Each year rugby league’s All Stars match is challenged over its place in the now-hectic NRL pre-season. This has more to do with the “other” team than with the spectacularly popular Indigenous squad.
For the first time in the concept’s history, this Friday night the annual fixture will be played outside Queensland, taking place at the Newcastle Knights’ McDonald Jones Stadium.
The match has maintained an average 30,017 attendance across its six instalments since 2010. Last year’s game reportedly attracted a five-city metro aggregate of 495,000 television viewers on Channel Nine, including 277,000 sets of eyeballs in Sydney and 218K in Brisbane. The moral? There is strong interest among Australian sports fans in the concept, particularly from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community who travel to these games in droves.
There is no All Stars game scheduled for 2018 due to the extreme summer workload for the biggest stars of the game, many of whom will be taking part in the Rugby League World Cup at the end of this year.
There is a large participation rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in rugby league. Twelve per cent of NRL players are Indigenous, while the grassroots figure is 9 per cent. Rugby League was the game of choice in missions and reserves across NSW and QLD during the protection era, so most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people grow up playing, watching and supporting rugby league. The All Stars fixture is the culmination of a week-long event that celebrates rugby league's commitment to Indigenous Australia and to celebrate the significant place of rugby league in the lives of a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia.
This is all positive stuff – so why the continued questioning of the game’s place in the schedule? Perhaps it has a lot to with the opposition.
Johnathan Thurston’s All Stars share a common heritage and pride. The connection to rugby league for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is visceral. Rugby league was introduced to NSW and QLD during Australia’s lengthy period of forced racial segregation. In some places in NSW and QLD, it was a way that Aboriginal men could leave the confined boundaries of the reserve system. In rugby league-mad places like Cherbourg, an ex-reserve north of Brisbane, the great five-eighth Frank Fisher and others like him remain the town heroes. Rugby league offered hope and freedom for many communities during the darkest and most draconian periods of protection.
The same can’t be said for their hybrid All Stars opponents. Most non-Indigenous supporters – if they choose to root against the Aboriginal side – would baulk at getting behind a team that represents the World, or as used to be the case, the establishment - the NRL. There simply isn’t a unifying aspect to the “other” team, as there rarely is whenever a “everybody else” side is made up. In State of Origin, for instance, both teams have their own heritage and represent their own “people”, echoing long-held sentiments about state rights that pre-date Federation in 1901; QLD the underdog and NSW the more populated and progressive colony that continues to subsidise smaller states.
So who else is this popular, star-studded Indigenous team supposed to play? And what about the popular vote selection method used to appoint players to either team? Who else are fans supposed to vote-in and for?
Certainly the popular vote system can be kept to select the Indigenous team, even if, perhaps, it would play someone else each year, such as the NRL premiers from the previous season. Or a different national team each year: Australia one year, New Zealand the next and England the next?
Or perhaps the Indigenous All Stars could play a different NRL team each pre-season, at that club’s home ground? Or maybe they could play a team of Pacific Indigenous players: what a fierce contest that would be. In whatever direction the concept heads next, this very culturally important Aboriginal representative side must be kept together and must be allowed to keep playing. There’s too much goodwill and social progress at stake.
Unlike other codes’ contrived attempts to use Indigenous culture as a public relations opportunity, rugby league was a bridge-builder in the two most populated states at the epicentre of dispossession: Aboriginal men playing alongside white Australian men on the frontier.
They didn’t call it reconciliation back then. It was simply called rugby league.
*Megan Davis is a Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales and a proud Queenslander