The Papua New Guinea Hunters coach, Matt Church, will return to Port Moresby next week to prepare for the team's relocation to Queensland for next season.
The PNG Rugby Football League Board approved the relocation, which also had the backing of the government, [https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/429512/png-hunters-moving-to-australia-for-2021-season
following advice from the Queensland Rugby League] to ensure they remained in the competition.
Church said he understood there were some tough challenges ahead, but he supported the decision.
"Basically it came down to a choice I guess to do we want to compete or not. With the travel restrictions that are going to be in place, the only way we would compete is to relocate," he said.
"I know that it's going to be challenging for the group to be away from home for such a long period of time but we don't want to use that as an excuse. We want to make sure that we're going and we're making that sacrifice for all of PNG Rugby League and putting in our best efforts when we go."
Church last visited PNG in March and had remained at his home in Australia since the Queensland Cup was cancelled due to Covid-19.
Despite being out of country for the last eight months, he had managed to keep close tabs on the squad who have just finished playing in the Digicel Cup competition two weeks ago.
THE KROTON HELA WIGMEN ARE THE 2020 DIGICEL CUP CHAMPIONS!— PNG Rugby Football League (@PNGRFL_Official) October 18, 2020
Congratulations to the Hela Wigmen who defeated the Lae Snax Tigers Official 16-14 today at the Sir John Guise Stadium for the 2020 Digicel Cup Grand Final.#digicelcup #Digicel #pngnrlc #rugbyleague #papuanewguinea pic.twitter.com/E0VmlAXuKK
He said the team could relocate as early as January.
"I'll head back to start preparations and have meetings, but at the end of the month we'll start training for our pre-season and look to relocate late January next year."
"I get all the footage of the Digicel Cup games each week so I've been able to follow that, probably moreso than I would have had if the Hunters season had gone ahead, so it's given me an understanding of who is around the competition and to look at ways to strengthen our squad."
"I also want to look into bringing some young guys into the camp whether they come in prior to Christmas for their development, because we're going to be out of the country for seven months basically, so looking at trying to upskill some players while we remain in country [is important] as well."
Church said he had been getting advice from the new North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten, who took over as Warriors interim coach for the 2020 season, after the New Zealand squad was forced to relocate for the revamped NRL Premiership season.
"I've reached out to Todd Payten and had a chat to him about what he felt worked with the Warriors, just to get a little bit of the inside running on what he thought worked and didn't work for their programme, so I'm trying to do as much research and get as much support around our people as possible."
A budget and number of players looking to relocate is still to be confirmed, but one thing Church is committed to is ensuring the Hunters squad remain authentic.
"I've already done a little bit of scouting around the Queensland based players that qualify for PNG because I think we need to at least uphold the pathway of PNG people and it needs to represent that, I don't want to dilute what the Hunters stand for."
"I'm going to be protective of that, so I'll be looking into PNG heritage players basically if we needed to top up the squad and we'll look outside heritage if we absolutely have to, but that will be last resort."
The Papua New Guinea Kumuls could also benefit from the PNG Hunters relocation to Australia, Church added.
Church believed the Kumuls could be fearsome at the upcoming World Cup, if the PNGRFL coaches work together in the lead up to the 2021 season.
"I guess one benefit is that if we are going to relocate, we'll relocate a group so there will be a fair amount of support around those players and staff who choose to relocate."
"If we can get any prospective guys who are on the radar for the Kumuls programme into our programme, I think it's only going to benefit them if they're around their people and also if they're spending a whole season playing together with what will be the bulk of the Kumuls squad for that World Cup campaign, minus your Justin Olam's and Rhyse Martin's and those guys playing NRL and Super League."
After the Hunters season was written off because of the global pandemic, Church is excited to get back to PNG and to prepare for the season ahead. He said he'll remain in the country until the team relocates next year.
"This is probably the longest I've been out of the sport since I was born so I'm excited to get back to work."
"I've really missed the players and staff.. you build a real strong connection with them when you're working with them full time and spend a lot of time with them, so I'm looking forward to catching up with everyone and re-introducing ourselves.
"I'll miss family and friends while I go back to PNG because of the travel restrictions there's no point coming back for Christmas. Those guys are going to make a huge commitment to be away from PNG, so I think a little bit of sacrifice from the coach is probably not too much to ask for as well."
He said he doesn't want to lose any momentum they build in PNG prior to the 2021 season and aims to get everyone accustomed to Australian life at least three weeks prior to their first trial match in the new year.