Indigenous v All Stars 2016 (Suncorp Stadium, 13/02/16)

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Every year the Indigenous v All Stars match has a particular intensity, but it was heightened in 2016 by a number of factors. Firstly, the All Stars sides was expanded from an Australian All Stars into a World All Stars, which meant that the invitation was ostensibly open to players around the globe, but in practice tended to mean that the All Stars side was open to those international players, like Tom Burgess, who are currently playing within the NRL. Secondly, the 2016 Indigenous v. All Stars match has seen some of its most vocal opposition since being unveiled in 2010. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why opposition has surged this year, a number of factors have come into play. Most significantly, perhaps, the withdrawal of several key players from the All Stars team combined with the withdrawal of Thurston from the Indigenous side has led some commentators to question the extent to which this is really a representative match, and whether Indigenous representation in the game should be explored in some other way. Similarly, the recent establishment of the Auckland Nines and increasing popularity of one-off events like the Charity Shield have led to concerns that the pre-season is becoming too packed, either forcing players to unnecessarily run the risk of injury before Round 1 begins or to withdraw from these preliminary events altogether.

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At the same time, there has been a bit of a groundswell in indigenous activism within the NRL over the last year that has culminated with this year’s Indigenous v. All Stars match. In terms of representation, 2015 was the first year in which the NRL witnessed a Grand Final with two indigenous captains – Justin Hodges and Johnathan Thurston – while Thurston’s victory was cemented by the already iconic photograph of him, his daughter and his daughter’s indigenous doll sitting on the field after the game. Similarly, 2015 also saw the greatest proportion of indigenous players in the Kangaroos, a moment that Stan Grant has argued wouldn’t have occurred without the Indigenous v All Star initiative. Partly for that reason, 2015 also saw discussions begin in earnest about the possibility of introducing an indigenous war cry into the Kangaroos’ performances, motivated in part by the backlash against Adam Goodes, but also by the history of the Kangaroos themselves, who last included an indigenous war cry close to fifty years ago, during the 1967 world tour in France. In the leadup to the Indigenous v. All Stars match this year, Indigenous captain Greg Inglis has made it his mission to use the game as a way of achieving visibility and support for the war cry initiative, and has enlisted Cameron Smith, captain of the All Stars side, for his support in moving it forward. In the NRL, captaincy is often – although not always – a largely nominal role, especially in an era in which player moves and trades are so common, but the captaincy surrounding this year’s Indigenous v All Stars clash has set a new standard for the kinds of social justice issues that can be addressed and articulated once captains accept their responsibilities to the wider NRL community along with the welfare and performance of their particular players.

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As that synergy between Inglis and Smith might suggest, the decision as to whether or not to scrap the Indigenous v All Stars clash and replace it with something else has not tended to come from the players themselves but from the NRL executive, a body that has increasingly come under attack in recent years for its lack of adequate indigenous representation, especially in and around the responsibilities of the Indigenous Commissioner. As far as players are concerned, there have been three major responses to the Indigenous v All Stars question, none of which involve removing it immediately. Firstly, some pundits believe that if the Indigenous v All Stars clash is to be removed, then it needs to be replaced with an event that is just as “eventful” and which guarantees indigenous players the same degree of visibility and mobility. It’s worth remembering that this particular clash is by no means the first time or the only format in which indigenous teams have been fielded in the NRL and that there have been many times when indigenous representation seemed on the verge of building to an ever greater spectacle. To take just one example, the first Australian Aboriginal Rugby League team won seven out of its nine matches in a ten-day round against the all-Maori Wellington Petone team in 1973, a spectacle that led to the possibility of an annual Pacific-Indigenous match – and possibly an annual best of three – being raised at the same time as Origin. It’s not hard to imagine an alternative timeline in which this Pacific-Indigenous Clash became something comparable to Origin, not least because of the way in which it would give a representative voice to that sizeable New Zealand and Islander population that are excluded from Origin as it now stands. If Indigenous v All Stars is to be scrapped, then, it needs to be replaced with something that acknowledges these false starts, as well as the short-lived initiatives – such as indigenous representation in the Pacific Cups of 1990, 1992, 1994 – that fizzled out almost as soon as they began. Whatever happens, we don’t want Indigenous v All Stars to become one of these anticlimactic initiatives: it either needs to grow and flourish on its own terms or develop into something even more spectacular and inclusive.

