PNG Footballers Pursue Rugby Dreams in Queensland

They may be shy and softly spoken, but family, faith and footy are inspiring these young men to find their voices on the rugby league field.

Zev John, Bobby Tenza, Samuel Yegip and Khaiya Ross grew up playing rugby league on "cow paddocks" in their tiny villages back home in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

They are now preparing to grace footy fields across Australia, with hopes of one day representing their proud country on the international stage and also professionally in the National Rugby League (NRL).

Bobby Tenza, Zev John, Khaiya Ross and Samuel Yegip have made Central Queensland home.(ABC Capricornia: Aaron Kelly)

"I moved to Australia to play rugby league," John said.

"Rugby league means so much to us, our family and the whole tribe we come from."

The humble quartet from PNG will line-up for the Central Queensland Capras in this year's Queensland Cup.

They are following in the footsteps of former Capras player Nixon Putt, who has played with PNG's national team, the Kumuls, and is now playing professionally in the English Super League.

Bobby Tenza spotting Khaiya Ross in the gym during the team's pre-season training.(ABC Capricornia: Aaron Kelly)

The Queensland Cup is a semi-professional rugby league competition in Australia.

It provides a pathway for players to reach the NRL, with the Capras an official feeder-club for NRL outfit the Dolphins.

Rugby league is the number one sport in PNG, and now the country wants a team in the NRL.(ABC News)

On a wing and a prayer

Rugby league is so widely loved in Papua New Guinea that it is the country's national sport.

Players are treated like rock stars in the streets while thousands pack out the PNG National Football Stadium every weekend.

The sport is a religion to many people in PNG.

Tenza is one of those people, a 22-year-old flying winger who has already been nicknamed "The New Guinea Express".

"Rugby league is religion to us and it means a lot to me," he said.

"Everywhere you go, you'll see people, young boys playing footy in the street."

The footballers from Papua New Guinea pray before and after every game.(Supplied: CQ Capras)
Bobby Tenza puts in the hard yards at training ahead of the 2024 season.(Supplied: CQ Capras)

Tenza said there was a prayer before and after every game.

"It's just like our connection," he said.

"I come from a big family of seven children and want to do them proud."

Home is where the heart is
Rugby league lover Lyle Baker is part of the Capras' coaching support staff.

He is also a mentor and host for the club's PNG contingent, who are based in Rockhampton.

Mr Baker said he was more affectionately known as "Pappa Lyle" to the group.

"My partner, Donna and I, like travelling and learning about different cultures and the boys just sort of gravitated towards my house and they seem to like it there … they call me 'Pappa Lyle' and Donna 'Mamma'," he said.

"Back home they're all family orientated and all of them remember where they come from and how lucky they are to be here realising their dreams."

Mr Baker travelled to PNG last year to experience the culture of the rugby-league-mad nation.

"Rugby league is a religion in PNG," he said.

"When you see them up there, they play in … basically cow paddocks, and it's just amazing they get big crowds that turn out."

Khaiya Ross dreams of representing his country in the sport.(Supplied: CQ Capras)

Mountain men to NRL
Ross, who is the youngest of the group, said he dreamed of representing PNG and playing in the NRL from a young age growing up in the Moge Komunka tribe in Mount Hagen.

"My dream is to wear the Kumuls jersey one day," he said.

Samuel is focused on doing the the Capras proud this year.(Supplied: CQ Capras)

With a PNG team preparing a bidding to join the NRL, Yegip said there were many of his countrymen and women in Australia ready to support a team from their homeland.

"It's our number one sport up there in New Guinea," he said.

"We've got heaps of families, a big PNG community here [in central Queensland], so it makes us feel like home and part of the community."


Story first published on ABC News

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ABC Capricornia, Aaron Kelly