Almanac Rugby League: Redfern All Blacks – keeping the ball in motion

Patrick Skene was born and raised in Sydney and writes stories on the intersection of sport, history and culture. His work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Age, and The Footy Almanac. He has also contributed to Aboriginal sports history through the NIRS and a boxing programme on SEN Radio Melbourne. He is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of CulturalPulse, a Sydney-based entity which ‘celebrates Australia’s positive multicultural achievement through stories and events’.


For old school entertainment it’s hard to beat inner suburban Sydney rugby league. Clubs with deep histories wage intergenerational war in a world untouched by political correctness. A world where hairy men reign supreme, respect is elusive and honour is earned through bruises, corks, fractures and breaks.


It’s a world where not everyone wins a prize, a world where men in pink keep two tribes apart, tribes linked by mutual hatreds but awkward bedfellows in the love of a game under siege at the grassroots. It’s a world where the working class genes of million dollar suburbs like Bondi, Coogee, Kensington, Clovelly and Randwick live on through their rugby league teams like ghosts of times past. It’s a world of men in the Great Depression playing for pride and rabbit meat, of the Coogee Dolphins playing on after the decimation of their team by the Bali Bombing, of club volunteers running meat raffles to pay for life-saving operations or widow’s expenses or NRL player spinal injuries.


And the world of the Redfern All Blacks, an extraordinary rugby league club that has served the Sydney and NSW Aboriginal communities with fire and distinction, and is proud to be the oldest surviving Aboriginal rugby league club in Australia. It’s a club that has nurtured the dreams and aspirations of thousands of frustrated Koori men looking to make their mark in an unfriendly society that starved them of outlets to express their identity. It’s a club so inspired by the 1930s exhibition matches between the now defunct Tweed Heads All Blacks and the mighty St George Dragons that they started their own All Blacks club to beat the whitefella at his own game.


It’s a club born by lack of opportunity from White Australia rugby league clubs, a club on ASIO’s watch list as a Communist and Black Power hot bed in the 70s, a club described by one historian as a “vehicle for cultural resistance”, by another as a “transit lounge” to assist regional Aboriginals adjust to city life. It’s a club in the front line of the right for Aboriginals to gather, politically express themselves and maintain their identity in defiance of the relentless march of assimilation. It’s the type of club that usually disappears to become part of urban folklore, kept alive only by a plaque, a song or tall tales in sticky-carpet pubs. Amazingly the Redfern All Blacks live on, faithfully meeting its community objectives 70 years after they joined the mainstream South Sydney rugby league competition.


In 2013, the Redfern All Blacks elected Wiradjuri, Gumbayngir woman Lisa Williams as their first female president. For the community, this was less an historic milestone and more of a formalising of the informal, an acknowledgment of the stoic contribution of daughters, wives, sisters, aunties, cousins, nieces and grandmas to the rich All Blacks history (and survival). Lisa describes the All Blacks as “the cornerstone of the Redfern community”.


I hadn’t watched a Redfern All Blacks game for years but remembered them as spicy affairs, particularly if the penalty count went against ‘The Blacks’. The weekend arrived and I set out on a wet Sydney Sunday to check out the latest batch of Redfern All Blacks in an away game at Pioneers Park in Malabar. Pioneers Park is a classic, hardscrabble rugby league ground, uneven, potholed and flanked by sinewy coastal shrubbery, a former landfill site for household waste. It’s an appropriately Spartan venue to play a brutal contact sport from another time and place.


After fluking a parking spot, the rain unleashed and I fled to the shelter of the awning in front of the change sheds for a front row view of the Redfern All Black Men’s Reserves warming up in the rain for their game against Bondi United. Lines of multi-shaped warriors doing repetitive drills in formation. Burly and intense Coach Shane Phillips in rain jacket firing strong words into them. “No silly passes, don’t tackle high, don’t let your team-mates down.”


