Papua New Guinea’s women will take to the field for their historic Rugby World Cup 2021 qualifier against Tonga in Port Moresby boasting a new nickname.
Sponsorship restrictions have dictated that the team formerly known as the Palais will line up for the first ever women’s international rugby union match played on Papua New Guinea soil as the Cassowaries.
And head coach John Pangkatana is hopeful his side can take inspiration from the flightless cassowary, which is regarded as the world’s most dangerous bird, as they attempt to navigate this initial play-off against Tonga at Bava Park which has been pushed back 24 hours to Sunday after the visitors experienced travel delays.
“We thought that Cassowary was a good name to use because it’s strong, it’s powerful and it fears no one,” Pangkatana told World Rugby.
“Hopefully that can be used by the team and as a bonding-type thing to edge the girls on. Hopefully the Cassowaries can do something for themselves.”
Victory would set up a play-off against Samoa on 18 April for a place in the RWC 2021 repechage as part of a revised qualification process resulting from Tonga’s withdrawal, on medical grounds, from last year’s Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Fiji.
Pangkatana believes that beating Tonga, a more experienced team who sit 13 places above their hosts in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, would also provide a huge boost to his country’s hopes of promoting 15s rugby to women.
A massive opportunity for PNG
Papua New Guinea have enjoyed considerable success in the shorter form of the game and their men’s and women’s teams both qualified for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco.
The women’s 15s team, by contrast, only made its debut in 2016 and the Cassowaries are yet to win any of their five tests. Last November the team lost to Samoa, Fiji B and a Black Ferns Development XV during the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Lautoka.
“A win to PNG would be massive. It would turn the whole thing around,” Pangkatana said.
“I think it will actually boost our national body here. If we win this game the support from the corporate community and everything else will definitely come flooding in.
“So, it’s massive for us if we can get a win on home soil. We’re trying to market the game a little bit more on home soil to hopefully get more supporters involved, so winning is a big thing.”
Pangkatana, who is in his third season as coach, has not been able to call on any of the country’s sevens players with preparation for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series event in Stellenbosch, South Africa, on 28-29 March in full swing.
However, the squad that competed in Fiji last year has been bolstered by overseas-based players from Australia and Canada, and Pangkatana is confident those additions can help fill technical gaps he identified, especially up front.
Pride and passion
The bulk of the squad has been together for the past four weeks and as game day approaches there is a sense of excitement among the players that they will become the first female team to host a test.
“It’s obviously in the back of their minds that they’re playing on their home ground,” Pangkatana explained.
“We want to bring a sense of patriotism into it and the importance of the game and importance of winning on home soil and in front of your family.
“So, it is a sense of pride and passion that we want to bring into it but in saying that, we are yet to win a game at this level so we’re just trying to concentrate on our own things first before we get too ahead of us so to speak.”
The coach admits that the challenges posed by the visiting Tongans are many – “they obviously will have the size and weight and probably a bit of experience” – but that has not stopped him dreaming of RWC qualification.
“Obviously it’s at the back of our mind but we never thought that we would be in a situation where if we do win we’d be in with the chance to get to the repechage,” he said.
“But definitely, yes, it’s what all the girls want. Most of the girls have been playing hard for the last two years and building up to this. I guess we can’t go into a game without being confident.
“Yes, we definitely are confident to go this far and definitely to go to Samoa is going to be a big ask for us and it’s all about [the fact] we want to progress, at least progress every year.
“So, we’re working towards that and we’re confident we can go that far.”