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Opinion

Finally, a rugby league pre-season game to get excited about

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Roar Guru
17th February, 2021
42

Life in lockdown is pretty boring.

The days tend to roll into one, you put off that gin and tonic until a respectable hour for a sense of achievement, and spend the time reading/watching TV/ranting at the world.

And still, I can’t find the inclination to watch pre-season NRL games. I know their purpose is not for entertainment, but rather to get teams ready and at a stretch, take the action on the road and show some love for the bush.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this passivity. But this weekend is an exemption.

The All-Stars game will be brimming with representative pride and athletic competence (compared to your run-of-the-mill friendlies).

For years, the NRL experimented with filling the off-season void, knowing that no matter how much latent athletic potential exists, without the motivation to express it, the product will be a shallow spectacle until that blessed mid-March relief.

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Until recently, the All-Stars game pitted an Indigenous XIII against a side comprising one (maximum of two) player per club, voted by the fans.

There was a brief period where it was a ‘World’ side, with a proportion of players selected from the top nations, before it collapsed under its own contradictions; imagine the shock of discovering the ‘automatically’ selected England captain played in… England.

Kyle Turner, Wade Graham and Ryan James of Indigenous All Stars.

Kyle Turner, Wade Graham and Ryan James of Indigenous All Stars. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The entire concept of an ‘All-Stars’ game was an Americanism, lacking in cultural or conferential context. There is a single NRL conference, unlike the myriad of mini-leagues under the Americans’ behemothic umbrella from which they derive All-Stars sides.

The imported concept also misfitted because baseball, gridiron and basketball all enjoyed American hegemony. There exists a lack of top-quality representative action that cannot be said for rugby league (with its State of Origin and, nominally at least, commitment to the international game).

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For most of the concept’s history, there was no pride from half of the players. The NRL/World All-Stars were a hotchpotch of representative inconsequentiality, personifying neither a nation, culture or area, and the gimmicky nature of selection made it more mickey mouse than the PM’s XIII, and with worse quality to boot.

By equating the pinnacle of Australian Indigenous representation with a veritable smorgasbord selected with less rigour than a tombola at a village fête, it diminished the experience and worth of Indigenous players.

The tone was set when one of the ‘automatic’ picks for the ‘All-Stars’ was to be the Kangaroos’ captain, as if the very idea of a national Indigenous leader was beyond the realms of comprehension.

But the idea of two proud sides, based on nominal equality of trans-Tasman heritage, creates the atmosphere in which such a spectacle may be produced. I know there are some who may view such a concept as a needless case of racial divisiveness, complaining about “quotas” or “pandering” to whoever it may be.

The Indigenous-Māori fixture can act, standalone and as a catalyst, for greater Indigenous advocacy in rugby league.

Even gestural ideas like Indigenous kits (all season, rather than just for ‘Indigenous Round’), calls to country and acknowledgment of original place names can symbolise a willingness to acknowledge national and sporting Indigeneity, and co-operate to solve afflicting problems.

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It’s not for this half-white Pom to ascribe what absolutely must and must not be done.

Rather, channels between the players that will take to the field this weekend need to be functional enough to facilitate dialogue about how the game can assist in such communities.

I am a bit cheesed off that rugby league can (rightly) find time for this rep fixture, but still can’t fully commit to a long-term international calendar. T’was ever thus.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to watching some rugby league that isn’t streamed from a French field, or a lackadaisically dispassionate friendly.

The difference is that, to many of the players, it’s not a friendly.

Yes, it’s still a stopgap until the action proper resumes next month.

But you can see the haka and unity dance, and read for yourself the emotion when it comes to putting on the kit representing their heritage – I certainly have neither the contextual understanding nor the emotional vocabulary to vivify such feelings.

And from this, there is interest and determination beyond your typical glorified training run-out – enough to get me up on Saturday morning, and hopefully enough to provide the foundations for Indigenous advancement.

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