NRL

For many Indigenous rugby league players, the experience of representing their culture in the All Stars team fosters better knowledge and appreciation of their heritage and reinforces the NRL’s position as Australia’s first majority non-white sport. By Joe Gorman.

Rugby league All Stars align

Gold Coast Titans’ Jamal Fogarty during the NRL’s 2020 Indigenous round in August.
Credit: Matt King / Getty Images

This time last year, Jamal Fogarty sat in the grandstand at Robina Stadium on the Gold Coast and marvelled at the Indigenous All Stars assembled on the field below. Fogarty, then a youth worker and state league footballer with the Burleigh Bears, didn’t yet have an NRL contract. He was, at that moment, still essentially a fan with big dreams. 

Tonight, February 20, following a breakthrough 2020 season with the Gold Coast Titans, Fogarty will line up for the All Stars against New Zealand Māori in Townsville. The 27-year-old halfback, who was selected by fan vote, will pull on the No. 7 jersey previously worn by Indigenous greats such as Johnathan Thurston and Scott Prince. “To be selected to represent my culture on the big stage is definitely the highlight of my career,” Fogarty says.

Fogarty is a Mununjali man from Beaudesert, a small town in the Gold Coast hinterland. Induction into the All Stars, for players such as Fogarty, is as much about education and cultural empowerment as it is about rugby league. “Within the last two years I’ve been trying to learn a little bit more about our connection to land and culture, and a little bit more about my own identity,” he says. “I don’t know a whole lot, to be truthful.”

In previous years, many players have found out about their community and culture via the All Stars camps. Thurston, who retired in 2018 as one of Australia’s best-loved athletes, credits his experience with the All Stars in 2010 as the catalyst for him to reconnect with his Gunggari heritage. Timana Tahu, a mixed-heritage Barkindji and Ngāpuhi man who has represented Australia in rugby league and rugby union, played for the Māori side in 2010 before switching to the Indigenous All Stars in 2013.

“I was strong in my Indigenous culture, but my Māori culture wasn’t as strong, so it was a learning experience,” says Tahu. “You’re not just representing your country when you play for the New Zealand Māori or the Indigenous All Stars, you’re representing your tribe. I’ve seen players that didn’t know much about their culture – from both teams – come out stronger at the other end.”

Tonight’s match will be the 10th iteration of the Indigenous All Stars. The team, in many ways, is the realisation of a long dream among Indigenous people to have a representative side to call their own. Part of that dream was born out of a suspicion that Indigenous players had previously been overlooked for state and national squads because of race. But the community also knew, despite all of the prejudice and negative stereotypes, that if the best of their mob pooled together, they would be near unstoppable.

Prior to the All Stars concept, there had been an all-Indigenous side that toured New Zealand in 1973, Indigenous teams in rugby league sevens tournaments and various junior squads that had been assembled by Queensland legend Arthur Beetson. In 1999, Beetson, the first Indigenous man to captain the Kangaroos, called for an Indigenous side to be included in future Rugby League World Cups. Yet the idea always came up against resistance from league administrators, who were wary that an official rep team based on tribal loyalties could undermine the value of the Australian jumper.

Twelve years ago, an Indigenous Dreamtime team defeated New Zealand Māori 34-26 at the Sydney Football Stadium in the opening ceremony of the 2008 World Cup. The success of the exhibition match seemed to prove, to the players at least, that such a concept should become an annual event. Not everyone agreed. Preston Campbell, the captain of the Dreamtime team, later recalled an official coming up to him after the match and saying, “I’m glad you enjoyed it, because it’ll never happen again.”

In the months that followed, Campbell, a Nucoorilma man from the Kamilaroi nation, successfully lobbied for the creation of the Indigenous All Stars. Importantly, Campbell’s fellow Indigenous players in the NRL were the greatest supporters of the concept. Jamal Fogarty can still recall watching that first game, in 2010, when the Indigenous side beat the NRL All Stars 16-12. He remembers watching Wendell Sailor celebrate the first try by playing the corner post like a didgeridoo, while a crew of teammates performed an impromptu traditional dance. “Looking back on it, that’s probably one of the iconic moments of the All Stars,” says Fogarty.

Although the All Stars have always been a hit in Indigenous communities, there have been concerns in previous years around the NRL’s commitment to the concept. Tonight’s game, organised in the midst of budget cuts and border closures, feels like an indication that the All Stars are here to stay. The event is now an important week in the rugby league calendar and visceral proof of a cultural revolution sweeping through the game.

Rugby league has quietly become Australia’s first majority non-white sport. According to the NRL, 12 per cent of registered players identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, while 48 per cent are of Māori and Pacific Islander heritage. Significantly, two Indigenous Australians – Dr Chris Sarra and Professor Megan Davis – have sat on the Australian Rugby League Commission since its launch in 2011.

The success of the Indigenous All Stars has been built on recognising this demographic shift and allowing the community to flourish together. “It was the renaissance of Aboriginality in rugby league,” Sarra explains. “It enabled guys to step in and embrace their Aboriginality; to own it, feel proud of it and assert it on the field and in the media.”

In effect, the All Stars are a challenge to the assimilationist logic that still pervades Australian sport and society. Their presence and their activism has, at times, brought forward national conversations around identity and First Nations solidarity. Last year, the All Stars were led onto the field by Quaden Bayles, an Indigenous boy with dwarfism who had been subject to bullying at school. In 2019, Latrell Mitchell opted to play for the All Stars instead of his NRL side in the World Club Challenge. Mitchell was one of many All Stars to boycott the Australian national anthem that year – a stand that received public support from Queensland captain Daly Cherry-Evans, who is white, and Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga, who is a descendent of South Sea Islanders. It is difficult to imagine these conversations happening in any other sport.

Fogarty entered the All Stars camp fully aware of the team’s social and cultural role. Tonight, though, he will be focused on football. His meteoric rise over the past 12 months disguises the fact that it has been a long journey to get to this point. At 27, he is a late bloomer and this is an opportunity to learn from the best and to prove that he belongs in the representative arena. A determined goal-setter, Fogarty has already set himself a target to play State of Origin for Queensland and maybe, one day, earn a call-up for Australia.

“Some people might say, ‘You’re kidding yourself,’ ” he admits, “but if I’ve got a goal, it’ll give me something to chase.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "All Stars align".

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Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author. His most recent book, Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, won the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance.