If the family is, indeed, one of nature’s masterpieces, nowhere is this artistry more outstanding than in the world of elite rugby league, where two shining examples will go head-to-head during this Sunday’s NRL grand final. By Michael Winkler.

Passing genes: how family ties are a force in rugby league

A father and son embrace on a a football pitch.
Coach Ivan and co-captain Nathan Cleary celebrate Penrith’s 2022 NRL premiership.
Credit: Mark Kolbe / Getty Images

This year, eyes were glued to small screens the world over, waiting to see how the machinations of the Roy family would play out in Succession. More recently, focus has turned to the Murdochs, where Rupert has handed the media empire baton passed to him by his father, Keith, to his son, Lachlan. On Sunday, attention turns to family dynasties in rugby league. The NRL men’s grand final pits the Penrith Panthers, coached by Ivan Cleary and spearheaded by his son Nathan, against the Brisbane Broncos, coached by Kevin Walters, with his son Billy as hooker.

There may be awkwardness when a player–coach relationship is complicated by filial connection, but both father–son pairs seem to manage the complexities fluently. “Kevvie’s my coach when we’re at footy and my dad when we’re at home,” Billy says.

Ivan Cleary’s desire to work alongside Nathan was a factor in his messy departure from the head coaching role at Wests Tigers in 2018. The bad blood that flowed from that schism evidently mattered less than the blood shared by family. Weathering the fallout has been worthwhile for Ivan, who has a chance of coaching a third consecutive premiership.

He has the luxury of knowing his son is not just the best player at the Panthers but arguably the most valuable in the sport. Nathan is about to play his fourth straight grand final, and is an automatic selection for his country and his state. When he looks around at family barbecues, these playing honours put him ahead of not just his father – a stylish back – but his hard-nosed uncles Josh Stuart and Jason Death as well.

Every other club is desperate to unravel the Panthers’ DNA, eager to mimic whatever propels their current success. Strands include pathways, culture, fitness and luck, but the power of family should not be discounted. Many of Nathan’s teammates have deep family roots in the sport. Co-captain Isaah Yeo’s father, Justin, played for Balmain. Pesky backrower Liam Martin is a cousin to 2000 Dally M Medal-winner Trent Barrett. Jack Cogger’s father and uncle both played for Wests. Stephen Crichton’s brother Christian has played NRL. Tyrone Peachey’s uncle was the genius fullback David. Scott Sorensen’s uncles Dane and Kurt were two of the most feared Kiwi internationals, and his grandfather William earned 24 Test caps. Squad members Matt Eisenhuth, Zac Hosking and Taylan May all have relatives playing, or who have played, first grade.

Billy Walters’ story has piquant similarities and stark differences to Nathan Cleary’s. At family get-togethers Billy can chat to his uncles Steve and Kerrod, both acclaimed international hookers, or his father, Kevin, who won six NRL premierships. Billy, by contrast, is an honest trier. A carpenter, he was 25 before he broke into first grade, then failed to secure a permanent spot at either Melbourne Storm or Wests Tigers. Eyebrows were raised when his father brought the battler into the Broncos fold.

Kevin made it clear that his son could only get a first-grade start as a defence-orientated hooker, rather than Billy’s preferred role as five-eighth. Social media sceptics have not been completely quelled, but Billy has played 48 solid games in his two Brisbane seasons.

His opportunity to emulate his father and uncles and experience premiership glory comes 25 years after his mother, Kim, died of breast cancer. After a lengthy period as a single father, Kevin repartnered. He has a daughter, Ava, and four sons. All five children play rugby league.

While AFL recruiters increasingly look to private schoolboys on draft day, league continues to focus on its working-class heartland. Typically, these are kids from smaller houses and bigger families. The 13-man code is Australia’s most culturally diverse major sporting competition. Forty-five per cent of players are Pasifika, from cultural traditions that emphasise collectivist rather than individual advancement – family first. And there is a higher proportion of First Nations players than in the AFL.