The All Blacks’ loyal fans huddled in front of the change sheds, desperately trying to stay dry, showing great form with rapid fire banter exchanges punctuated by raucous belly laughs. The conversation was all footy. “Where’s big guy from?” “Got him from Wello, Bra”. “Any good?” “We’ll know soon, Bruz.” Wello”, aka Wellington, was the largest Aboriginal nation and located in the heart of Wiradjuri country, 400 kilometres west of Sydney.


Under the great warrior Windradyne, the Wiradjuri fought a ferocious guerilla war against the encroaching settlers, forcing martial law to be imposed in Bathurst. The Sydney Gazette described Windradyne as “without doubt the most manly black native we have ever beheld…with a noble looking countenance and piercing eye. A very fine figure… a good model for the figure of Apollo.”


In modern times, Wellington is the birthplace of legendary Hall of Fame Wiradjuri boxer, Uncle Wally Carr. Other than winning a Commonwealth title and Australian titles in five different weight classes, Uncle Wally Carr is famous for a street fight with the Parramatta rugby league legend and tough man, Ray Price, a story told in delightfully great detail in his autobiography.


Wellington has long been a provider of players for the All Blacks and, in turn, Redfern has provided a home away from home for Wiradjuri men and women, a reliable platform in their quest to find secure employment and start a new life as an urban blackfella.


The All Blacks crowd started to build and the conversation broadened. “Got 1 out of 5 in the tippin’ comp.” “He only rings when he wants summin’, ‘bro. When he wants a lift he rings us.” “I don’t have time, I gotta look after me nephew.”


The Reserves continued their drills in the rain. “Don’t push the pass! No stupid penalties!”


Redfern All Blacks Reserves Coach Shane Phillips is one of the great urban Aboriginal leaders who was literally the last man out of Redfern’s famous ‘Block’ when the bulldozers came in 2011. Redfern to the marrow, Shane’s father, Pastor Richard Phillips (aka Dickie Blair), was Australian middleweight boxing champion and his brother, Kirk “Kid “Blair, was a former NSW super-feather and lightweight champion. Shane’s boxing pedigree came in handy on the old Block where he was the scourge of drug dealers and troublemakers who sought refuge and business there. A Bundjalung, Bidjigal and Wonorua man himself, both of Shane’s grandfathers played for the famous Tweed Heads All Blacks in the 1930s.


The architect of brilliant Aboriginal cultural engagement programs such as Tribal Warrior and Clean Slate Without Prejudice boxing program, Shane is a former Local Hero for the Australian of the Year Awards 2013. That title meant little in the relentless rain, trying to mould a disparate group of players into a team, keeping the Redfern All Black spirit alive.


I’d interviewed Shane and his father Dickie Blair a number of times on Koori Radio and caught up with him on the way to the change rooms. He said with a mischievous glint, “Always great for us Blackfellas to reclaim ‘Pioneers’ Park, even if it’s just for the afternoon.” He pointed in a southerly direction and added, “And 200 metres up the road is Long Bay Gaol where some of our best boys are.”


Shane was supported by Reserves Assistant Coach Nathan Moran, an old friend I met at Koori Radio where for years he was the resident political firebrand. He’s an open-hearted man with a great sense of humour coupled with an intolerance for fools and a nose for frauds. Nathan now works for the Metro Land Council, a warrior against the impact of rising real estate prices on his people, fighting the daily fight to secure and maintain property for Sydney’s Aboriginal community.


Nathan’s journey matched so many of those before him, a Birripi Dunghutti man who moved down to Sydney from Port Macquarie in search of opportunity. He joined the Redfern All Blacks and became a pillar of the club. I asked Nathan about the official starting date of the Redfern All Blacks. He said they first played in the mainstream South Sydney Juniors Association in 1944 but they had played in invitational carnivals as early as 1930.


“The Redfern All Blacks Story is all about the Tweed Heads All Blacks coming down and playing St George right before our mob’s eyes in Sydney,” he said. “They beat St George and the Great Britain side. What a sight it must have been for our uncles and aunties. Tony Currie’s grandfather, Arthur ‘Stoker’ Currie, played for them, barefoot.” Tony Currie is a modern era Bulldogs, Broncos, Queensland and Kangaroos legend.


Nathan leaned in. “Listen to our team song,” he said. “Lifted straight from the old Tweed Heads All Blacks song.”

We keep the ball in motion just like a rolling ocean,

“Redfern’s nowhere near the ocean!” Moran countered.


Just like the old days, a song shared between two mobs like a prized asset. And now the song and some newspaper scraps are all that’s left of the mighty Tweed Heads All Blacks. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in my years of watching the occasional All Blacks game, I had never heard the All Blacks victory song. I’d either left early or they had lost. Better to be quiet than be labelled a bad luck spirit.


Kick-off drew close and the Reserves returned to the change room for the final pep talk from the coaches. Coach Shane’s voice boomed from the change room. “Make sure you’ve signed the book, I hope you all have. Chase! Our chase makes our game! Fire up, play aggressive, not stupid!”


Nathan chimed in: “Freddo, what number you got on?” “Six,” said Freddo. “Treasure that number, brother!”


Nathan coached Frederick West as a junior and “Freddo” had never been quite good enough to play in the halves, numbers six or seven. Instead, he had always been slotted into a less glamorous role as hooker or fullback but he had always wanted to play at six, the number of the playmaker. Now he was living his dream. Nathan said to me later, “Freddo’s my mob so I give it to him ‘arder!”


The players linked arms prior to kick-off and launched into the War Cry.


“1.2.3 RAB”


Young warrior hands flew skywards in unison, a ritual ceremony shared and repeated through the grades, a celebration of unity.


A decent chunk of the All Blacks A Grade team had now assembled outside in support of their Reserve Grade club mates and sent them onto the field with firm back slaps and roars of encouragement.


Two old traditions coming together, Redfern All Blacks founded in 1944 versus Bondi United founded in 1946. Two communities five kilometres apart but, for the past 70 years, separate countries linked by footy and, in this case, one other fact. I wondered if any of the Bondi players knew that Bondi is from the Aboriginal word ‘Boondi’ meaning fighting club.


The first half featured brilliant attacking play from the All Blacks but a tough penalty count and indiscipline saw them behind at the siren. The half-time huddle featured a plea to the gods from Redfern All Blacks Deputy President Ray Husband, a tough shaven-headed Maori.


Looking for a game of footy for his son, Ray had brought his 12-year-old boy to the All Blacks and never left. His grandson is now playing in the juniors. He was fuming that somehow the All Blacks were behind after dominating most of the first half. “Can’t believe we have wasted this opportunity. Everybody wants to take heads off. Even if the ref is one-sided, leave him alone, stop talkin’ back to him.”


Coach Shane Phillips piped in. “Penalty count of 20-2. You’re doin’ it to yourselves. No silly passes. Play wet weather footy.”


Around the team huddle, watching intently, was Nathan Moran. He broke from the huddle with his phone glued to his ear and sprinted past with a smile on his face: “Hey Brotha, we got another player.” Nathan returned at half trot with a young All Blacks player, resplendent in fresh black and white gear, who joined his muddy team mates in a flurry of chest bumps, hugs and complex handshakes. Nathan rejoined me with a satisfied look. “That’s Jarrah Phillips. Good local boy. Fresh legs!”


I asked Nathan what he’d been up to. He beamed and told me that his son had been accepted on a scholarship into Trinity College, a brownstone ‘GPS’ private school that would guarantee great opportunities. “It’s all about the networks and contacts, and he’ll have ‘em. But I’ll go back to Port Macquarie once he’s settled. I miss it too much. You come down to Sydney, do your business, but you’ve got to belong to somewhere.” The ancient magnetic pull of country, still strong as ever.


The war cries signaled the start of the second half as both teams returned to the field. The Reserves boomed out, “1.2.3. RAB,” the unifying Redfern song line shouted by all who don the black and white. “United,” came the even louder response from Bondi United. Nathan shouted “Carn, Blacks”.


Once described as a “racist” club by mainstream media in the 1970s for exclusively playing Aboriginal players, there are now a number of non-Aboriginals in the club. In a clear barometer of progress, Club President Lisa Williams’ philosophy is, “You don’t have to be black to be an All Black.”


The current mob stayed true to that creed. An Englishman and two Fijians played for the Blacks today. Of the Fijians, Patrick, the fullback, and Shaun, the front rower, had married into the Aboriginal community and were now in the fold.


Nathan laughed. “We used to grab Kanakas out of the cane fields in the old days. Now we have Fijians marrying our sisters and becoming family. We’ve even got Sven, our first Viking, playing for us this year. He’s covered in wild Norwegian tattoos and the boys joke that he must have been in jail.”


Under the awning in front of the clubhouse canteen, a wiry and wise Aboriginal Grandma had set up a blanket picnic as a base for her four grandsons. She was joined in her supervisory role by her daughter Bertha who had volunteered to share the babysitting load for her four nephews. Bertha had three footy playing brothers. Their boys were her boys, rain, hail or shine. The four boys were split cleanly with two on the blanket immersed in iPad games and apps. Grandma watched the other two like a hawk as they played a vigorous game of touch footy with their Auntie Bertha in front of the packed canteen. The nerf ball rebounded off startled canteen patrons and was faithfully fetched by Grandma with a smile and shrug. “Sorry, kids are kids.”


In a break in play, jellied rainbow serpents were devoured by the boys. One of them, Stan, was itching to restart, taking the fun touch footy game very seriously. Stan was neatly decked out in full black and white All Blacks uniform, socks up, shirt tucked in, already embedded in an institution that will give him a platform to make it in Sydney, an institution that will guarantee him contacts, networks and an alternate peer structure to escape the temptations of inner city street life.


The nerf ball shot out into the rain and Stan went over to Grandma asking, “Nan, do you have money?” sending Grandma scurrying for her purse. Stan raced to the canteen and shoved his newly purchased jelly snakes into his footy shorts, future sustenance for the afternoon’s adventures. “Share the ball. You’re bigger than him,” Auntie Bertha yelled at Stan as both of her nephews hit the concrete hard and bounced back up. Auntie Bertha was now herself taking the game seriously and, finally relenting to nephew Stan’s request, headed out into the light rain to play in an open grassed area. The relieved Grandma stayed put, minding her other two grandsons on the blanket. They hadn’t moved from the iPad. The digital leash was strong with these two.


Meanwhile, in front of the change sheds, the Redfern All Blacks A Grade team started warming up in formations, a step faster and more intense than their Reserve Grade brothers. The All Blacks jumper sponsors were a compromise of ancient and modern with a ‘Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council’ logo on the front and the ‘Australian Technology Park’ logo on the back.


“Hold, hold, up,” seventeen men yelled as one as they moved forward in a squadron straight line. Relentless, well-oiled skill drills moving back and forward, the rain lashing the players. Their dark and menacing leader barking orders through the sheets of water was former NRL Star and now Redfern All Blacks Captain/Coach, Dean Widders. “Go to ground with it! Pair off, boys! DISCIPLINE!”


An Aniwan man, Widders was an excellent, sometimes brilliant, utility forward who played 144 NRL games for Parramatta, Souths and the Roosters. He was also no stranger to the rain, having played 92 games for the Castleford Tigers in the freezing north of England. By day, he is the NRL’s Education and Welfare Manager dealing with current player problems and helping players prepare for life after football.


Early in life, Dean had seen the power of football to help his people. Originally from the north east NSW town of Armidale, Dean grew up idolising the all Aboriginal Narwan Eels, a club formed in response to selection racism which had left black talent sitting on the bench at white country clubs. After their formation in 1977, the Narwan Eels enjoyed stunning success, winning five premierships and higher honours, including Country Football’s holy grails, the Caltex Shield and Clayton Cup. True to his mob, Dean still turns out for the Narwan Eels in the annual Koori Knockout.