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Of course, most players believe that Indigenous v All Stars should remain, although they differ on its placement and timing, as well as how it should release to what is an increasingly jam-packed pre-season. For what it’s worth, I quite like the eventfulness of the NRL pre-season, which has been considerably augmented with the addition of the Auckland Nines. While nothing beats Round 1, there’s an enjoyable resurgence of community and conviality in the weeks that precede it, and while the increasing number of pre-season events is definitely an added injury risk for some players, it also provides others with the time and space they need to flex their muscles before getting out on the field in a more official way, as well as allowing coaches and captains to tinker with the look and feel of their new teams before they’re put to the test in official competition. With such a long season – about the longest season of any major football code in the world – the NRL thrives on speculation and anticipation to build momentum, and the gradual escalation of events across the pre-season does a lot to contribute to that, creating an enormous sense of mounting excitement as the first round of the actual season draws closer. In many ways, Indigenous v All Stars is the pinnacle of this pre-season excitement, both in its scale and eventfulness, but also because of the way it also crystallises the grassroots community spirit that tends to gather around the smaller events as well, such as the Charity Shield and the various club matches. Both big and small scale at the same time, Indigenous v All Stars captures the spirit of League just as League is about to return in a big way, and the various initiatives and team building exercises that precede the match are just as critical to its meaning as the kinds of dramas that go down at the Blues and Maroons Origin Camps each year.

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For that reason, some players have advocated that the pre-season and the official season itself should be modified to give Indigenous v All Stars more of a pride of place. On the one hand, Greg Bird has suggested that the season should be shortened to provide players with more of a rest between Indigenous v All Stars and Round 1 – not an unreasonable suggestion – while Michael Ennis has suggested the possibility of converging it was the Nines by way of an Indigenous Nines team. On top of that, all manner of players, from Adam Reynolds to Jamie Soward, have advocated for the importance of the match as it now stands as a community-building activity. More specifically, Stan Grant has made an articulate case for why Indigenous v All Stars needs to remain at the beginning of the NRL season. Not only does this give it a particular symbolic role within the NRL calendar, Grant argues, but it coincides both with Australia Day and with the National Anniversary of the Apology to Stolen Generations, two events that, in their different ways, demand the kind of indigenous collectivity and celebration on display in and around the match. In fact, Arthur Beetson pushed for an Australia Day match by an all-indigenous team in the late 1990s for these very reasons, and while that never came to pass – and still hasn’t come to pass – Grant argues that it is important to retain this indigenous visibility at this particular moment in the Australian calendar.

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For my part, I’m inclined to agree with Grant, although I’d cautiously suggest that there is in fact the possibility for an even more sustained, eventful and visible indigenous event on the NRL calendar if only their executive can manage to organise it in a meaningful and competent way. What does seem clear from this year’s match, however, is how galvanising the Indigenous v All Stars match is to the players themselves. Although the All Stars won this year, it was the Indigenous side who put in the most extraordinary performance, with the possible exception of James Roberts, who still seems to be finding his feet when it comes to Suncorp. Although I’ve already mentioned Inglis’ leadership off the field, as a player he put in what I’m imagining will turn out to be one of his best and most sustained performances of 2016. In many ways, it was a match that captured everything that makes Inglis such an enigmatic character, since he only seems to shine in big name events like Indigenous v All Stars and Origin, only giving about a quarter of himself the rest of the year around, which must make him frustrating to Souths fans, even or especially as he has become one of their biggest icons. While some commentators put that down to laziness, it’s also clear that Inglis has never quite got over the leg injuries he sustained a while back, and his rhythm throughout the year has become one in which he ploughs through the pain during Indigenous v All Stars and Origin only to limp and hobble a bit around the edges of the Rabbitohs pack, with the exception of those one-off moments of inspiration that can descend on his game at any time.

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Watching him captain the Indigenous team on Saturday, however, suggested a different interpretation of Inglis’ oscillations between motivation and apathy, fitness and flab. As a white NRL fan, I kind of take it for granted that once indigenous players get out on the field they’re as pumped as white players, but the persistence of racism must take the edge of that at times. And I’m not talking about racism as a pervasive, amorphous fact, but racism that finds its way precisely into the kinds of motivational rhetoric that fuel the game, as in Andrew Johns’ use of racist invective to motive the Blues back in the early 10s. If you think for a moment about how demotivating that would be to any indigenou players on the team, and then multiply that by all the moments that must occur outside of the public spotlight, it’s reasonable to believe that motivation is not necessarily a given for indigenous players in the same way as it is for white players. When the rhetoric of motivation is itself not immune to racism, then motivation becomes problematic, which is not to cast indigenous players as victims, or to participate in a different kind of racism by low expectations, but to just articulate a pretty basic fact about how motivation operates. Time and again, indigenous players have arrived on the scene with enormous potential, but they don’t quite seem to be supported or sustained by the competition as their white teammates, which isn’t necessarily an indictment on any one player, team or figure in particular – with the exceptions of people like Andrew Johns who think that kind of language is OK – but an indication that there are still systemic issues with race in the NRL that events like Indigenous v All Stars and initiatives like the Kangaroos war cry are helping to address. Although I hate to admit it, this is one arena in which AFL is way ahead of NRL – Adam Goodes catcalling notwithstanding – since Aussie Rules initiated an Indigenous-All Stars tournament – and called it by that name – back in the early 80s. Sure, there was a lapse before it was reinstated in 2005, but there is nevertheless a sense that AFL has gone to greater length to ensure inclusion. It’s hard to believe that Beetson’s vision of an indigenous Australia Day match would have remained on the drawing board in the NRL.

