The impact of football beyond Australian shores was certainly not lost on SUNS Academy Coordinator Casey Haw following a whirlwind trip to Papua New Guinea last month.
Travelling to the region as part of a program organised by the Australian Defence Force, the visit was designed to provide locals with resources and tools that are often taken for granted in the Australian sporting landscape.
Haw along with SUNS Academy Townsville Coordinator Joel Newman were just some of several representatives across numerous sports including Aussie Rules, Basketball, Netball, Rugby Union and Rugby League.
“The program was organised through the ADF who through support from DFAT to essentially run a number of Level 1 and Level 2 coaching courses, as well as two sports trainer courses and sports trainer courses across the five days,” Haw said.
“The whole program is about up-schooling the locals so the regions can become self-sufficient in umpiring, coaching, sports medicine and other areas as well.
“We ran two days’ worth of courses in Port Moresby before flying to Lae, which is PNG’s second-largest city, for another two days of courses there.”
The Australian contingent loaded up more than just knowledge into the RAAF C-27 Spartan in which it journeyed to PNG, with plenty of essential equipment on board to be donated to local schools and organisations.
“We brought a heap of equipment. AFL Queensland donated a plenty of footballs, tackle bags, bibs, cones and basic training equipment,” Haw continued.
“Sports Medicine Australia also donated big Elastoplast medical bags full of first aid and sports trainer equipment.
“One lady was saying her school only had six footballs for the whole school, so they had to stagger their sessions to make sure there were enough footies to go around.”
Upon landing in Port Moresby, it was clear the group was a long away from the manicured and luscious array of sports fields back home, not that there was a whiff of complaints from the locals.
“The infrastructure was pretty eye-opening. The ground didn’t really have grass on the ovals, there were sharp rocks sticking out of the ground.”
“They actually couldn’t paint the ovals, so they scratched out the line markings into the hard turf.
“A lot of the locals hold multiple roles, so they’ll be coach, trainer and then umpire in other games as well.
It didn’t take long to see why the hosts were making the most of what they had.
“I was just blown away by what football means to them. I don’t think we truly understand what football means to some people over there,” Haw continued.
“I’ve never done a coaching course in a room where 30 participants are hanging off every word you say.
“There was a President who got up and spoke about her philosophy. She spoke about how when she picked up a football for the first time she was in love straight away and now just wants to help people find that passion to spread in the community.
“We take it for granted because of the access we have here in Australia.
“When we asked coaches why they coached, the amount of people who got up, spoke and said they want to get kids involved in the community to get them off the street, away from crime, out of prison.
“One lady spent three hours by boat and 12 hours by bus on dirt roads to get to the course… that’s a real humbling perspective.
“Football is really changing people’s lives over there. The level of gratitude… I was blown away by how grateful people were to have us there.”
It’s just one of many similar stories that were heard from local organisers with many relying on buses and public transport to cater for up to half a dozen schools each day.
While Haw was in awe of the love and support shown for the travelling party, it was little surprise who the locals idolised.
“We don’t realise how much of a superstar Ace (Hewago Oea) is in PNG – their AFL PNG logo is a silhouette of Ace playing… he’s a rockstar,” Haw continued.
“The SUNS are very popular over there. They would see our colours and know exactly who we are.
Since making his debut in 2022, which brought jubilant scenes right across Papua New Guinea, Oea has now played 13 AFL games and there are plenty wanting to follow in his path.
Earlier this year, two AFL South Pacific Region national talent academies – PNG and Nauru – were represented in the PacificAus Sport U19 Talent Academy Challenge, held at SUNS headquarters at the Austworld Centre.
“We had a South Pacific team that also played against our Under 16 and Under 18 Academy sides and PNG/Nauru are bringing an Under 14 team to play at our State Development Carnival at the end of the year as well,” Haw continued.
“That will strengthen these relationships and hopefully help the next generation of ‘Aces’.
All in all, the journey was a rewarding experience that will long live in Haw’s memory and one that will hopefully be as equally prosperous for the PNG communities.
“I’d do that course again a million times, it was that rewarding.
“It’s something that I’ll never forget.”