The Albanese government has pledged $5.5 million (US$3.7 million) in support of Papua New Guinea’s bid for the next NRL license.
Federal Minister for International Development Pat Conroy made the announcement during his visit to PNG this week and said the funds would be used to develop pathways programs.
“Talent identification and player development are a critical part of developing a competitive and sustainable PNG NRL team,” Conroy said.
There is no dispute over PNG’s ability to drum up support for an 18th team.
The country drew strong crowds to the annual Prime Ministers XIII match hosted before the COVID-19 pandemic and is the only United Nations member state that officially recognises rugby league as its national sport.
But financial backing and infrastructure had been viewed as stumbling blocks for PNG, who are likely to be competing for an NRL license with bids from Perth and Brisbane.
The Brisbane Tigers, also aiming to become the competition’s 18th team, have an elite training base, a reported $25 million in cash reserves and a history dating back 100 years.
The Australian funds come after the PNG government pledged roughly $12 million of their own to the bid earlier this year.
Anthony Albanese has been a vocal advocate for using the NRL to strengthen ties with PNG, most recently while visiting the country in January to meet with Prime Minister James Marape.
“It is the next step in our support for rugby league in PNG,” Mr. Conroy said of the $5.5 million pledge.
“Australia and Papua New Guinea share a passion for rugby league, and we know how important having an NRL team is for the people of PNG.
“There’s huge potential for rugby league to bring our countries even closer together.”
In the pre-season, Australian Rugby League chairman Peter V’landys said a PNG team could enter the league as early as 2025, though the NRL does not yet have a firm timeline on granting its 18th license.
But the league is keen to make headway sooner rather than later, given the fixturing challenges of fielding an odd number of teams.
Perth, Brisbane and New Zealand are considered possible locations for another team, with speculation foundation club the North Sydney Bears could be revived in a new market.
Perth will have the chance to push its case when the city hosts two games at Optus Stadium in round 23.
PNG already fields a team, the PNG Hunters, in the Queensland Cup, the second-tier competition that feeds talent into various NRL sides.
Only a handful of players have made it from the Hunters into the NRL, though, most notably Melbourne centre Justin Olam.