‘Productive’ talks, but PNG’s NRL fate still uncertain

Jasper Bruce and Joel Gould |

Peter V’Landys (l) says PM Anthony Albanese (centre, rear) wants a Papua New Guinea team in the NRL.
Peter V’Landys (l) says PM Anthony Albanese (centre, rear) wants a Papua New Guinea team in the NRL.

Tensions between the NRL and Australian government have been eased during “productive” talks at Magic Round, but deliberations on the future of a mooted Papua New Guinean team are set to continue.

Minister for the Pacific Pat Conroy met with NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo and Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys for an hour on Friday night over the possibility of granting PNG the league’s 18th licence.

The Australian government is prepared to stump up $600 million over 10 years to get the franchise off the ground as early as 2027, with a team in the NRL-crazy nation seen as a way to strengthen Australia’s ties in the Pacific.

“The discussions were productive. We are aligned on a way forward,” Minister Conroy said in a statement provided to AAP.

Perth, New Zealand and Brisbane are the three other candidates to provide a team, and while PNG has been seen as the front-runner, V’landys told reporters on Friday morning that the deal was far from done.

“We have got a few negotiating points we haven’t got over and if we don’t get over them it won’t happen. It is D-Day today,” he said.

PNG PM James Marape and Australia PM Anthony Albanese meet the teams.
Anthony Albanese is introduced to the PNG women’s side ahead of a match against the PM’s XIII. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

But speaking shortly thereafter, Minister Conroy reminded the parties that the government would not be held to ransom.

“I’m not going to comment on individual utterances like (V’landy’s D-Day comment). When I negotiate with people, I do it behind closed doors and reach common ground,” he said later on Friday.

Currently, the government invests significantly in rugby union in the Pacific, most recently committing on Friday to sponsoring the Queensland Reds women’s and men’s tours to Tonga in July.

The government also helps bankroll Super Rugby’s own Pacific expansion side, the Fijian Drua.

“It’s self-evident that the Australian government has a number of options about who we partner with,” Mr Conroy said.

“We talk to all codes and we’ll support codes that will advance Australia’s interest and respond to the partner countries and bring our people together.

“I would like to see a deal and announcement done, I think it’s important. Obviously there’s a lot of speculation about who will be the 18th franchise in the NRL, so I think the sooner we can provide clarity on that, as a rugby league fan, the better.

“(But) ultimately, it’s got to work for the Australian government and taxpayers, it’s got to work for the PNG government, it’s also got to work for the NRL, but we take value for money and taxpayers’ dollars incredibly seriously.”

Peter V'landys and Andrew Abdo.
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys (left) and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo in Las Vegas for the season opener. (HANDOUT/NRL PHOTOS)

The possibility for the PNG government to offer tax breaks to players who relocate as part of the bid will be a key issue in discussions.

V’landys said the PNG bid was about more than an NRL team and would be used as a vehicle to encourage school attendance and improve social conditions in the country.

He was hopeful of bringing Wayne Bennett on as foundation coach, with the league heeding the master coach’s suggestion to base the mooted team out of PNG rather than Cairns, as had been floated.

“He said if you want to make a team in Papua New Guinea successful you have got to base it in PNG. He is certainly the main man,” V’landys said.

“Look what he has done with the Dolphins. If he is available he would be the one we want (as coach).”

AAP