The resilience and strength of the Narwan Eels was on display at the 2008 Koori Knockout, the annual NSW corroboree in which players return to play for their mob rather than their mainstream clubs. In the semi-final, Narwan’s beloved prop forward Alf Atkinson left the field and died of a heart attack. The players found out the news after their semi-final win and chose to play on and not forfeit the final against La Perouse. Alf’s wish would be to play on. In highly charged scenes, the Narwan Eels were led onto the field for the final by Alf’s young son who wore his deceased father’s footy jersey. It appeared the emotional toll was too much for the Narwan Eels who fell well behind La Perouse but, in a defining moment in Knockout history, the Narwan Eels mounted a spine-tingling comeback to beat La Perouse and win.


From Narwan Eel to Parramatta Eel, Dean Widders, at 35 and in the twilight of an extraordinary football journey, was now Captain/Coach of the Redfern All Blacks and a link between two grand traditions. And here he was, larger than life, on a miserable day in Malabar sharing his wisdom, the old pro using the last of his footy legs to inspire a new generation.


The All Blacks crowd erupted in joy and laughter as the Reserves cult hero, “Wu Tang”, scored a try with four Bondi United players hanging off his massive frame. “Carn Blacks!” yelled the crowd. The joy was short-lived, however, as Bondi United broke though for the winning try in the final minutes and a sad group returned to the change sheds losers by two points, 16-14. The crowd waiting outside the change sheds commiserated and encouraged the Reserves on their way into the sheds. “Next time, boys!”


Coach Shane Phillips read the Reserves the riot act inside the rooms. “That’s it! If you don’t train, don’t expect to play.”


The Bondi United winning theme song boomed from the adjacent room. “That’s a miserable song!” said one of the All Blacks crowd. I agreed. Sadly, still no All Blacks song for me.


After a final fiery team talk from Dean Widders, the Redfern All Blacks First Grade team roared out of the change room and onto Pioneers Park. There were all shapes and sizes on display ranging from backline athletes built for speed to Arthur Beetson-style “keg on legs” forwards built to crunch.


The team was made up of men of all shades, reminding me of something World Champion and two-time Olympic boxer Robbie ‘Bomber’ Peden once told me. “Whitefellas are obsessed with fractions, you’re one quarter this or one sixteenth that. On our side, you’re just a blackfella!”


The South Eastern Seagulls followed them out onto the field, a tough mix of Anglo, Polynesian and Mediterranean ancestry players, all lifelong, hardcore ‘Leaguies’ primed for their weekly dose of battle.


As the rain eased to light drizzle, a big contingent of the All Blacks crowd left the change shed awning and re-formed behind the players bench. “123 RAB,” sounded the war cry.


The game started at a furious pace with big hits and lots of niggle. Big All Blacks backrower Scott Lyons looked all class in attack with a great sidestep and big hits in defence. An All Blacks player came to the sideline with an arm injury. “He’s alright, it’s not broken,” said the doctor.


Captain/Coach Dean Widders, using all his NRL guile to beat defenders, urged his players forward, to keep their concentration and discipline. The niggle and tension between the teams increased and almost erupted a few times as they were surgically separated by the tiny man in pink. The All Blacks crowd were now warming to the task. “Get off ‘im! Get ‘im onside, ref!” South Eastern Seagulls scored to take the lead and the crowd was furious at the missed opportunities. The half-time siren sounded.


Nathan Moran appeared with a smile. The gear had been packed, the players lectured and his duties were now complete. A tall teenager walked by. Nathan grabbed him and thrust him in front of me. “This young brother’s name is Joshua Addo-Carr. He scored three tries in Under 20s NRL for Cronulla today. Very proud of him. He went down to Cronulla all on his own. And to top it off, he’s Uncle Wally Carr’s grandson!” The Wiradjuri-Wellington connection bearing more fruit.


