Long road for Indigenous and Maori players leads to NRL All Stars game
Originally published on The Guardian Australia, written by Red Elephant Group CEO Patrick Skene
One of rugby league’s most enduring legacies is the opportunity it has provided marginalised communities to enter the mainstream. And in New Zealand and Australia, the game has showcased the talents and cultures of the Maori and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples, who now jointly supply more than a quarter of the NRL’s elite male player base.
The two nations have trodden different paths but on Friday night they will converge in Melbourne for the revamped NRL Indigenous All Stars game, having once been considered peripheral figures in rugby league.
Yet through dogged persistence over the years, that has changed and when players such as Kalyn Ponga and Latrell Mitchell line up against each other for the first time in their cultural colours at AAMI Park, they will be making history.
Their aim will be to establish a long term tradition in the same mould as State of Origin and the Pacific Test, but there is already a long and storied history of how these two communities got to the point of a dedicated cultural match. Sadly, it has largely been forgotten.
The Maori played an important and largely unknown role in the foundation of rugby league in Australia. Led by brilliant All Blacks defector Albert Asher, an All Maori team toured Australia in 1908 and 1909, when the entertaining football and big crowds bailed out the NSWRL from looming bankruptcy, and helped them overpower rugby union.
“They saved the game and it’s sad because they returned home as outcasts,” says rugby league historian Terry Williams. “It’s a historical blind spot.”
The Maori stayed central to New Zealand rugby league through a succession of excellent players, including those in key leadership roles. One such player, Steve Watene, was appointed as the first Maori captain of the Kiwis in 1936, 39 years before Aboriginal Arthur Beetson was made captain of the Kangaroos.