Rugby League

Why the NRL All-Stars clash is the most important game of the NRL season

It's the smiles on the faces of the young Quandamooka dancers as they broke into an impromptu performance of Greg Inglis' trademark goanna crawl while welcoming the Indigenous All Stars captain and his teammates to Stradbroke Island.

It's the stunned disbelief among the players as they assembled in single file on a narrow cliff face to put their hand print and signature on a giant mural of the Aboriginal flag near the island's ferry wharf that had just been re-painted after being defaced on Australia Day.

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It's the excitement of the school children at a 7am coaching clinic hosted by the local Straddie Sharks club, whose teams wear jerseys emblazoned with the "Earn, Learn, Legend" and "Deadly Choices" slogans that have been promoted to Indigenous communities since the NRL's first All Stars game in 2010.

It's the pride of the players as they rehearsed the Unity Dance that Inglis will lead in Saturday night's game and which they hope will be adapted by the Kangaroos at next year's World Cup and eventually all Australians.

It's the woman who climbed aboard the parked team bus and demanded to meet Johnathan Thurston before disembarking in disappointment that the North Queensland premiership winning captain wasn't among the group of Indigenous players.

It's the star player who told teammates as they arrived at Brisbane airport that he'd had to convince his coach to allow him to play in a match that he believed was too important to miss after reports that the future of the All Stars concept was under threat.

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They are just six reasons why the All Stars match is arguably the most important game of the season and needs to either continue to be funded at a loss by the NRL or receive more money from governments for hosting rights and sponsorship.

"That talk seems to come up every year but this game is too valuable and means too much to the players and to the community to scrap it," says Inglis, who admits it was playing in the All Stars match and attending the associated Indigenous Player's Leadership Camps that made him aware of his responsibility as a role model and led to him becoming South Sydney captain.

"To see the kids do the goanna and have a bit of fun with the culture was great. Everywhere I go now kids are saying can you do the goanna but I prefer them to show me, and it was just great to see those kids connecting with what they strongly believe in."

CLOSE THE GAP

While the dancing was a fun part of the camp, which included entertainment by Aboriginal comedian Kevin Kropinyeri and singer Troy Brady, there is a serious side and players were told how Indigenous Australians are under-represented at universities and about half as likely to complete some form of higher education as the rest of the population.

Among the 98 Indigenous players who comprise 12 per cent of NRL squads, the figure for those with a university degree has risen from 12.5 per cent in 2014 to 33 per cent now.

Other statistics are equally as dire, with Indigenous Australians more likely to be poor, overweight, suffer health problems, spend time in jail and die younger.

"Our people have had to fight for every little right that we've got," NRL welfare and education manager Dean Widders told the players on the bus from Stradbroke Island to Brisbane on Monday after news broke that the All Stars game was being reviewed by NRL head of football Todd Greenberg.

"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."

Leading Indigenous affairs commentator Stan Grant, who was a guest at Wednesday night's Indigenous Leadership dinner in Brisbane, said the fact that a third of the Kangaroos team (Inglis, Thurston, Sam Thaiday, Greg Bird, Will Chambers and Alex Johnson) in last May's Anzac Test were Indigenous proved Indigenous people could be high achievers.

"This is extraordinary and in no other aspect of life do you get that level of excellence and participation," Grant said.

"We need to nurture that and develop that because we know among Indigenous people, we talk about it all the time, that it is harder for us – it is harder to get that foothold, it is harder coming from the backgrounds we often come from – to go there and be a success and become a role mode for other Indigenous people."

RECONCILIATION

Widders showed the players a map of Australia with all of the tribes that existed 60,000 years ago and told them it wasn't too dissimilar to the variety of races that make up the population now.

He believes the dance that Inglis will lead before kick-off against the NRL All Stars, which has been developed by the Indigenous players over the past two years, can become a symbol of unity for all Australians and become like the haka is to Kiwis.

The next step is encouraging the Kangaroos to perform it before Tests and Melbourne welfare manager Peter Robinson is confident Storm and Australian captain Cameron Smith would be a supporter.

"I obviously know Smithy from Melbourne and there is no way known he wouldn't want that to happen," Robinson said. "I think the important thing is for people to know the meaning behind it and it is actually not a threatening dance, it is more to get the boys together before they go into battle."

John Oehlers from Oaraa Productions is working with Widders to make a documentary titled Dreamtime Warriors about the dance they hope will be performed by the Australian team at the 2017 World Cup.

"This is a really positive story and it has got values that aren't just about footy, like family, culture, respect of the land, unity and leadership," Oehlers said. "It would be great to see the Australian team band together and lead the way for race relations in this country because I see it as something the Hockeyroos could do or any Australian could do to celebrate something."

LEADERSHIP

Within five years of Preston Campbell's All Stars dream becoming reality, the NRL had Indigenous captains on both sides of last season's grand final (Thurston and Brisbane's Justin Hodges), while all three winning skippers on the day – Thurston, Keiron Lander (Ipswich Jets) and Brent Naden (Penrith Under 20s) were Indigenous.

This season, a quarter of the 16 clubs could have Indigenous captains if Greg Bird (Gold Coast) and Sam Thaiday (Broncos) get the nod to join Thurston and Inglis as leaders of their teams.

"I remember talking to Johnathan Thurston about All Stars and him telling me what a transformative event it was for his life, and how it changed him as a man and as a footballer," Grant said.

"It gave him a sense of belonging and identity that I really think has contributed to him becoming the great player he is and if you talk to any of the players it is an incredible moment to represent your people."

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