By Joanna Lester, Games News Service.
PORT MORESBY, July 10 – After an eight-year hiatus rugby league 9s returns to the Pacific Games on Saturday with hosts Papua New Guinea strong favourites to take home gold.
Six nations – PNG, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and Solomon Islands – are participating in the round-robin tournament on July 11 and 12 at BSP Stadium in Port Moresby.
PNG’s 15-man squad contains 13 players from the PNG Hunters, who participate in the Australian second-tier Queensland Cup competition and are currently sitting second in that league.
Hunters coach Michael Marum (PNG) and captain Israel Eliab (PNG) will carry their respective roles into the PNG 9s set-up at Port Moresby 2015.
Two members of PNG’s squad, Nixon Borana (PNG, Hunters) and Silas Gahuna (PNG, Gulf Isapeas) have a strong track record in the 9-a-side format and were members of the PNG team that won gold at the 2014 Rugby League Commonwealth 9s in Scotland, beating a junior Australia side in the final.
Last time rugby league 9s was contested at the Pacific Games (at Samoa 2007) Fiji won gold, Cook Islands claimed silver and Samoa won bronze. Papua New Guinea did not participate in that tournament.
Defending champions Fiji are likely to be PNG’s toughest challengers in 2015, with the Fijian domestic competition going from strength to strength in recent years.
Samoa, Tonga and Cook Islands all boast players with international experience, including some dual-code representatives who have played for their countries in both rugby 7s and rugby league 9s.
Solomon Islands, a relative newcomer to the rugby league stage, will be striving to make an impact in their first major international tournament.
All six nations have named squads comprising domestic players, because players of Pacific heritage plying their trade in the Australian NRL and UK Super League are not available for the tournament.
Rugby league 9s features four sets of round-robin matches on July 11 and the remaining round-robin matches, ranking matches and medal matches on July 11.