From GEORGINA ROBINSON of Sydney Morning Herald
WILL GENIA hopes a new rugby program will unearth more outstanding sporting talent in Papua New Guinea, but believes its core purpose is to make life better for children through sport.
Genia travelled to the land of his birth this week to help promote the $2.45 million Australian government-funded Pacific in Union initiative.
|Homegrown talents ... Genia promotes a program of goodwill. Photo: AusAID|
''It's all about life skills,'' Papua New Guinea Rugby Union general manager Simon Kerr said. ''You don't have to encourage these kids to get out too much, you've just got to drive around the streets here and you'll see them playing touch footy or volleyball or wheeling a tyre down the road with a couple of sticks.
''They're active. It's just encouraging the healthy aspect, showers and balanced diets, and all the simple things we take for granted.''
Rugby union is the country's fourth most popular sport. Football is the most popular by participation and rugby league dominates the television thanks to the NRL's penetration. Genia didn't play rugby union until he went to high school in Brisbane as a 12-year-old.
And despite persistent calls for a Papua New Guinean team to join the NRL, the Australian Rugby Union and the Australian government thinks the smaller code has a chance to win hearts and minds, thanks to the success of Genia.
''I think union has a real potential here,'' Australia's High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Ian Kemish, said.
''League, while very popular, has some real organisational problems in this country. Some of the other guys, including AFL and cricket, are getting themselves going and I'm delighted … that rugby union is getting involved.''
Genia said he hoped the new program, which is also being rolled out in Samoa and the Solomon Islands, would lead to greater participation in PNG.
''Rugby league's huge up here, it always has been, ever since I was a little kid,'' he said. ''State of Origin is insane here, it's like a religion, they love it. So it's quite tough, but initiatives like Pacific in Union can try to change that, promote the game a little bit more, which will be good.''
But in a country in which 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 and poverty is overwhelming, Genia said the program could do more for children than hone their catch-pass skills.
''I like the idea of a program targeting young kids and presenting them with opportunities they wouldn't be presented with otherwise. There's so much talent running around all the Pacific Islands … You can get kids off the street, keep them clean, keep them away from drugs and alcohol, and unearth some talent as well while they're at it.'