Photo: Flickr/Colin Adland
Rugby league is the national sport of Papua New Guinea and the State of Origin is one of the most anticipated sporting events every year. Steven Paisi explains what the atmosphere is like in PNG when Origin fever hits.

Rugby league is a game that cuts through all sectors of Papua New Guinea society. It is regarded as the national sport of the country.

Forget about English Premier League Soccer, EUFA Champions League, FIFA Soccer World Cup, and the AFL. This is a country where Australia’s premier rugby league competition, the National Rugby League (NRL) is the most popular sporting competition.   PNG is probably the only place in the world where top rugby league players from the NRL are treated like Hollywood celebrities by the locals. It would be very rare for a Papua New Guinean not to know at least one team in the NRL.

The State of Origin series is the most followed sporting event in the entire country.  Since the inception of the State of Origin concept in its current form in 1980, it has rapidly attracted a large following in Papua New Guinea. Rural communities are glued to radios and those in urban towns set up their TV sets outdoors to get out of what would have been a very crowded living room, or meet up with friends and watch the match in a club.

The Origin series is so popular that Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has recently been reported to have expressed interest in the country hosting a State of Origin match in the future.

The State of Origin is also a marketing tool used by retailers to run Origin specials and promotions on TVs and electronic goods, jerseys, football merchandise, competitions for shoppers to win trips to watch the game live in Australia, and even cash prizes of up to K10, 000 (around AUD$ 4500), and a huge amount of bets are placed on the results.

Maroons or Blues flags can be seen flying on private cars, houses, and even boats.

Some businesses and clubs also have events in the evening for staff and members to mingle and watch the match live on TV. Australians living in PNG usually join such events.

The State of Origin (image courtesy of flickr user Michael Sheil).

Many ardent followers of rugby league make it their business to fly down to Australia to watch a match live whenever they can.  In game one of the 2015 series at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney, I bumped into some PNG nationals who flew down from Port Moresby just to watch the match. One of them mentioned to me that it was his first time travelling overseas and there could be nothing more memorable than watching a State of Origin match on his first trip overseas. It is a very different experience watching the match live in a big stadium instead of straining your eyes in front of a TV set. I am sure he will remember this experience for a very long time.

A typical State of Origin game day in major PNG towns will see street vendors up early, lining the streets to sell their State of Origin flags, team posters, and daily newspapers with all the latest Origin news to school kids and morning commuters.  From midday, face-painters will also be in all corners of major towns painting people’s faces with Maroons or Blues logos. Dinners are prepared and eaten well in advance of kick-off time. Such is the effect of State of Origin on people’s lives in PNG that even their daily activities have to be planned around the match as well.

Since 2011, each game of the State of Origin series has been telecast live to large screens mounted in various parks around Port Moresby so the general public in the surrounding residential areas can watch the match free of charge.  This idea has been very successful in Port Moresby and it has been suggested it will be trialled by other town councils in the country.

Regardless of where you may find yourself in PNG, if you are a New South Welshman or a Queenslander, you will always have a ‘wantok’ (local word meaning one language, but used in reference to someone from the same part of the world) among the locals. Just ask any of them if they support the Blues or the Maroons as an icebreaker and you will be in for a long conversation about the State of Origin.

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Steven Paisi - Lawyer - Lowy Institute

Steven Paisi

Lawyer

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Steven Paisi is from Papua New Guinea and is a postgraduate student at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He holds an undergraduate degree in law from the University of Papua New Guinea. Steven has been working as a lawyer with the PNG Government for the last eight years. His has a keen interest in international law and is currently working as an Intern with the Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney.