For Howie Tamati MBE, a proud Maori who played 24 Tests for the Kiwis and is the current NZRL president, this deep history increases the significance of the All Stars match.
“We haven’t just popped up in this game, we are a concrete part of the game’s foundation and our All Maori teams sacrificed themselves for the cause.”
Unlike the Aboriginal players, the challenges facing Maori rugby league have not come from the government but from a rival code. Tamati says: “Rugby union considered us ‘leaguies’ unclean. If you played league and went back to union, there was a cleansing process like you’d been contaminated.”
Tamati has spoken to Maori fans across New Zealand about the All Stars match and the universal emotion is the joy of seeing the Maori NRL players united.
We are a nation within a nation and it is moving when Aussie-born Kangaroos stars like Kalyn Ponga and Dane Gagai reconnect with their Maori heritage.
While the original All Maori touring teams were dressed in blazers and feted as guests at lavish public events, their Aboriginal brothers initially struggled to break into the game. The only black player to play in Sydney before the first world war was Eastern Suburbs’ George Green who has been claimed as Aboriginal but was clearly of Afro-Caribbean heritage.
In the first three years of the NSWRL, two Maori players, Peter Moko and Glen Paera, were drafted by Sydney clubs. Sadly the Aboriginal players were stranded on missions and reserves until Currabubula’s Dick Johnson broke through for Newtown in 1934.
Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP
For pioneering men like Johnson and Queensland’s Glen “Paddy” Crouch, rugby league was a portal to the mainstream world and when they returned to their communities they were celebrated as role models of success; living proof that the game they loved could love them back.
Williams notes a sad era of hidden identity. “There were always whispers that different players were Aboriginal but players denied any Indigenous heritage,” he says. “Those that were obviously Aboriginal copped it, especially Frank Fisher.”
Frank “Bigshot” Fisher – Olympic champion Cathy Freeman’s paternal grandfather and the Wide Bay five-eighth – so impressed successive English touring sides in the 1930s that Salford offered him a contract. He was cruelly denied a passport and lived out his days as a ward of the state, a virtual prisoner on the Cherbourg Mission and victim of the Orwellian Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897.
Rugby league was not immune to the structural racism of its times but it blazed the pathway to inclusion earlier than any other team sport. It helped shape new values and bring social change and made room for Aboriginal players to participate.
Bidjigal man Brad Cooke was the first Aboriginal play-by-play rugby league commentator for ABC radio and feels the All Stars concept has finally come of age. For him, the pivotal moment came with Latrell Mitchell’s decision to turn his back on the World Club Challenge with NRL premiers Sydney Roosters to play Friday’s game in Melbourne.
That was the real moment that showed how powerful a ‘culture of origin’ team is for our people.
“It’s a celebration of resilience and of being included. We’ve been good for the game and the game has been good for us. We welcome our Maori brothers and sisters and it’s going to be a beautiful night,” Cooke says.
Despite some of the negatives levelled at rugby league – not least during this most recent off-season – its fans in Australia can take great pride in its rich history of respect and inclusive selection of players on merit and not colour.
When the men and women of two Indigenous cultures run onto AAMI Park on Friday night, the NRL promises more than a pre-season trial. “A marriage of cultures, history and community on the field for one night only,” it claims.
For the fans and players it is more than a night at the footy. It is a rare opportunity to crystallise the respect they have earned in over a century of playing the game. And most importantly to honour their pathfinders like Frank Fisher and Albert Asher and celebrate a sport that gave them a fair go.
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