About 13 per cent of NRL players are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and family webs cross and intertwine and proliferate like Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Big yam Dreaming. In the grand final, Selwyn Cobbo (great-greatgrandson of legendary cricketer Eddie Gilbert) will represent Cherbourg, a former mission about 250 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, which has produced players such as Frank Fisher, Willie Tonga and Chris Sandow. Interrelationships proliferate and have impact, whether through nature or nurture. The movement and playing style of Titans livewire Jayden Campbell, for example, reflects not just the courage and class of his father, Preston, but also links to the speed and creativity of his relatives Nathan Blacklock, Greg Inglis, Bevan French and Albert Kelly. To watch Jayden play is to watch his family at work.

Family loyalty does not always equal harmony, however. One of the oddest sideshows this season was the very public falling out between brothers, former players and omnipresent media performers Matthew and Andrew Johns.

At Manly, the prolonged dominance of the Fulton family has been eroded with Kristie Fulton, daughter of legendary Bob, sacked from her pathways job preseason, and her brother Scott leaving his role as recruitment manager. Their sibling Bob remains on the coaching team, and Scott’s son Zac is a rookie player.

The new power family of the Sea Eagles is the Trbojevics, as brothers Jake, Tom and Ben impress on and off the field. With Tom Burgess the only one of a quartet of blockbusting brothers still at South Sydney, the Trbojevic triumvirate has assumed pre-eminence. Their emerging rivals are the Fainu family. Older brother Manase, once a promising Manly hooker, is serving eight years in jail. However, his brothers Sione, Latu and Samuela have all signed with Wests Tigers, the younger two on startlingly fat contracts given their inexperience. A handy team could be devised from NRL brothers Nikorima, Bromwich, Jennings, Matterson, Feagai, Molo, Butcher, Brailey, Kaufusi, Mitchell and Fa’asuamaleaui.

When looking to future dynasties, the next generation will arrive with the rapidity of an Ezra Mam line break. The most marketable player in the sport, “Reece Lightning” Walsh, became a father at 18. He was released on compassionate grounds by the Warriors to be closer to his daughter, Leila, in Brisbane, a huge stroke of good fortune for the Broncos. The team’s halfback, Adam Reynolds, has four children, while Penrith pivot Jarome Luai, who looks and plays like a teenager, already has three.

Elsewhere, the next chapter of rugby league’s unending family saga is being sketched even before the conclusion to this season has been written. Shane Flanagan has been appointed to coach the Dragons in 2024 and immediately signed his son Kyle, with predictable whispering about favouritism. They would be wise to learn from the experience of young Jakob Arthur, who began 2023 playing under his father, Brad, at Parramatta. As the Eels’ season slipped away, the 20-year-old became a magnet for fan abuse, online and in person. Angst over constant accusations of nepotism impelled a mid-season transfer to Manly. “He [Brad] has been making the joke that now I will finally speak to him, because I don’t speak to him at training,” Jakob said after the switch. Brad said, “I’m looking forward to being just a dad again.”

And yet imagine winning a major title with your father – or your child. Twenty years ago, when coach John Lang’s Penrith triumphed in the grand final, the team talisman was his battering ram son Martin. George Santayana said, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces”, but he never witnessed Marty Lang careening into a defensive line, battered head held proud and high, the epitome of a certain sort of sporting courage.

With a minute to go in the 2003 decider, John Lang found his wife in the stands and embraced her, before striding out to congratulate his kid. Joel Clinton, Martin’s front-row partner, when interviewed immediately after the siren, said he just wanted to see his own father. “I can’t wait to give him a big hug. I love him and he loves me and that’s all that matters, mate.”

A little later, Martin Lang, right eye swollen shut, held the Provan-Summons Trophy aloft with his dad. It was rugby league. It was family. And, for some, that’s all that matters.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 28, 2023 as "Family ties".

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