Rugby League

NRL All Stars: Indigenous players vow to fight for future of concept

Dane Gagai turned down the opportunity to play for Newcastle at last weekend's Auckland Nines because he wanted to attend the NRL Indigenous Players Leadership Camp at Stradbroke Island.

Accentuate the positive: Dane Gagai at the Indigenous camp.
Accentuate the positive: Dane Gagai at the Indigenous camp.  Photo: Scott Davis/NRL

Joel Thompson made the same decision after missing last year's All Stars game due to St George Illawarra's involvement in the inaugural World Club Series in England.

The pair were among stunned players and officials involved with the Indigenous team's preparations for Saturday night's match against the World All Stars, who have vowed to ensure the survival of the seven-year-old concept annual game.

To them, and the dozens of schoolchildren who attended a coaching clinic with the Indigenous players at Straddie Sharks ground on Tuesday morning, news that NRL head of football Todd Greenberg is reviewing the future of the All Stars game makes no sense.

"This is really important and the players will be fighting for it," Gagai said. "I know they missed one year [2014] because of the Nines but when I got to play last year it was one of my proudest moments.

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"I could have gone to the Nines but I wanted to be a part of this because I get to represent who I am and all of the boys get to represent who they are, we get to represent our families and Indigenous people all over Australia – and we get to do that against an elite side in the World All Stars.

"With the names on both rosters this will always be a high-level match, it is not a trial match because we want to win, they want to win and we don't want to let our people down."

Thompson said the annual All Stars match was much more than a game and benefited both the players and the community.

"I was in shock when I heard that they were reviewing the game, like most of the guys here," Thompson said. "It is something special for our people, they go to the match for a gathering, it is not for a sad time or sorry time like when it is a funeral.

"For our people there are still some hard times across Australia and it is a time we can come together and celebrate something positive.

"At these camps we get across a lot of good messages that the NRL are so good at promoting and it is good for the players to learn about their culture – and to see how excited the kids are is something special and hard to explain.

"If the people who doubt the benefits of this game could come here to experience what it is all about I think they would change their opinions."

The match at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night is expected to attract a crowd of more than 40,000 but concerns about the cost of the week-long camps for players and the community programs associated with All Stars have put pressure on the game.

However, Gagai is an example of the benefits outweighing the costs as all of those associated with the Indigenous camp are impressed by how much he has matured from a player who two years ago was banned from Queensland selection after breaking curfew at an Emerging Origin camp to one of the team's leaders.

Indigenous All Stars winger Lee Edrick was among eight Maroons rookies to receive 12-month bans last week after breaking curfew at this year's Emerging Origin camp and Gagai said the Canberra flier would benefit from the leadership camp. 

"We all make mistakes and I was upset but I guess he and the other guys are just going to have to go through the process and get back up there," Gagai said.

"In my case I was obviously disappointed, mostly because I had let myself down. The hardest thing was probably knowing that I had missed an opportunity but I learned from my mistake and it helped me develop as a person."