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PNG Orchids / PNGRFL

This International Women’s Day, the Australian Government is celebrating the growth of women’s rugby league in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and launching an exciting new $9.7 million package that will support the development of a national women's competition and a new women's talent identification program.

The four-year commitment will be delivered by PacificAus Sport in partnership with the Queensland Rugby League (QRL), working closely with the Papua New Guinea Rugby Football League (PNGRFL). In addition to providing direct support for the development of the women’s competition, the funding will help build the capacity and credentials of PNGRFL coaches, support staff and administrators, benefitting both the women’s and men’s game.

"Women’s rugby league in PNG has come a long way in a few short years,” said Australian High Commissioner, John Feakes, at the launch event in Port Moresby. “I am excited to see where the game goes in PNG, there is so much untapped potential in this country.” 

Kick starting the women’s competition

When the new multi-million dollar partnership was first announced in February 2024, ​​Minister for Sport, Anika Wells, spoke enthusiastically about the impact the investment would have on the career paths of young players.

“Investing in a national women's competition will be a game changer for Papua New Guinea talent aspiring to play for the Orchids,” she said. "This assistance is further demonstration of our commitment to Pacific athletes and the development of women in sport, not just in Australia but abroad."

Orchids team member Belinda Gwasamun, who also plays with Norths Devlis in the QRL Women's Premiership (the BMD Premiership), is excited by the prospect of a national competition at home.

"I am excited to see more female athletes playing rugby league and to have more opportunities and exposure through the support of our own domestic national competition. This is the way forward for the Orchids to be more competitive at the international level," she said.

Belinda Gwasamun / PNGRFL

The lasting social impact of the PNG Orchids

The rise in women’s rugby league in PNG has its origins in the heroic debut appearance of the PNG Orchids, the country’s national team, at the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup hosted by Australia. Led by Cathy Neap, the team was mostly made up of young women from PNG’s rural settlements. They had just three months of training and two pre-tournament games before the event and, while they didn’t win a game, their extraordinary efforts had a lasting impact on perceptions of women in a country where traditional roles are still firmly entrenched.

"We went from being a laughing stock with people throwing containers and banana skins at us [to having] people on that game day supporting and cheering us," said Cathy in a 2023 interview. “We wanted to show our menfolk that we women can be seen on an equal playing field ... we should be treated equally to men."

Amelia Kuk was a member of the inaugural Orchids team, later joining the Brisbane Broncos in the WNRL. Now retired from professional sport, she is immensely proud of the impact PNG’s female players had, and continue to have, on attitudes towards women.

“These women are slowly breaking barriers and using rugby league as a vehicle to drive change,” Amelia said. “They have each impacted their families and communities in such a positive way and have earned so much respect from the country.”

Speaking at the launch event, the Australian High Commissioner highlighted the links between the participation of women in professional sport, and broader social impact.

"As we celebrate International Women’s Day it is important to underline that investing in women and girls, including through sport, is central to accelerating progress in all areas of society,” he said.

A renewed commitment to PNG rugby league

The funding announcement builds on work that QRL has been undertaking with the PNGRFL since 2020 with the aim of advancing elite-level rugby league in PNG.

“The QRL prides itself on being an experienced and responsible steward of the game in Queensland and we’re happy to share our knowledge and expertise with trusted partners,” said WRL CEO, Ben Ikin.

The impact of that work has been increasingly evident over the past twelve months, with outstanding performances for the women’s and men’s national teams in the 2023 Pacific Championships. The Orchids claimed a win over the Cook Islands Moana in what was a hard-fought match, while the Kumuls claimed the inaugural Pacific Bowl  Championship after defeating the Fiji Bati in the final at Port Moresby.

The QRL partnership will also support the long-term sustainability of the PNG Hunters and their ongoing participation in the Queensland Cup. The Hunters first entered the competition in 2014, and were premiership winners in 2017.

“The PNGRFL and the PNG Hunters are grateful for this partnership with the Australian Government and the QRL,” said CEO of the PNGRFL, Stanley Hondina. “The last two years have started the phase for long term improvement in the game in PNG.”

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