Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Papua New Guinea rugby league pioneer passes on

By JEFF WALL in League Unlimited


The death occurred in Brisbane last night of Sir James Jacobi, the driving force behind the early development of rugby league in Papua New Guinea. He was President of the PNG Rugby League for more than 25 years, was also a Member of the International Rugby League Board.

He also held the distinction of being the first rugby league official in the world – and I suspect still the only – to be knighted for his service to rugby league. He was knighted by the PNG Government in 1991 and had earlier been awarded the OBE.

He became first President of the PNG Rugby League in 1964 when the then ARL and NSWRL President, Bill Buckley, asked him to take the reins of the game in pre-independence Papua New Guinea. At the time he was developing the largest medical practice in PNG – which was a very happy coincide for rugby league players for the next 30 years as they were never charged for visits to his surgery!

During his time as President, PNG became a Member of the International Rugby League Board and played regular rest matches against the Kangaroos, Kiwis, England and French nation teams. His excellent personal association with administrators in Australia such as Kevin Humphreys, Ken Arthurson, Ron McAuliffe and Tom Bellew helped give the game in PNG international status, and secured several tours of PNG by the Kangaroos.

The game prospered under his leadership and cemented its place as the national sport of Papua New Guinea. His enormous range of business, political and community contacts were regularly “tapped” to help develop the greatest game of all in the one country where its place as the national code is unchallenged.

For the best part of a quarter of a century he led “pilgrimages” of league fans from PNG to the grand final in Sydney.

Apart from his service to rugby league, Sir James Jacobi served for many years as medical officer for PNG’s national airline, Air Niugini. His generosity was legendary. I once estimated that about one in three of the patients who visited his hectic Port Moresby surgery never paid – and they included rugby league players (and officials), missionaries, and hundreds of Papua New Guineans who could not afford to pay....and even some who could.

After moving to Brisbane in the mid 1990’s, Sir James continued working as a locum in medical practices, finally returning just two years ago.

He was born in Maryborough, Queensland, in 1925 and served in the Australian Air Force in PNG in the final stages of the Second World War.

I knew Jim Jacobi well for more than 30 years. I was privileged to count him as a close friend. When I first went to work in PNG in 1977, the then QRL Chairman, Senator Ron McAuliffe, made sure I met Jim and it was a matter of months before he had me involved in administration in the game in PNG.

He was a person of unbounded generosity, and his passion for rugby league – and the time he put into it despite seeing up to 60 patients a day in his medical practice – was inspirational.

Rugby league in Papua New Guinea today would be the strong national sport it is today without his leadership and commitment in the challenging early years, and then the period when it entered the international arena.

His passing will not only cause sadness in rugby league in Papua New Guinea – he will be greatly missed by the nation’s political and community leaders, and the countless thousands of Papua New Guineans who benefited from his generosity over the best part of forty years.

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