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Australia’s deputy prime minister has held talks with National Rugby League officials to push the case for a Papua New Guinea team, declaring “now is the time” to expand the competition.

Richard Marles, visiting PNG in his capacity as defence minister, said on Thursday that he had “personally spoken with the NRL a number of times about this”.

“I’ve long felt that it would be so meaningful for PNG to have a team in the NRL,” Marles said.

“I think the NRL is as well disposed towards this idea as they’ve ever been.”

PNG launched its campaign to become the 18th NRL team in the competition earlier this year, prompting the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to pledge his support at the Pacific Islands Forum in July.

Albanese said the NRL should look at eventually having a team from PNG or a broader “Pacific” team.

Marles offered enthusiastic support after a meeting with the PNG prime minister, James Marape, who told him rugby league was “a passion” but could also help foster national unity.

“Certainly, from our government’s point of view, we’re really keen to pursue the idea,” Marles said in Port Moresby.

“And I think now’s the time to see when we can actually get this off the ground and really take steps down the path of making this a reality. It’d be really important for PNG [and] it’d be so important for our relationship.”

Referring to the name of PNG’s national team, Marles added: “It would be absolutely incredible to see the Kumuls be playing in the NRL.”

He did not put a definite timeframe on the team’s entry into the competition, saying “we want to work to that end as quickly as we can”.

Marles and Marape discussed how to advance the NRL bid during a visit otherwise dominated by a focus on closer defence cooperation between Australia and PNG.

Marles said Australia wanted to help plug any “gaps” in PNG’s defence capability. He said it “makes sense to be working more closely with friends” given the tense strategic circumstances – a reference to growing tensions between China and the US.

That cooperation could include more surveillance missions to detect illegal fishing in the Pacific.

“Certainly for PNG, for a lot of Pacific countries, their exclusive economic zone is one of the most important economic assets that they have and it’s really important that we’re protecting that,” Marles said.

Marape emphasised trade and economic ties between PNG and Australia. “We’re now at an almost, if not at an equal level of relationship; we see eye-to-eye in most matters,” the PNG prime minister said.

Senior PNG ministers will visit Canberra for talks in November and Albanese is expected to visit Port Moresby in December.