NRL

From humble beginnings in 1971, rugby league’s Koori Knockout has become a key event on the Australian sporting calendar. But the ad hoc running of the tournament has led to urgent calls for professional governance. By Joe Gorman.

The Koori Knockout success

A player is tackled in the 2015 Koori Knockout.
Credit: Barbara McGrady / SBS

One Saturday morning in 1971, during a volatile period of street marches, Black Power politics and a burgeoning Indigenous land rights movement, six Aboriginal men convened at the old Clifton Hotel in Redfern to establish a rugby league competition.

In the decades that followed, the New South Wales Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout – better known as the Koori Knockout, or simply “the Knockout” – has grown from seven men’s teams in 1971 to 164 men’s, women’s and junior teams in 2019.

According to Bob Morgan, one of the founders of the Knockout, the intent was to provide an opportunity for talented Indigenous footballers to be scouted by first-grade clubs in Sydney, and to bring people together to celebrate community and culture.

“It wasn’t just about the football,” recalled Morgan. “We were all young men caught up in the brilliance of what was happening in Redfern in the 1970s. Knockout was a manifestation of that expression of self-determination. We wanted to take control of our own destiny … to put together an event that showed the world that we were capable – not only on the sporting field but also off it. We think the Knockout has proven that point.”

Since Thursday, thousands of people have been converging on the Central Coast for the four-day carnival described by many as “a modern-day corroboree”. The all-Aboriginal teams, organised around tribal, family and geographic identities, feature amateur footballers alongside stars of the NRL and NRLW. Some sides, such as the Moree Boomerangs or the Redfern All Blacks, are established clubs that play in their local competitions. Others, such as Cabbage Tree Island Descendants, Walgett Aboriginal Connection and Dunghutti Bloodlines, come together solely for the Knockout. Old rivalries, particularly between bush teams and coastal city clubs, are fiercely contested.

It is often said the Knockout is one of the largest gatherings of Indigenous people in the southern hemisphere. Such stunning growth, particularly during the past decade, is reflected in the live broadcast on NITV and support from governments and the administration of rugby league. Dubbo Regional Council, which has twice played host in the past five years, estimated that it brought $1.3 million into the city’s economy in 2018. In February, the federal government committed $200,000 a year for the next four years. The NSWRL, NRL and Country Rugby League have sanctioned the event and provide referees, medical teams and insurance, as well as permission for many first-grade players to return to their community sides.

Yet despite this growing professionalism, the Knockout has remained an ephemeral grassroots event without a consistent governing structure. “In 2015, the NSWRL suggested the creation of a governing body for the Knockout, but the suggestion did not receive sufficient community support to proceed in any effective way,” David Trodden, chief executive of the NSWRL, told The Saturday Paper. “The governance arrangements are a matter for the community.”

Traditions have been created, and maintained, by the communities that participate in it. “The tradition that everyone loves,” explained former NRL player Dean Widders, “is the team that wins gets to host it.” This means nobody knows who will be hosting, or where the Knockout will be held, more than 12 months in advance.

According to University of Technology Sydney academic Heidi Norman, who has written extensively on the history of the Knockout, the winner-hosts tradition “captures the sort of anarchism and decentralisation that blackfellas are so affectionate of”. However, Norman also admits that the lack of a consistent regulatory regime, coupled with such enormous growth, places incredible stress on host clubs and communities.

There is considerable pride – and pressure – in hosting the Knockout. The skills and experience acquired can be transformational. Even before a ball was kicked, this year’s host club, the Newcastle All Blacks, were tasked with everything from liaising with the NSWRL, the Central Coast Council, police and numerous sponsors to organising team registrations, a Welcome to Country ceremony, entertainment, accommodation and a packed schedule of games involving more than 1500 players across multiple fields.

Edward Smith, president of the Newcastle All Blacks, said organising this year’s event became a full-time job. “My brother, my sister, my brother-in-law and a few of the other committee members have been at it since the day we won it in Dubbo last year,” said Smith. “You’ve got people on the committee that are on shiftwork, [or] nine-to-five jobs, and then they’re coming home and organising Knockout as well.”

According to Mark deWeerd, once an organiser of the 2011 and 2015 Knockouts, now NRL senior manager of Indigenous strategy, the Knockout helped generate the immense wave of talent currently sweeping through all levels of the game. While 12 per cent of NRL players identify as Indigenous, “19 per cent of all registered rugby league players are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander,” said deWeerd. “We’re seeing year-on-year growth.”

In this context, there is widespread concern that the Knockout is becoming too big, and too unwieldy, to continue in its present form.

“The pain people are feeling are growing pains,” explained Brad Cooke, co-founder of The KO App and commentator for NITV. “This event was started 49 years ago by six young blackfellas and it is absolute proof that Aboriginal people thrive when we run our own affairs. I do not want to see this event out of black hands, but there needs to be consistency year-in, year-out as to how it is run.

“I’ve got nothing but respect for every host community and I’ve never seen anyone do it without their best intentions and biggest effort. But, having had to work closely with many host communities, a lot of them have really struggled. Almost every single time I hear: ‘Never again.’ I know they’ve been through hell and back.”

Conversations around control of the Knockout are always fraught with politics. In the early 2000s, a group called the NSW Annual Rugby League Association (NARLA) briefly took over the event, which split the community. In 2016, after a period of consultation and research, founders Bob Morgan, Dan Rose and Victor Wright produced a lengthy report into a range of issues around the event. “As the [Knockout] approaches its 50th anniversary,” they wrote, “it is abundantly clear that there is an urgent need to develop and apply a set of regulations that will ensure that the [Knockout] is consistently conducted and guided by a set of principles and protocols.”

According to the findings of the report, 95.3 per cent of 451 respondents supported the establishment of a “co-ordinating and oversight governing board”. And yet, to the despair of the founders, resistance from established clubs meant that nothing came of the report or the constitution that accompanied it. “People interpreted it wrong,” said Dan Rose. “They thought we were going to take over, take their money, all this sort of nonsense. It’s never been about that.”

Morgan, though, sees hope and possibility in the work of the Newcastle All Blacks, which has established a committee comprising delegates from several clubs across the state. The plan, according to club secretary Carol Smith-Widders, is for this committee to pass on knowledge and support to future hosts. “We said it from the very first moment: if we ever win it, we’re going to set up a governing body,” said Smith-Widders. “Not just for ourselves, but to set the foundation for the Knockout.”

The challenge now, it seems, is to solidify such a body in time for the 50th Knockout in 2020 to ensure that it has the appropriate governance and financial structures and, most importantly, widespread community support.

“I like what the All Blacks are doing this year,” said Morgan. “I think they brought a different perspective to why people want to win the Knockout. I have a sense that Newcastle All Blacks are not in it just for the money; I really have the sense that the committee are about taking it back to its original vision. We should meet, as a group, to define how we move forward. Particularly for next year – next year will be the biggest event you can imagine.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Knockout success". Subscribe here.

Joe Gorman
is an independent journalist and the author of Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland.