THERE was a time not long ago when Stanley Gene worried any semblance of professional rugby league in his beloved Papua New Guinea could die out completely.
That would be tragic; it is the only country where the game is the national sport. Its people are obsessive about it.
For PNG to host its first-ever World Cup matches it means so much to the people and it is so positive. It’s not just important for the Kumuls but the whole country.Stanley Gene
For their most famous son – Gene is regarded as a king from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen and Goroka to Madang following his own exploits in rugby league – its demise would have been hard to bear.
How refreshing, then, that tomorrow, when the Kumuls face mighty England in a World Cup quarter-final in Melbourne, that the game is not only surviving, but flourishing.
The national side has captured the imagination of the wider rugby league public with the colour and ebullience of their performances in this tournament, both on and off the pitch.
Their impressive national stadium in Port Moresby, redeveloped last year, hosted three sell-out games and produced electric atmospheres as second-tier PNG beat Wales, Ireland and USA to set up tomorrow’s encounter with Wayne Bennett’s side.
Gene, of course, gained cult status with Hull KR as an effervescent but steely half-back when scoring 94 tries in just 111 games between 1996 and 2000.
He got his chance after impressing in the 1995 World Cup and enjoyed a brilliant career in the UK going on to play for Hull FC, Huddersfield Giants, Bradford Bulls, a second stint with Rovers and, briefly, Halifax ahead of retirement in 2010.
With a backdrop of political infighting, the PNG game was on its knees as recently as 2010 when Gene, who retired from the Kumuls in the 2008 World Cup, was in charge of the national side.
But thankfully things are far different now as the 43-year-old explained to The Yorkshire Post: “I went back home last year and worked for a TV show over there before coming back here to cover the Four Nations.
“I saw a game at the new stadium and for the country as a whole it’s tremendous what’s happening now.
“Rugby league is PNG’s national sport and for the government to be able to build our national stadium as it has, and a couple more, is great in the space of time it’s had.
“There’s so much vibrancy around the place.
“Personally, I’d like to thank Justin Tkatchenko, who was PNG’s sports minister.
“Rugby league was dying given the way it was run but he came in and, with some others, rescued it as chairman.
“They’ve changed how things are done and if they weren’t there rugby league would still be a political mess.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday.
“We are underdogs, of course, but there may be a surprise.
“If there is, I’ll be out of Hull and on the next flight home!” he added.
One of the reasons behind the improvement has been the introduction of a club side SP Hunters, in the Queensland Intrust Cup, a second-tier competition in the NRL.
Whereas before, many of the country’s best players had to try and venture to the UK to develop their game, now they have this facility on their doorstep although Gene still works hard at bringing promising talent to the British game as well.
“There’s a lot of talent coming out and not just those boys in the PNG team now,” he said. “There’s great players going all the way through the towns competition and there’s probably five to 10 outstanding ones who haven’t got in this World Cup squad.
“It’s great to see and the boys are playing really well.
“Michael Marum has been really successful as coach of PNG and with SP Hunters in the Queensland Cup but it’s not just him; sponsors have got behind the PNGRFL and there’s been a big drive as you can witness now with those three sell-outs in Port Moresby.
“For PNG to host its first-ever World Cup matches it means so much to the people and it is so positive.
“It’s not just important for the Kumuls but the whole country.
“We have brilliant people over there, hundreds of different cultures and so much for tourists to go explore.”
The World Cup, of course, has many happy memories for Gene given it launched his own career, sending him to a world so different to what he knew back home where, before he later intervened, his village of Segu did not even have electricity.
“I came over to the UK in the 1995 World Cup and, 21 years later, am still here,” he recalled. “I couldn’t speak English when I started.
“Flying over on different planes was a big enough challenge. But the whole tournament went really well for me and a few other guys.
“I’ll never forget how it changed my life. It changed everything. I could have been back home in the ghetto fighting life but it made something for me.
“Likewise, others have come over since, like Makali Aizue, while in the 2008 World Cup it was Menzie Yere who ended up coming over here afterwards with Sheffield Eagles.
“I brought Garry Lo over, too, to play for Sheffield and now he’s one of the hottest properties playing for PNG and has just signed with Castleford Tigers in Super League.
“It’s very hard for PNG players to get a chance in Australia but the RFL has been great.
“There have been plenty that I have helped bring over like Charlie Wabbo, Nico Slain and Michael Mark at Hunslet Hawks in 2009.
“They had a great time there and became very close with the club and its supporters.
“In fact, a lady called Pat from Hunslet, who looked after them at the time, travelled all the way to PNG to watch the game against USA last week and she met up with all three boys.
“She’s played a big part in helping the Foundation, too, and went to New Zealand to watch the boys in 2010 as well, flying her Hunslet flag!”
The ‘Foundation’ he refers to is the Stanley Gene Foundation that he established in 2012 .
It is committed to reaching the unreachable communities of Papua New Guinea and educating young Papuans, in order to give them the tools to make a better future for themselves.
Many areas in the country do not have any educational facilities. Those that do are often rudimentary and children will walk miles through forests and along mountain roads to reach them.
“The Foundation’s coming on really well,” added Gene. “There’s lots of different things we do to raise money to provide classrooms, basic tools and equipment.
“Huddersfield did a thing where if you brought in your old shirt you’d get a massive discount off the new one. That meant we managed to go back and build a science lab at my old primary school. It’s been great for things like that and there’s so many people who have helped and continue to help.
“We’ve taken old rugby shirts back there, too, and the kids love them. They just love rugby league. Some will have walked miles to get to those World Cup games. Others will have camped out since 5am to make sure they got there.
“And now it’s England...”
Recalling when teenager Burgess made it look like men against boys ...
STANLEY GENE recalls how England star Sam Burgess was already a colossal giant at the age of just 17.
The Papuan legend played alongside a teenage Burgess after joining Bradford Bulls at the end of 2005.
“He was a young kid then playing in the Under 18s first but making it look like men versus boys,” said Gene, with South Sydney’s Burgess set to face the Kumuls with England tomorrow morning.
“He was a very, very down-to-earth kid, very humble and he had a lot of time for me.
“He’ll be a big help for England now he’s fit again and I’m glad Sam’s in the back-row as well able to run his line rather than in the middle.”
Burgess, 28, is back in the England side tomorrow after missing the last two games with a knee injury. Gene won the 2006 World Club Challenge with Bulls after joining from Huddersfield Giants late in his career.
“Bradford was great,” he said. “Moving there seemed to add another two or three years on my career – it made me feel even younger!
“It was a shame I had to leave in many ways. Obviously Hull KR gave me my chance in England and I loved it there. I always promised KR if they got into Super League I’d go back and play with them again.
“That was where my loyalty was. They won promotion in 2006 and Bradford let me go back. Huddersfield Giants was brilliant, too. I stayed there for six years and my little boy was born there.
“I will always hold them close to my heart.”