Saturday’s game between Papua New Guinea and Wales in Port Moresby was the first example, this time around, of the kind of yawning scoreline you only ever tend to see in the opening games of a world cup. For the entire game the Kumuls were dominant, with David Mead and Rhys Martin stepping up for what often felt like a two-man performance. Conversely, Wales really struggled with the sticky, humid conditions – 34 Celsius at the beginning of the game – despite having spent a week training in Brisbane.
In fact, Wales wouldn’t score at all until the final minute, in what often felt more like a showcase for Papua New Guinea than a regular fixture, let alone a world cup fixture. Key to the Kumuls’ success was their decision to play with four hookers, with James Segeyaro and Kurt Baptiste putting in some particularly powerful combinations around the ruck, culminating with their dramatic gesture of shifting all four rakes onto the park four minutes out from the end.
The one thing that marred the Kumuls performance was a formal allegation of biting made from Ben Evans upon Wellington Albert, with the London Broncos second-rower claiming that Albert had chomped down on his finger during a crucial tackle. Unfortunately, bunker footage seemed to confirm the allegation right about the time that Albert brought home the last try for Papua New Guinea before half time, although whether or not that leads to more formal measures remains to be seen over the next week.
Aside from that, however, this was a triumphant night for the Kumuls, with Mead getting the game into gear with two successive tries, before clocking up a third at the one hour mark for good measure. The first came only five minutes in, off the back of a deft pair of passes from Wartovo Puara and Ase Boas, who drew in Matt Seamark and Rhodri Lloyd, opening up enough space for Mead to slice through the red defence as if he was barely even aware it was there.
The next four points came only four minutes later, off another combination from Puara and Boas. This time it started with Puara opting to run out of dummy half fifteen metres out from the line, skidding and bouncing along the Welsh defence before being brought to ground, only to offload to Boas who then flicked it back to Mead on his inside, allowing the PNG fullback to slice through the defence and put down four points before Wales knew what had hit them.
Once again, though, Boas was unable to add the extras, inducing the Kumuls to shift Martin to kicker – a decision that immediately paid dividends after the next try and contributed in no small part to the Bulldogs backrower’s increasing confidence over the course of the evening, culminating with his replica of Mead’s two successive tries at the beginning of the second stanza. It was a Dragon who was responsible for the next points, however, with Nene Macdonald putting down a try twenty-two minutes in, culminating a particularly convulsive period that had begun about ten minutes before.
During this time, Wales had attempted a few surges at the PNG line, but some poor attacking options and ball handling errors saw the Kumuls regain possession, while a near line break from Garry Lo, a damaging run from Watson Boas and a long hold in the tackle from Wales resulted in Papua New Guinea getting back down the other end again with a perfectly timed penalty. From there, Paul Aiton almost crashed over – the ball was only a couple of centimetres shy of the line – and Macdonald also almost managed some magic on the wing, only for the Kumuls to knock on and send the ball back down the other end again.
By the twentieth minute things had started to get heated, and a late tackle from Seamark on Albert saw the Kumuls receive their second consecutive penalty in five minutes. Moments later, it took three defenders to prevent Mead crashing over for a hat trick, while interference from a Welsh marker a tackle later resulted in Papua New Guinea receiving yet another penalty right on the try line. Choosing to tap and go rather than take the two, the yellow and red army stormed at the line again, with the play drifting leftwards, before Enock Maki straightened up and almost crashed over right beneath the posts.
By this stage, the Kumuls had come so close to scoring so many times that it was almost a foregone conclusion when the ball made its way to the right corner and Macdonald slammed through a tackle from Rhys Wiliams and Seamark to ground the ball. The four points were all the more epic in that it was initially called no try, and seemed almost certain that Macdonald had lost the ball, only for the replay to show that he had just managed to retain possession with his right arm during the punishing tackle , allowing it to slip almost down to his elbow before gathering it up again with his left hand before hitting the turf. With Boas having struggled with the first two conversions, the Kumuls now shifted to Martin to add the extras, and the Bulldogs backrower immediately stepped up, slotting the ball through the posts from a fairly challenging sideline angle to bring the scoreline to 14-0.
The Kumuls built some terrific momentum around the half hour mark on the back of yet another penalty, with Mead making yet another dash at the line and Segeyaro showing some inspiration to funnel the ball across to the left wing, only for Lo to knock on and return possession to Wales. Two minutes later, though, Papua New Guinea got a fresh chance with a scrum feed, and responded by putting in possibly their best single formation of the game so far, managing to get within thirty metres of the Welsh line on the first tackle, thanks to a sequence of offloads followed by a line break from Mead who almost got across the line himself, but was brought to ground by a desperate Welsh defence.
It only took the Kumuls another tackle to get across, though, with Watson Boas making a quick dash up the left edge and then threading the Steeden through the sea of red jerseys for Kato Ottio to storm forward and put to ground, setting up Martin for another successful sideline conversion. To add insult to injury, Wales were further disheveled by seeing Chester Butler taken off for the first HIA of the afternoon moments before the Kumuls received another penalty for a cannonball tackle from Lloyd on Asa Boas.
After a mad dash up the left side from Lo, Segeyaro took his cues from Puara, skidding along the Welsh defence before offloading to Albert who ran a terrific line to burn up from behind and straighten up the play, outrunning the red and white army to storm over the chalk for an epic one-handed putdown. Like clockwork, Martin added the extras, and yet the try was slightly marred by the video footage of Albert following Evans’ accusation, with the camera angle appearing to depict the alleged bite quite clearly – an unfortunate infraction on the back of such an amazing performance from this Papua New Guinea team thus far.
