Since his first game as a blond headed youngster in the Queensland Cup for the PNG Hunters debut season in 2014, Wartovo Puara Jnr’s grip on our nation’s flagship club team number nine jumper has been firm. Season after season Hunters groomed emerging players from local leagues to take the reins of the Hunters key hooking role, but for the better part of a decade they all failed to succeed Puara. In the process Puara not only became the first Hunters player to reach 100 games but its most capped player too.
2023 could be the year Puara’s successor is found as a cool headed youngster Tapia Solu emerges from the 2022 Digicel Cup Grand Final by starring for the Hela Wigmen to beat the Agmark Gurias and claim their third Premiership. Calm and composed under pressure Tapia Solu announced his arrival on the big stage by calmly booting the Wigmen to victory in a tense extra time affair at a sold out National Football stadium.
23-year old, Tapia is the son of the late Senior Pastor Ben Solu from the Kamewsa Community on the fringes of Mendi Town in the Southern Highlands Province. He was first selected to the 2020 Enga Mioks squad after starring for his Tente Newtown Jets team on consecutive weekends in the SHP 9s Tournament and Ipatas Cup Challenge at the Joe Keviame Oval, Mendi in December 2019. A versatile player, Tapia can play in the halves, hooker and at lock, complemented with his 80 Kg frame and precision goal kicking ability, he cemented a place in Enga Mioks first 17 in his debut season.
Tapia’s career almost ended only after one season when his dad passed on in early 2021. It was a tragic time for Tapia because his father, who was his spiritual mentor and hero, was no more. “Dad was my biggest fan, he would turn up to watch me play even in club games even though he was a very busy man. I always aspired to put a smile on my dad’s face but when he died, it brought me down to the lowest point in my life. I couldn’t get back on the field and gave up rugby league,” said Tapia who is currently in camp with the PNG Hunters preseason.
In the 2022 season Tapia returned to play rugby league with the Hela Wigmen to honour his dad. Life’s tragedy and the time away from the game changed him. Tapia matured and developed into a leader, a trait that would help him lead the Wigmen on Grand Final Day in the number 9 jersey ahead of other experienced options.
“Dad was my rock and my inspiration, he always motivates me. I wanted to give up but I knew it wasn’t something he would agree to. The one thing that I learned from dad was the attitude of never giving up. Most important is the faith that he used to teach. Seeing me succeeding now I am sure he has a smile on his face up there,” said Tapia.
2020 Wigmen grand final winning hooker Patrick Morea was pushed to the bench by an impressive Tapia Solu who received three man of the match awards leading up to the 2022 Digicel Cup Grand Final. Tapia repayed the coach’s trust in him by delivering another man of the match performance when it mattered most in the big dance with a solid performance as an on field leader ultimately kicking Wigmen to Grand Final Glory in extra time.
One of the recognized goal kickers in the 2023 PNG Hunters Train on squad, Tapia said he started practising goal kicking when he began playing rugby league. He used to practise for hours, sometimes he even practised from morning till afternoon just to improve his goal kicking skills.
Tapia recalled the moment he converted the Hela Wigmen penalty in the 96th minute of play: “I was tired but I knew I must concentrate on doing it right. The first thing that came into my mind was my endless hours of goal kicking practice and I knew I would nail it. The second thing was that I didn’t want to let my teammates down. Finally, it was my goal for this year (2022) to win a premiership so I was in a unique position at that moment to achieve my goal. I kicked it and the next thing I remember was getting swept away by players and fans. It was special.”
Tapia’s consistent starring performances caught the attention of PNG Hunters Coach Stanely Tapend. Getting that phone call from the Hunters mentor was a special experience for Tapia. “I was very excited and blessed when I received that call from the coach Stanley Tepend that I was going to be part of the PNG Hunters preseason. I am taking this opportunity with both hands. I believe in myself and my ability to train and play. I’ll continue to do my best and hopefully make the Hunters final squad and get my shot to prove myself in the Hunters number nine Jumper.” said the grand final winning hooker.
The 23 year old Tapia has only praises for the PNG Hunters veteran Puara and his achievements. “I think he (Puara) is the best hooker to ever put on the Hunter’s jumper. From the Digicel cup he rose to play so many games with the Hunters and the Kumuls. Puara is someone I look up to. Hopefully I get the opportunity to learn and play with him in the Hunters while he’s still there.”
Tapia is one of the most disciplined, committed and hardworking rugby league players in Papua New Guinea rugby league scene and his Christian faith and beliefs has raised eyebrows but says he won’t change anything, only work even harder to get better for the challenges ahead. “I want to play at the highest level in rugby league and represent my country and my family but for me to get there I have to put my head down, keep working hard and wait for my turn.”
Writes Terence Kapipi Yacop
For Sunday Bulletin