He pulled Joshua aside for a word. “You stay away from trouble, my little brother, you can go all the way. You know that, don’t you? Train hard, my brother, and listen to your coaches!” The advice was received and acknowledged with a youthful nod, and Joshua bolted back to his mates.


I asked Nathan about some of the notable Aboriginals who had pulled on the fabled black and white jersey. “Who hasn’t pulled on the jersey, or been pulled out of bed or the pub to make up the numbers? The great Rabbitoh Eric Robinson used to get in trouble because he would play for the All Blacks on Saturday and the Rabbitohs on Sunday.”


Eric Robinson was one of the great pioneers in the Jackie Robinson tradition. Before him, Aboriginal men weren’t picked in First Grade as an unspoken rule. “Eric’s son is Ricky Walford (St George). And guess who his grandsons are? Nathan Merritt (South Sydney), Travis Robinson (Melbourne Storm) and Reece Robinson (Canberra). It’s all about family. When the All Blacks come knocking, you can’t say no. Their player alumni includes Gorden Tallis, Tony Mundine, Uncle Chicka Madden, Country music stars Candy and Harry Williams. Harry’s son, Harry Junior, was the first Aboriginal Socceroo. Another Williams brother and the Blacks’ first great player, Ngambri man Mervyn ‘Boomanulla’ Williams, has a park in Canberra named after him.” Boomanulla means “speed and lightning” in Walgalu, an ancient and now forgotten tongue of the Canberra region’s white ochre traders and bogong moth people.


“Anthony Mundine’s first ever game of rugby league was for the All Blacks in N Grade, Nappy Grade. Aden Ridgeway, Australia’s first Aboriginal senator, was a Club Secretary of the All Blacks. The All Blacks story is the Aboriginal story,” said Moran.


And he was right. The All Blacks playing roster has seen it all over the years. Extraordinary success stories mixed with tragic tales of wasted lives or injustice. Eddie Murray – death in custody in Wee Waa jail; Ken Brindle, stolen generation from Kinchella Boys home; Cecil Hinton, black Digger denied his land allocation and war pension; Tony Mundine, escaped the dreaded Asbestos mine that killed his brothers. “We’ve seen it all.”


I’d heard legendary stories of Ambrose ‘The King of Redfern’ Morgan, a “Gentleman Enforcer” who played for both the Tweed Heads All Blacks and the Redfern All Blacks. Morgan was a huge man, even by today’s standards, six foot one inch and 16 stone, and considered ‘the new Arthur Beetson’.


He played three games at prop for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, including a massive game in the Amco Cup in Tamworth. He scored a try and won fans with his big Afro haircut, slick ball skills, speed and sidestep. Soon after, he was tragically shot at point blank range in a Sydney pub by an Aboriginal man he had manhandled earlier for trying to sneak into a club where Ambrose was the bouncer. “The brother just couldn’t handle being flogged by Ambrose,” said Nathan. “But look out on the field today, the descendants of both men are playing alongside each other.”


With so many mobs thrust together in inner city Sydney, that story provided compelling proof of the role the Redfern All Blacks have had in blending many Aboriginal nations into one community. Weak individual strands wound around rugby league to create unbreakable rope.


I asked Nathan Moran how many generations of one family have played for the Redfern All Blacks. “There’s four generations of the Vincent family who have played, including the Rabbitohs’ highest try scorer ever, NRL star Nathan Merritt. His kids are now running around in All Blacks Juniors. Both of Kangaroos and Souths Greg Inglis’ Uncles played for the All Blacks.”


There have been Uncles and Aunties. Vincents, Robinsons, Mumbullas, Simms, Bells, Pattens, Perrys, Jarratts, Williams and Ingrams. Gamillaroi, Wiradjuri, Yuin, Dungutti, Darkinjung, Gadigal. Bundjalung, Bidjigal. The tightness of the Koori family tree in full bloom. The original 70 families of Redfern’s “Block” bolstered by their brothers across Australia. The power of kinship, the importance of family.


