The NRL All Stars game; this symbolic rugby league match where the best in Australia and New Zealand face off against the best Indigenous (Aboriginal) players is the brainchild of former great Preston Campbell (himself of Aboriginal descent). It also serves as the precursor to the NRL season and has been since its birth in 2010. It places the emphasis on the heritage and growing importance of the Aboriginal people and the joy they take in playing the game. Both sides are picked by the public with the obvious stipulation being that the Indigenous team have to be of Aboriginal origin.
As the New Zealand Maori in union have highlighted the influence that the Maori have had on New Zealand rugby, so the NRL Indigenous All Stars show how crucial the inclusion of their people is in rugby league. Maori names like Weepu, Kaino, Toeava and Nonu spring off the team sheets as players who have gone on to make their mark in international rugby. In league, the contribution is even more pronounced; Inglis, Hodges, Idris and Thurston, to name a few, are household rugby league names and all of them will be considered greats when they retire as totems of the game.
In much the same way that every team has their own style of play, so the Maori over the years have showcased their people’s own specific brand of rugby, that of hard-hitting, slick-handling superstars. The Indigenous are no different; their teams over the years have rivalled that of most international line-ups and their penchant for running the ball has showcased the skills that many learnt from a young age.
And yet whilst their game-play is astounding, what is an absolute pleasure to behold is the pride and joy they take in putting on their specifically designed jerseys and representing their people, who, for many years, were persecuted by the Australian government in much the same way that the Maori, albeit further back in history, were by the British. The work they do in Aboriginal communities leading up to the All Stars is brilliantly captured in a small video on Youtube (type in All Stars 2011), which highlights in inspirational fashion the importance of the Indigenous rugby league players to Aboriginals and most importantly the youth. They go out into the most far-flung reaches of the Australian outback and bring their phenomenal array of skills with them (Thurston’s banana kick from on the try line that curves in between the posts being one of them).
There are always detractors to this concept though, and some people claimed when the Indigenous All Stars’ idea came along that it would mean soft tackling and relaxed refereeing. This theory was quite literally smashed when the mighty English lock Sam Burgess, selected for a standout season in 2010 to play for the All Stars against the Indigenous, had a collision with the diminutive Campbell that was reminiscent of a baseball bat hitting a tomato.
The simple truth is that the Maori and Indigenous teams provide an inspiration for their respective cultures in an arena and game that many Maori and Indigenous kids grow up watching and aspiring to. The Indigenous and Maori are increasing awareness using the one great leveller in the world sport. Long may it continue.