Indigenous stars shine bright on big stage
ALL things considered, Friday night's All Stars match was much better than most had predicted.
And the outstanding second- half performance of the Indigenous team has breathed life back into what was a waning concept.
On paper, Wayne Bennett's All Stars should have won, and won easily. They fielded 14 internationals - the Indigenous side had just four. In fact, such was the withdrawal-rate and unavailability among the Indigenous team that one of their players is yet to make his NRL debut and half a dozen others could be considered fringe NRL players at best.
But no doubt the game meant more to the boys wearing those intrinsically-designed jerseys, and the unlimited interchange helped significantly too.
As the second-half unfolded it became apparent the Indigenous players had genuinely bonded, illustrated initially by their impressive - but not over-the-top - pre-game war dance.
Since launching in 2010 on the anniversary of the Federal Government's apology to the stolen generation, this game has become more about the Indigenous players than the All Stars. And the crowd shots on Friday night certainly gave the TV audience the impression the Indigenous community was the one that has best embraced the concept.
The performance by the winning team, and the engagement of the players with the community during their five-day camp, questions whether statistics revealed last week means the NRL has to examine Indigenous relations more closely.
While 9% of NRL premiership teams, 15% of State of Origin teams and 25% of the Kangaroos are Indigenous Australians, only 2.5% of our population is Aboriginal.
Those figures highlight not just the natural talent of Aborigines, but tell us that the higher the level, the better they adapt. And with three Aboriginal players - Johnathan Thurston, Justin Hodges and Greg Inglis - captains of their clubs, leadership qualities are genuinely recognised.
But of concern is the fact that statistics also revealed seven out of 10 Indigenous players are unemployed a year after retiring.
And, of the 102 Indigenous players in the NRL, only nine are studying or seeking qualification for apprenticeships and just 14 have completed tertiary courses.
Formal education might be used as a measuring stick in some quarters, but being saluted as part of a successful team in a national sporting competition should never be under- estimated. There is no better proof of that than Thurston, Hodges and Inglis, who are engaging young men and outstanding team leaders.
And has there been a more telling yardstick than the first Indigenous Australian to captain a national sporting team, Arthur Henry Beetson, whose only formal qualification was 'great bloke'?
Over time our Aboriginal population has given rugby league some cherished memories, and a few more were added last Friday night.