With the start of the second half pending, the South Eastern Seagulls broke into their war cry and the All Blacks replied in baritone, “1 2 3 RAB”. Redfern All Black hands rose in unison, the huddle broke and A Grade returned to their positions.


The second half began with both teams in pitched battle, fighting for every inch of the now mud patch. The rain upgraded to monsoonal and the ball got slippery but both teams charged in with vigour, equally up for the contest.


Shoes soaked, I retreated back to the covered canteen area. Grandma hadn’t moved, her watchful gaze split between the game and her two low maintenance grandsons who remained engrossed in multiple iPad apps. Her eyes had seen it all. She reminded me of the words of the wise Aboriginal sage Bart Willoughby, “Aboriginal woman, she’s the backbone of our spiritual ways.”


As another penalty went against the Redfern Blacks she cracked. “You’re a cheat, ref!” The comment drew squinty scowls from the South Eastern Seagulls bench.


Grandma’s other two grandsons were locked in a life and death game of rain-soaked touch footy with Auntie Bertha. Her nephews, including the fully-kitted-out Stan, were now coming second best. It was becoming clear Bertha was an athlete as she pulled off a difficult chip and chase regather and was now tormenting her nephews with fakes and sidesteps, relishing the open spaces. Little seven year old Stan was taking his thrashing like a man and with a smile. He had already secured his victory by goading his Auntie into playing.


On the field, one of the All Blacks centres, Mark Hickey, stood out as the class act, dangerous with every touch, making line breaks and unshakable in defence. With a potbelly, skinny legs and a languid lope, he didn’t look like an athlete but had the silky skills and timing of a natural player, somehow knowing exactly where to be, an exquisite talent moonlighting in suburban rugby league.


I called Bidjigal guru Brad Cooke, my expert in such matters, who this year made history as the first play-by-play NRL Radio commentator on ABC Radio Grandstand. I asked him about Mark Hickey. “A freak! One of the most gifted players outside the NRL. Carves up the youngsters every year at the Koori knockout. If only he had more discipline off the field.” Said with the assurance of a man that lives the game. He added, “Stick around for the All Blacks Victory song. It’s the best in Rugby League.” I hoped today would be the day I would hear it.


With a jink and a shimmy, Mark Hickey made a break and scored a try, sending the now sizable All Blacks crowd into whooping raptures as their team took the lead with 10 minutes to go. Grandma and her two iPad grandsons abandoned the picnic blanket and joined the try-scoring celebrations.


Grandma was hugged by Nathan Moran who said, in post-try delirium, “Thanks for putting up with Mark all these years.” She laughed. “He used to come home very late,” she said. The family connection revealed itself. Grandma was star Mark Hickey’s mother which made Auntie Bertha Mark’s sister. And the four boys were Mark’s sons and nephews, including young future star Stan.


Mark Hickey doubled up as the All Blacks goal-kicker, a picture of concentration as a deathly quiet came over the crowd. Grandma and her grandsons watched their hero go through his rituals and he calmly kicked the conversion, launching further celebrations, including screams of joy from the boys. There’s no app for that. All Blacks ahead by four.


On further inquiry, I found out that Auntie Bertha had been a brilliant basketballer and touch footy player. Nathan gave me a wink. “It’s all about the bloodlines.” It turns out that Mark and Bertha Hickey are first cousins of TJ Hickey, the young Aboriginal boy impaled and killed after a police chase in Redfern, an incident which led to the Redfern riots. It was humbling to see the joy rugby league could give to a family that had absorbed such a tragic loss. As an indicator of healing and progress, the man running the water for the All Blacks today is none other than Superintendent Luke Freudenstein, Redfern Local Area Police Commander.


The rain had turned the game into a stodgy affair with both teams lurching forward in the mud to gain precious territory, exhausted players piling on top of each other. A number of times during the game I had watched Mark Hickey help an opposing Seagulls player to his feet. A clean footballer from the old gentleman school. For a player with nothing to prove, the Bushido warrior code comes naturally. “Mark’s in his late 20s now, only runs when he has to,” Nathan said. “Horrifying thigh injury when he was young.”