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For all those reasons, then, there was something especially powerful about seeing Inglis lead the war dance at the beginning of the game, as well as a majestic conviction to his presence on the field. While Indigenous v All Stars often has that effect, the sense that there was so much more at stake this year – both in the growing threat to the competition but also the groundswell around the war cry – made the surge in motivation more palpable across the entire team. Nowhere was that more evident than in some of Ben Barba’s dashes, which must have made Canterbury-Bankstown fans hold their breath as the future he never had at the Bulldogs flashed before their eyes. Over the last couple of years Barba has struggled to find his way and to regain the momentum of 2012, and given that his golden run seemed to end up his stunning appearance at the 2013 Indigenous v All Stars game and there was a sense that this might represent a first tentative return to form. Combined with sterling performances from Dane Gagai and James Soward, there was a sense that the community building that precedes the game and the involvement of Dean Widders, NRL Welfare and Education Manager, as the team’s unofficial coach, mentor and spokesperson, had produced a special kind of conviction and commitment on the part of the players that in itself is one of the most compelling reasons for not diminishing Indigenous v All Stars as it now stands. While Widders may have been the unofficial mentor, however, it’s also important not to discount the role of Laurie Daley as official coach as well. As the coach for the New South Wales Blues over the last decade or so, Daley know what it takes to guide a team who aren’t used to getting their full share of motivation from the media, as well as a team that are constantly battling against the negative visibility that they seem to accrue despite their best efforts and intentions. At the same time, there was something particularly satisfying, to a Blues fan, about seeing Daley coaching Inglis and Gagai – as well as the prospect of him coaching Thurston in the wake of last year’s decisive Maroons victory – since part of the pleasure of watching Origin lies in speculating what each coach would do if they found themselves handed the other side. In Daley’s hands, these stalwart Maroons suddenly became Blues at heart, articulating their voices in a competition whose future is increasingly treated as a foregone conclusion.

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Of course, the All Stars also contributed a great deal to the atmosphere of the game, albeit a severely depleted side meant that their presence wasn’t quite as charismatic and intense as it might have been, despite the 12-8 victory. For all that the match was yet another testament to Cameron Smith’s gifts and gravitas as captain, the most impressive performance overall probably came from Konrad Hurrell, who stepped in at the last moment to fill in for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, just as he had done on the second day of the Nines. While there has been endless speculation in the Warriors camp as to just how the Shaun Johnson-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck-Issac Luke threesome will play out, but over the Nines and the All Stars I found myself wondering whether Hurrell may actually be a more interesting member of that threesome than Luke, especially since the Warriors have never seemed to figure out just how to use his massive strength and agility for maximum impact. With Johnson and RTS’s lightning speed and freakish offloads to carve him out some space, Hurrell may well see his best season in 2016, and has already seen what is arguably the best pre-season of his career.

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Above and beyond both the Indigenous and All Stars performance, last Saturday’s match was also notable for debuting the bunker system, a new refereeing initiative whereby television viewers are able to watch the refs debating whether or not to award a try instead of being relegated to slow-motion replays of the point in question. While it didn’t necessarily work that smoothly in the Indigenous-All Stars match, the basic idea is good, and certainly felt appropriate to the spirit of the match itself in its commitment to transparency and dialogue around the key talking points in the game. And perhaps what is finally so powerful about Indigenous v All Stars is the way it finally feels more like a dialogue than a competition, as evinced in the relationship between Inglis and Smith and captains. On the one hand, that draws the All Stars team closer to Australia’s indigenous heritage – and provides a blueprint for how the Kangaroos might accommodate an indigenous war cry within a team that is not exclusively indigenous – but it also gives the Indigenous team a global, star-studded sweep as well, especially given that this year they were facing a World All Stars team. As a result, the Indigenous initiatives felt even more global this year, with the traditional retreat to Stradbroke Island augmented by Joel Thompson’s visit to the United States organised by NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana. Along with George Rose, Dene Halatau and Bronson Harrison, Thompson visited various sites and institutions integral to American Indian heritage as a way to come to terms with the role that his indigenous background should play in his approach to the game. And if Indigenous v All Stars is to be replaced, finally, by some event, it should be one that encourages this kind of dialogue between first nations, not just in the Pacific but more globally, in order to allow the game to reflect Widders’ reminder to the team: “We had to fight to go to schools, we had to fight to become citizens, we had to fight to get land rights and now we have got to fight to make sure we keep this All Stars game alive because of all of the good that it does.”

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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