“Capture their hearts and you’ll capture their minds.”
New PNG Hunters coach Matt Church attributes a good friend for that poignant advice – and it has helped guide him on a steep learning curve since arriving in Port Moresby.
“The people here are emotive people, and I have yet to meet a single PNG native who is not respectful and humble,” says Church.
“They hold hands with their mates, especially if guiding somebody from out of town. That’s obviously something I wasn’t accustomed to, but indicative of how big they are on forming a connection at the same time.
“My mate emphasised how important it was to be respectful from the outset and win the trust and admiration of the players…things like not swearing in their presence, as is common in footy elsewhere.
“I tell you, being a tradie from Australia, not swearing has been tough at times though,” he jokes.
Far from being merely a carpenter of 20 years, “slinging the tool belt”, Church is entering his eighth season as a coach.
Until 2020 he’d spent the past four years in a variety of roles with the Melbourne Storm, based last year out of State League affiliates the Sunshine Coast Falcons.
To fulfil his duties as assistant coach for the Falcons, Church racked up 36,000 kilometres on the road in a season, doing a three-hour round trip from his South Brisbane home at least three times per week.
It was a mark of his determination to advance his career.
The 43-year-old had always wanted to make a living from coaching full-time, but was not quite sure he coveted the pressure that came with an NRL head coach’s role.
He appreciates the irony in now finding himself at one of the highest-profile posts outside of Australia or England, beating 13 other applicants along the way.
“I was previously worried about the scrutiny of the NRL, but now I’m at a club where there’s eight million supporters, a whole country demanding success and I front a press conference every second day,” he laughs.
“I’m still learning and I’ll continue to learn throughout this season.
“It’s been good though. Not without its challenges, but good at the same time.”
Aside from the language barrier, where English is some players’ third language, Church is also the first non-PNG figurehead to coach the Hunters.
Michael Marum held the role from 2014, when the Hunters were reintroduced to Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup.
Marum proved a popular figure who left an indelible impression on the organisation, and will continue as national coach of the Kumuls into the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Rather than seeing his predecessor as a figure that looms large in the rear-view mirror, Church is confident in shaking things up at club level, but also complementing Marum’s work with the national side.
“I think it’s been refreshing for the Hunter boys to have somebody new,” says Church.
“Mike is such a respected and successful individual, but it’s been unfortunate for him he’s had to juggle the Hunters and Kumuls roles in the past.
“That made it hard for him to get the development he was looking for as a coach and he probably felt a bit worn out by the end.
“Part of the vision I sold to the interview panel when I applied was helping the progression of the local coaches, particularly at that Digicel Cup level.
“People probably don’t realise, but Mike Marum is the only level three coach in the country, then below him there are only two people who hold a level two accreditation.”
Having served a significant apprenticeship of his own before this Hunters opportunity, Church certainly appreciates how valuable good mentors and accumulated experience can be.
So, what has he learned that he will implement to help the Hunters perform better than 2019, when they finished second-last with four wins in 23 games?
Obviously, administrators are hoping he brings some of the success from the Sunshine Coast, who finished as league leaders in the same competition, losing just one game in the regular season.
“I looked at the pre-season training and the Hunters had been doing a similar thing for a few seasons, so that has changed,” Church reveals.
“There’s not so much long-distance running and we’re now looking at being more consistent and quicker in game-specific situations.
“The other big thing is that the Hunters played a lot of one-out footy last season, which allowed them to be swamped by the opposition defence.
“Everybody knows how tough and hard PNG players are, but sometimes they have fallen into the trap of wanting to take everybody on to emphasise that point.
“I want them to play smarter this season and create more one-on-one opportunities in attack where they can also exhibit that attacking flair we know the players possess.”
It’s an oft-referenced fact that rugby league is the national sport of PNG and the supporter base is fanatical.
To that extent, Church shares common ground.
Growing up in Queensland, he was ball boy for his father’s team – the Samford Stags – from the age of two.
He has lived, breathed and consumed the sport ever since, even putting his hand up to coach in the relatively obscure university competition while he still had Melbourne Storm development squad duties.
On one hand he had Storm players who were accustomed to training nine times per week, then he’d lob at university training where one session per week was the norm.
“In my life there have only ever been two seasons – rugby league and cricket,” Church states.
“Rugby league to me is incredibly important. It teaches all the things that make you a good teammate, a good workmate and, ultimately, a good person.
“My philosophy or style is to always emphasise the effort areas; doing the one-percenters that make people want to play alongside you.
“That was important to me as player and that’s important to me as a coach.
“Getting into coaching was all about helping young people achieve their goals. Rugby league is a fantastic vehicle for that.”