Rugby League

Canberra Raiders celebrate Indigenous players ahead of NRL's Indigenous round

When Sam Backo played the first of his 115 games for the Raiders in 1983, he wasn't just playing for himself.

"I was playing for all my mob," Backo explains.

Former Raiders forward Sam Backo is one of the club's best Indigenous players.
Former Raiders forward Sam Backo is one of the club's best Indigenous players.  

"I was an example for all of my brothers coming through."

Indigenous players have had a significant impact on the Raiders in the club's 34-year history.

Laurie Daley is one of the greatest players the game has seen, and a proud Indigenous man, too.
Laurie Daley is one of the greatest players the game has seen, and a proud Indigenous man, too. 

Some absolute champions of the game have donned the lime green jersey since the Raiders came into the NSWRL competition in 1982.

Laurie Daley was named at five-eighth in the NRL's Indigenous Team of the Century in 2008, while Backo and cult hero John "Chicka" Ferguson were honoured in a similar team in 2001.

Former Raiders captain Mal Meninga is of South Sea Islander descent and doesn't identify himself as having Indigenous heritage.

Meninga said this weekend's Indigenous Round played an important role in highlighting the achievements of Indigenous players and the role they have in the game.

Ken Nagas in action for the Canberra Raiders.
Ken Nagas in action for the Canberra Raiders. 

"Sport in general is all-encompassing regardless of what race and culture you come from," Meninga said.

"Indigenous participation has been high in our sport since day dot and the game does tremendously well in bridging the gap in all of the programs they have got with the All-Stars game and what they do from a welfare point of view.

John 'Chicka' Ferguson was a cult favourite at the Raiders.
John 'Chicka' Ferguson was a cult favourite at the Raiders. Photo: Peter Wells

"We should be very proud of ourselves of what the game can do for Indigenous people."

The Raiders have had 31 Indigenous first-grade players in the club's history.

Meninga said just as important as the stars were the players who were there in the club's infancy.

"Guys like David Grant, Percy Knight, Terry Wickey and Lui Bon played a pretty big part in those early years in '82, '83 and '84," Meninga said.

"Two per cent is about the overall percentage of Indigenous people in the Australian population, so when you look at that, elite sport outweighs the general consensus.

"There have been a sprinkling of forwards at the Raiders, guys like Lui Bon, Sam Backo, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Joel Thompson, but we've had plenty of outstanding backs as well."

Prolific try-scorer Ken Nagas was one of those, while modern-day stars Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee have bright futures in front of them.

Backo has always been passionate about Indigenous issues. His mother, Evelyn Scott, is a former chairwoman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

He played in Canberra for Woden Valley in 1981, but moved back to Queensland to play for the Yeppoon Seagulls in 1982 before returning to the ACT to join the Raiders in 1983.

Backo spent six seasons with the Raiders, while he also played for Leeds and the Brisbane Broncos, along with representing Queensland and Australia.

Backo said players such as Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis continued to be role models for Indigenous people.

"Of course they are mate, they enjoy what they do, they're talented at it and we've got a lot of other black fellas who are the same," Backo said.

"They are an example for the ones coming through."

The Raiders' top 10 Indigenous players

1. Laurie Daley: 244 matches (445 points); Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year (1995, 96); Dally M Player of the Year (1995); Dally M Captain of the Year (1996); RLW Player of the Year (1995); 21 Tests for Australia; 23 matches for NSW.

2. John (Chicka) Ferguson: 94 matches (50 tries); Dally M Winger of the Year (1985, 88); 3 Tests for Australia; 8 matches for NSW.

3. Sam Backo: 110 matches; Dally M Prop of the Year (1988); 6 Tests for Australia; 7 matches for Queensland.

4. Ken Nagas: 142 matches (59 tries); 5 Tests for Australia; 2 matches for NSW.

5. David Grant: 76 matches for Canberra; Inaugural captain.

6. Blake Ferguson: 60 matches (36 tries); 1 match for NSW.

7. Tom Learoyd-Lahrs: 109 matches; 4 Tests for Australia; 4 matches for NSW.

8. Terry Fahey: 55 matches (28 tries); Dally M Winger of the Year (1981); 6 Tests for Australia; 8 matches for NSW.

9. Joel Thompson: 89 matches (28 tries).

10. Paul Martin: 85 matches (28 tries).

How we picked the top 10

Let's address the obvious omission first: what about big Mal? Meninga himself doesn't call himself Indigenous, so who are we to argue. He is of South Sea Island descent. The first four players on the list pick themselves. Laurie Daley was a stand-out choice for No.1, but there was some argument over which legendary winger should take No.2: Chicka Ferguson or Ken Nagas. Splitting them at No.3 is Sam Backo - one of the greatest Indigenous players of all time. Most Raiders fans resent the man, but Blake Ferguson deserves his spot in the top 10. Terry Fahey may have been in the twilight of his career when he joined the Raiders, but he had a remarkable try-scoring strike rate in a struggling side. Paul Martin rounds out the 10 based on his three grand final appearances. Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee miss out because of their achievements so far, and weren't judged on potential.

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