first international and World Cups

Although rugby league had been played in Papua New Guinea since being introduced by Australian soldiers stationed there in the 1940s, it was not until 1974 the country became a member of the international federation.

The following year saw the Kumuls’ first international when they hosted England, who were en route to Australia and New Zealand for that year’s Rugby League World Cup.

Two tries apiece from George Fairbairn and Keith Fielding, plus single scores by Dave Chisnall, Mike Coulman, Ken Gill and Steve Nash helped the tourists to a 40-12 victory in front of 12,000 spectators packed into Lloyd Robson Oval.

Great Britain’s first clash with Papua New Guinea came nine years later on the final match of the 1984 Southern Hemisphere tour, with Frank Myler’s side aiming to end on a high after being whitewashed in three-Test series by both Australia and New Zealand.

Des Drummond crossed twice for the Lions in Mount Hagen, and Mick Burke, Ellery Hanley, David Hobbs, Keith Mumby and Keith Rayne all went over as well in a 38-20 win for the tourists, who would be back again four years later for a World Cup clash – Great Britain triumphing 42-22.

In between, the Papua New Guineans made their first appearance against the full Lions team on British soil in 1987.

The clash at Central Park saw Wigan’s Shaun Edwards leading the way with two tries in a 42-0 win, while clubmates Hanley, Joe Lydon and Andy Gregory were among the try-scorers as well. However, it would not be long before the Kumuls were celebrating.

When the Lions were tamed

The date of May 27 1990 is one etched in Papua New Guinea’s rugby league history because it was the day the Pacific Islanders recorded a famous 20-18 triumph over Great Britain in Goroka – to date, their only victory against the Lions.

“To keep order, the police decided to try out their new tear gas and released canisters into the air. This blew back onto the pitch and made breathing almost impossible for a few minutes.”

Phil Clarke

The sweltering heat in the Papua New Guinean highlands made conditions difficult enough for the tourists, combined with a boisterous full house and thousands more eager spectators trying to find a way to watch the match after being locked out making for a fervent atmosphere.

“The ground capacity was approximately 12,000, but thousands more had walked for days to come and see this game, and were not that keen to walk away when they were told that the ground was now full,” Sky Sports rugby league expert Phil Clarke, who was on his first Lions tour, recalled.

“To keep order, the relatively untrained and inexperienced police decided to try out their new tear gas and released canisters into the air. This blew back onto the pitch and made breathing almost impossible for a few minutes.”

The Lions actually out-scored the hosts three tries to two, but Bal Numapo landed two conversions, three penalties and a drop goal – with try-scorer Stanley Haru slotting a one-pointer as well – to seal a famous win.

Great Britain got their revenge in Port Moresby the following week with a 40-8 win, along with triumphing 56-4 in Wigan and 20-14 on tour in 1991 and 1992 respectively.

To date, the closest Papua New Guinea have come to beating the Lions again, was on their last tour in 1996 where Bobbie Goulding’s goal-kicking helped the visitors hold out for a 32-30 triumph.

Home Nations clashes

Although it has been 23 years since a Great Britain team face Papua New Guinea, they have come up against the individual Home Nations in the intervening years.

Having finished top of their group with three wins from three in the 2000 World Cup, PNG faced Wales in the quarter-finals with an estimated two million television viewers watching back home.

They were to be left disappointed, however, as tries from Lee Briers, Jason Critchley and Wes Davies secured a 20-8 victory for the Welsh in Widnes. Wales also ran out 50-10 winners in Bridgend in an international clash seven years later.

England have secured three wins from three against the Kumuls as well. Lee Smith’s hat-trick helped them to a 32-22 win in the 2008 World Cup and Tony Clubb crossed four times in the 36-10 win during the 2010 Four Nations.

A 36-6 win in the 2017 World Cup – with Jermaine McGillvary and Kallum Watkins scoring twice – booked England’s semi-final place as well, but Papua New Guinea did record success over a Home Nations side in that tournament.

Tries from Watson Boas, Garry Lo and Nene Macdonald helped them hold off Ireland in a close-fought group stage contest, winning 14-6.

Kumuls stars make mark in UK

Lo and Boas are just two of a number of Papua New Guineans who have travelled to these shores to ply their trade at club level.

Arguably the most successful have been Stanley Gene and Adrian Lam, with the former particularly remembered for his two hugely productive spells with Hull Kingston Rovers.

Lam, meanwhile, helped Wigan Warriors win the 2002 Challenge Cup during his four seasons with the club and is now back at the DW Stadium as head coach.

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