It is more than a decade old question — can Papua New Guinea field a team in the NRL?

The issue heated up again recently with the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) giving the most promising indication in years.

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys announced plans for an expanded NRL competition by 2026, revealing PNG was at the ‘top of the list’, and ‘any Pacific licence must be spearheaded by PNG’.

His statements followed the ARL commissioner Kate Jones joining an Australian Federal Government trade visit to Port Moresby last month.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese has publicly endorsed a PNG NRL team directly to PNG’s Prime Minister Marape, and in a number of official forums.

Today, ‘sport’ diplomacy is firmly part of Australia’s strategy to head off China encroaching into the Pacific.

Given the national security value there’s no question an NRL Pacific or PNG franchise will receive funding from the Australian Government, the only question is how much, with News Corp reporting up to $20m a year.

A tension lies in if PNG can be its own NRL team based out of PNG, or be part of a broader Pacific team to represent many nations, and possibly with an Australian partnership.

The ARLC and Federal Government are quick to mention a ‘Pacific’ team in the same breath as a ‘PNG’ team.

In the current FOMO climate for the NRL’s coveted 18th team licence, Australian organisations are putting their hands up to be a part of a pacific team strategy.

Previously, the mayor of Cairns, and second-tier clubs, the Brisbane Tigers and Sydney Bears, have all stated they will discuss partnering with PNG in the creation of a Pacific NRL team.

But the PNG NRL Bid CEO, Andrew Hill, said it’s way too early to decide on these matters.

“I think people are reading too much into a lot of comments, but we’re very focused on pursuing a PNG team,” he said.

“That said, as we get closer, those discussions around a Pacific team might become more significant.

“But it’s vital overall, the team is PNG led and managed.”

Twelve years ago, north Queensland sports administrator Brad Tassell was invited to join the previous PNG NRL Bid following the resignation of Paul Broughton, and his wife Bev.

Broughton — who is the founding father of the Gold Coast Titans — left the PNG bid at odds with the board, and with momentum at a standstill.

Tassell advised it was better to ditch the NRL bid, rather than resurrect it.

Instead, he redirected all efforts to create the PNG Hunters, a franchise to play second-tier to the NRL, in the Queensland Cup.

Tassell believed a QRL team would form part of a decade long development plan for PNG to enter the NRL,

“A team in the Queensland Cup will prove to the NRL a franchise can successfully be run in Papua New Guinea,” he said.

“It will demonstrate professionalism on-and-off the field, crowd attraction, sponsorship and that PNG can safely host teams on a week-to-week basis.

“PNG need to do this for ten years before they can look at an NRL licence.”

Nine years later, the PNG Hunters are an inspiring success and have achieved everything hoped possible, even winning the Queensland Cup premiership in 2017.

Hill said the Hunters will remain a crucial part of the pathways team in a NRL franchise.

“The PNG Hunters are vital in providing the next step from the PNG national competition into Queensland Cup competition, and then ultimately into a PNG NRL franchise,” he said.

Currently, Hill said the bid team’s key focus is ‘pathways’, and believes in taking ‘small steps’.

“We’re looking at the pathway model for long-term, sustainable outcomes that can produce more Justin Olams and Elsie Alberts,” he said.

“We want to see all young talent given an opportunity to play in the national competition here in PNG, so for now we’re focused on improving and enhancing the pathway structure.”

Tassell agrees a bid cannot be rushed, pointing out a mistake from the past was investing big on branding too early.

“I’m pretty sure they outlaid somewhere between 6 to 9 million kina on pre-purchasing merchandise, which was never sold, because the team didn’t exist,” he said.

This is backed up by Hill.

“Everything we’re doing at the moment is around governance and processes, and is not a sexy headline the media want to write about,” he said.

“That kind of approach was part of the last attempt at the bid.

“They were more worried about PR and telling stories about what they’re going to do, rather than focusing on building a really strong foundation.”

Tassell is in no doubt PNG can have its own NRL team run from PNG.

“Why should they share it with anyone else?” he said.

“PNG have built this case for close to a decade through the Hunters and the Kumuls international performances.

“Travel, security, facilities, professionalism are no longer a concern.”

Tassell also believes the success of an NRL team is unquestionable,

“When PNG do get in the NRL, they’ll have the largest home game crowds, the largest sponsorships and largest fan base of any NRL team to exist,” he said.