Still, any lingering embarrassment around Albert’s questionable move was immediately subsumed into Martin’s first try three minutes into the second stanza, and the beginning of a very dominant ten minutes for the Canterbury backrower. It started with a massive hit from Baptiste on Andrew Gay, and ended with a terrific run from Segeyaro, followed by a short pass to Ase Boas who flicked it across to Martin for what were probably the most effortless four points for Papua New Guinea all afternoon, especially once he notched up another two points a couple of moments later with his fourth of four conversions.
The next eleven minutes were the second longest period in the game that the Kumuls went without scoring – although, to be fair, they came close several times, most spectacular around the fifty minute mark, when Albert put in the best offload of the game to Segeyaro, who sent the Steeden across to Baptiste only for the Canberra rake to lose it thanks to some scrambling Welsh defence. While the Kumuls’ decision to include four hookers in their side had led to some speculation, this was one of those moments that showed just how potent Baptiste and Segeyaro could be when they linked up.
Yet that eleven minute wait just made it all the more cathartic when Martin put down his second consecutive try of the second stanza, just as Mead had put down two in the first stanza, confirming these two as the dominant playmakers amongst the Papua New Guinea side. This time, it was more of a short-range effort, with Asa Boas making the most of an exhausted Welsh outfit to bring the ball right into the line and then pop it across to Martin, who slammed over like the defence weren’t even there, following what initially looked as if it might have been a forward pass but seemed better in slow motion, where the odd angle Martin had run gave the impression of the Steeden moving further forward than it had.
Even if Martin missed the subsequent conversion, this was one of the real high points of the game for the Kumuls – and that’s saying something – as they soared to a 36-0 lead and the Welsh players grew more exhausted and dejected by the minute. There was no time for the red army to rest, though, with Olam crossing over a mere four minutes later, following a scintillating sequence from the Kumuls that saw Segeyaro burst up the left side of the field and look set to crash over himself, only to slip to ground about twenty metres out.
Still, Chicko had done more than enough to crest forward on the momentum of Martin’s second try, with Olam crossing a couple of minutes later on the back of a deft grubber from Martin five metres out from the line. By this point, it almost felt as if Martin might outclass Mead, showing that he could operate as a forward, a hooker and a half all in one game, in what must surely be a critical moment in his evolution at the Bulldogs as well, since it’s clear that he only needs a proper platform and the right opportunities to show how varied his skill set can be.
Yet if Mead’s supremacy seemed momentarily in doubt, he responded with aplomb two minutes later, as a strong, hard run from Albert combined with a penalty conceded by Philip Joseph got the Kumuls down the other end once again – a situation that had occurred so many times during the game that it didn’t even make sense to call it déjà vu anymore. By this point the Kumuls had only missed six tackles to Wales’ forty-four, and the Kumuls just got better a minute later, with Segeyaro sending Mead over the chalk for the third time in the afternoon with a spectacular grubber right on the line.
Full credit has to go to Mead, too, for curving himself around the Steeden and protecting it both from the Welsh defence and from the Kumuls’ players storming up behind him, waiting until it bounced up in just the right way to calmly and professionally put it to ground. It radiated a calmness and assurance replicated in the tenth and final PNG try from Paul Aiton, which followed on from a rapid-paced set that started with an incredible offload from Ottio to Watson Boas and proceeded to another penalty for the Kumuls after an error from Elliott Kerr in the ruck.
From there, Baptiste matched Puarara and Segeyaro with his own terrific try assist out of dummy half, putting in what initially appeared to be a deft show-and-go, dummying to the left and then scooting to in the right, only to pass across to Aiton at the very last minute, setting up the big lock to take a disheveled and exhausted Welsh defence by surprise, and bring the scoreline to 50-0 once Martin slotted through his final conversion of the afternoon.
It was a historic moment for the Kumuls, even against a relatively undisciplined side like Wales who were out of their element in a tropical climate, so it felt right that it was a Papua New Guinea veteran who brought the team to a half century, as Aiton celebrated the tenth anniversary of his first game in national colours with the last Kumuls try of their rousing afternoon. Six minutes later all four hookers took the field for the final minutes of the game, cementing this as a momentous afternoon for the Kumuls, and a critical moment in the ongoing evolution of Papua New Guinea rugby league on the world stage.
Yet the red army got one solitary consolation try, following a penalty one minute out from the end. With nothing left to lose, the Welsh players made the decision to tap and go instead of taking the two. In its own way, it was one of the most heroic sequences of the night, starting with an amazing offload from Kear that saw Steve Parry shifting the play rapidly across to the left side of field, where Wales received a penalty right on the siren and right on the line.
After a game structured around Papua New Guinea penalties, this sudden acceleration of Kumuls errors had to mean something for Wales, and Seamark made the most of it with a crossfield kick that Lo initially looked to have caught on the full, only to cough it up in the field of play for Regan Grace to storm up behind him and slam it to ground. With Courtney Davies managing his one and only two-pointer a minute later, Wales at least had a spectacular final try to save them a bit of pride, although they’ll be looking to put in a much more decisive performance against Fiji next week at Townsville Stadium, especially given Hayne, Milne, Naiqama and Vunivalu’s outstanding win over United States the same day.