Papua New Guinea’s women will arrive in Monaco next month intent on writing a new chapter in the country’s Olympic Games story.
Since making its Olympic debut in 1976, a year after gaining independence, the Pacific Island nation has sent teams to every Summer Games, bar Moscow 1980, but is yet to compete in a team sport.
The closest PNG has come to participating in a team event is the men’s 4x400m relay, in which it competed at both Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.
However, that would change at Tokyo 2020 should PNG secure one of the two women’s sevens places up for grabs at the Olympic Repechage tournament, which will take place in Monaco between 19-20 June.
“It's a really big thing for us, not only for female team sport, but for the country as a whole,” PNG captain Kymlie Rapilla told World Rugby.
“For the first time, a team sport is going to be taking part and even better a women's team. So, it's a huge thing for us, for PNG rugby and for sport in PNG.”
PNG were one of three seeded women’s teams for the repechage draw earlier this month, and will compete alongside Kazakhstan, Jamaica and Tunisia in the pool stage in Monaco.
The team’s preparations, however, have been impacted severely by COVID-19 restrictions, with head coach Paul Tietjens spending the pandemic at home in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty.
Tietjens, the son of World Rugby Hall of Fame coach Gordon, has kept in touch with the squad regularly via Zoom, WhatsApp and email, but has not coached his players in person since February, 2020.
Rapilla and her team-mates, meanwhile, have only recently been able to return to training as the country emerges from its latest period of lockdown.
“It makes it extremely challenging,” Tietjens said. “I mean, you can't see the players getting pushed first hand at training and you're getting verbal messages back and forth from your management who are on-base there in Port Moresby.
“But at the same time, I do trust that they're doing the work under my management team over there, but it's been very difficult because we've been unable to play any form of tournaments or warm-up matches in the last 12 months.
“I know the girls have been playing some club rugby sporadically, but apart from that, it's been very limited in regards to what they can do, apart from training in their squad of 18, which we've got based in Port Moresby at the moment.”
Rapilla added: “It's been really tough, but we've managed.
“We had our S&C (strength and conditioning) staff that are based here in PNG. So, they've been coming around and helping us with our training, especially for our on-field conditioning and just with the gym and stuff.
“[Tietjens] keeps track of our trainings, and we're always keeping him in the loop.”
Chasing Olympic dream
The squad is currently training hard, twice a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, in order to ensure the players arrive in Monaco in the best possible condition.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions and quarantine procedures, Tietjens is unlikely to link up with his players until they arrive in Europe.
It will be vital, therefore, that they are able to hit the ground running in terms of their preparation in the principality. And, Tietjens has been able to call on some expert advice for how best to approach that time leading into the tournament.
“I’ve been in big discussions with [Gordon],” Tietjens said, “and been obviously talking about the challenges that we'll face, especially with the restrictions, not being able to train, travel and play in international tournaments to be exposed to that level of the game.
“But basically, when we arrive in Monaco, we need to firstly make sure that the girls are physically and mentally prepared to start training because it's such a long flight over there and there will be some jet-lag added in.
“So, we need about, I would say a good three days of quality training as a team working through our structure and our set-plays before we look any further than that.
“But, definitely, I guess, asking him for some key advice when he's been put through similar situations. When I guess he's been underdone or underprepared with sides, it's all about just doing your very best and emptying the tank for each other despite the circumstances.
“And, if we can obviously link up well together in Monaco and nail three or four good sessions under our belt before we begin on the Friday, that's all we can really ask for as a management group.”
Given the events of the last 15 months, how big an achievement would it be for PNG to book their place at Tokyo 2020?
“It would be absolutely massive for not only Papua New Guinea rugby, but the nation itself,” Tietjens said.
“It would be a first and it would obviously be creating history in the country of PNG. So, it would mean a heck of a lot and even more now that we've gone through such tough times and challenging circumstances.”
Rapilla added: “It's huge, it would be a dream come true. Most of these girls in this team, they're all young girls.
“It's been everyone's dream to compete at the Olympic level, so it would be really good for us.”