Papuan rugby teams play outside Indonesia for first time

Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby
Papuan rugby teams play outside Indonesia for first time Members of Rugby Papua’s Koteka men’s sevens team prepare for a match at the PNG Rookies 7 tournament in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Dec. 16, 2023.
Harlyne Joku/BenarNews

A women’s rugby team from Indonesia’s volatile Papua region was runner up in a tournament in neighboring Papua New Guinea at the weekend that was the first time both it and a Papuan men’s team had played overseas.

The seven-a-side rugby union tournament in Port Moresby, known as PNG Rookies 7, was an opportunity for the players from a region usually known as West Papua to gain experience and exposure, team officials said. 

The participation of the Papuan teams, known as the Kotekas, followed an invitation in October from Papua New Guinea’s Rugby Football Union. Rugby has a fanatical following in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island nations but is little known in Indonesia where football dominates.

“We were not expecting to win,” said Rugby Papua president and team manager Samuel Tambuni on Sunday. 

“We just wanted to have the exposure from the best,” he told BenarNews. “We want to learn from the best. And from our view in Melanesia, PNG is the best.” 

The participation of the West Papuan teams was not overtly political but still caused plenty of comment on social media among the West Papuan diaspora in Papua New Guinea, which has a 760-kilometer (472-mile) border with Indonesia. 

Poorly armed Papuan fighters – collectively known as the West Papua National Liberation Army – have battled Indonesia since the early 1960s, when it took control of the western half of New Guinea island from the Dutch. 

A separate nonviolent independence movement is regarded as treasonous by Indonesian authorities who have imprisoned key leaders. It has strong grassroots support in Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian nations. 

women (1).jpg
Members of Rugby Papua’s Koteka women’s sevens team walk through a stadium at the PNG Rookies 7 tournament in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Dec. 17, 2023. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

The Kotekas’ sponsors include Freeport Indonesia, a partly U.S. owned mining company that operates the giant Grasberg gold and copper mine that’s a source of conflict between Indonesia and armed Papuan groups. 

The women’s team won four games, which took it to a final with a powerful local side.

Marice Olua, who scored the first try in the final, said they were happy to participate in the tournament and appreciated the experience they’d gained.

“Next time we will do our best,” she said.

Men’s captain Gary Haoda said it was an achievement to score against teams with much greater experience.

“Considering the fact that these boys were all still very new to the game, as their captain I was very proud to see them give their best against other rugby clubs and provinces with some of the clubs and provinces having PNG national team representatives,” he said.

“We knew our level of gameplay wasn’t quite there yet.”

An organization of Melanesian nations in November appointed Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape and Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka as special envoys to Indonesia on the Southeast Asian country’s decades-long conflict with indigenous Papuans. 

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo visited Papua New Guinea in July and the two sides promised to boost border trade. Marape has said Papua New Guinea recognizes Indonesia’s sovereignty over its Papuan region. 

Indonesia also pledged to contribute 55 million kina ($15 million) to upgrading a Port Moresby hospital, including its chronically overcrowded mortuary. Indonesia would also provide 2,000 scholarships for study at its colleges and universities.


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