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The impact the talked about NRL bids could have on Indigenous culture

Andrew Mathieson -

The growth of rugby league among Indigenous people is fast becoming a selling point for the next NRL side as a famous club in the game manoeuvres its way for a return.

But it is that firm alliance beyond just the nation's established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fanbase that could prevent one of the contending bids from also getting the final nod.

That conjecture comes after Australia's most northernmost club has expressed grave concerns of the impact on its own support and talent base from a bid out of Papua New Guinea.

The desire to establish an 18th NRL side in Port Moresby has a groundswell of support from both influential league powerbrokers and with fans alike on social media in recent times after a West Australian proposal was once leading the race as the soundest option.

NRL boss Andrew Abdo at the 2021 season launch, before the Dolphins played a single game, also hinted that New Zealand, possibly in Wellington, was his own preferred choice to start up a new rivalry and create a "tribalism" for the Auckland-based Warriors.

But reports of the financial backing from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Australia's closest neighbour to fork up to $600 million over the club's first 10 years has ensured that a PNG bid is the frontrunner now to join the world's best rugby league competition.

The grassroots popularity of the PNG Hunters is already the envy of rival Queensland Cup sides. But the inclusion of Cairns, as a training base and possibly to host games in a city has a strong Papuan diaspora and community, for PNG entry to the NRL has left North Queensland Cowboys crying foul.

After crowds have risen since the club opened North Queensland Stadium during the pandemic in 2020, Cowboys chief executive Jeff Reibel has feared moves to include a regional rival in its local market will set the 28-year entity back.

"It needs to be looked at holistically," Reibel told CODE Sports.

"The question is not can Cairns sustain it … it's more a case of whether the whole of North Queensland can sustain more than one NRL team.

"Being the North Queensland Cowboys, Cairns and Far North Queensland are such an important part of our region."

Reibel admitted to being anxious over losing its Indigenous' player development and recruitment north of Townsville that could threaten to split the greater region in half.

The Cowboys' stance is that the 18th club should be from a new, untouched market in which Reibel did not believe a Cairns-based PNG club would be.

"There are other bids in the wings, whether that be a Pasifika one, a Perth one, even the Bears or New Zealand, we need to get a full brief from the NRL on what they are thinking, so we can show them how expansion would affect our club," he said.

"Our footprint is a wide one: there's 600,000 people that live within North Queensland – and they are all important to us.

"If there's one thing that brings this region together, it's the Cowboys.

"When you talk about expanding your business, you are looking towards where you can consolidate a market or attract a new market."

PNG bid chief executive Andrew Hill has not denied a partnership with Cairns would only strengthen its chances of sustainability.

Cairns and its attractive lifestyle is seen as vital to lure Australian players ahead of travelling over to Port Moresby for the bulk of home fixtures.

"We've definitely spoken about Cairns to a lot of people," he told Wide World of Sports Radio.

"I think it's important to say that you know we need an identity and our identity will be very much PNG.

"So we will soon be playing our games at Santos Stadium in Port Moresby … but if we are based in Cairns – Souths have been playing there for 10 years successfully – a game or two there, those things are up for consideration."

A North Sydney bid has also read the room in recent months to switch the sails of the NSW Cup club on a path to the Pacific Islands.

The Bears, who played in the first 1999 NRL season before entering the failed merger with Manly, have dropped their long-time preference to relocate to the Central Coast in favour of representing fans in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

The move has been inspired after watching Samoa reach Rugby League's World Cup last year after Tonga's previous Test upsets over Australia and New Zealand.

"The rugby league success story for the 18th team is all about pathways, participation and a commercially-viable business," Bears chairman Daniel Dickson told Triple M in Sydney.

The club's bid was dealt a blow earlier in the year after losing $11 million in funding after the previous NSW government was ousted and the promised cash was scrapped.

Dickson is convinced the Bears can overcome the setback, but admitted: "The NRL don't want to put their hand in their pockets moving forward."

While taking control of the team's colours, logo and moniker would be paramount to backing a Pacific Bears lineup, while training out of North Sydney Oval where preferably there would be two games a year, Dickson said the focus will be about representing culture.

"I think the Pacific Islands, in general, is exciting because there is so many people in our game today with Pacific Islander heritage," he said.

"I know there is more talk about the absolute PNG's standalone (bid), but I think this a better option, involving other, more countries and giving them a pathway."

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