The All Blacks held off another determined attack from South Eastern Seagulls. In a game-turning moment, big All Blacks enforcer Rodney Bell leveled a Seagulls player with a classic “coat hanger” tackle and was sent off by the referee. The All Blacks crowd went wild with molten fury. The men in pink, the referee and two touch judges, had assumed the role of pantomime villains.


“Why don’t ya put a #$%^ Seagulls jersey on, touchie?” “You’re a joke ref, put your glasses on, he hardly touched ‘im”.


Rodney is from the fighting Bell family, tough men in the fighting tents, on the cobblestones and in the ring. Hard, quiet men with the tools for dispute resolution. As he trudged slowly back to the quiet All Blacks bench, Rodney offered his side of the story. “It was only a clip!”


Down to 12 men, the All Blacks clung to their lead and then tragedy struck as Captain/Coach Dean Widders was sent to the Sin Bin for 10 minutes. With their now leaderless opponents reduced to 11 men, the Seagulls seized the opportunity and finally broke the All Blacks defence to score the breakthrough try in the last minutes and convert to take a two point lead, 16-14. Stunned silence from the All Blacks crowd, jubilation from the South Eastern Seagulls bench.


After the kick-off, the Seagulls dropped the slippery ball, providing a last opportunity for the All Blacks. The All Blacks crowd reached fever pitch. “C’mon Blacks, run hard. Anything can happen when Mark’s got the ball. Give it to Mark.”


The slippery ball caused a Redfern All Blacks fumbling error. The team was undermanned, the players soaked and exhausted. Not even ‘The Freak’, Mark Hickey, could save them this time. A South Eastern Seagulls player ran the ball up hard and was lifted and smashed into the ground by an All Blacks forward. The crowd went wild as the Seagulls player came to the sideline winded and wincing.


I imagined this scene playing out in the Civil Rights 60s or the Black Power 70s with rugby league (as well as boxing) providing the only way Aboriginal men could meet the white man on equal terms. In that time of structural inequality and restricted movement, Redfern All Blacks games must have been a dizzyingly exciting event for the mob, a chance to escape, to gather, to feel strong and cheer on their heroes.


The siren rang and the crowd groaned. A loss for the Redfern All Blacks by two points, 16-14. Two games, two losses and still no All Blacks victory song. Dean Widders gathered his disappointed team in front of the change sheds. “Today we earnt the right to look each other in the eye and wear this jersey!” He tugged his muddy jersey, gesturing to his circle of players. “We did ourselves proud so I don’t want to see anyone hang their heads.


The South Eastern Seagulls victory song boomed from the adjoining change room. Dean stepped back to listen to their song, to let it marinate into his team. “That’s a shit song!” said one of the players. Dean stepped back into the player circle. “Listen to them, carrying on like they won by 50 points. They only got us when we had 11 men. I’m very proud of you. Let’s keep this good feeling over Easter. Look after your missus. Thank your families for coming to this #&$% of a place. Eat your Easter eggs and come back hard.”


And a final word. “New rule: we are naming the team on Tuesdays now, so if you miss training, you’re not playing.” And he wasn’t joking either. For the next game against Mascot, the Redfern All Blacks A Grade started with nine players on the field and 11 on the bench. The nine starting players, including Dean Widders, had turned up to training on Tuesday and earned the right to start the game on the field. The 11 players that didn’t front for training had to start sheepishly on the bench. Leadership is about being true to your word and Dean Widders was happy to disadvantage his team to get the discipline message across to his players. The All Blacks lost the game 22-16 but won the respect of the big crowd and the other clubs at the ground. Unprecedented in any league anywhere.


I had one final piece of business to close off at Pioneers Park. I cornered Nathan as he was leaving and asked him about the All Blacks Victory song. “Nathan, I’m hearing good things about your song but I haven’t actually heard it. How about it?” He let rip.


“We keep the ball in motion, just like a rolling ocean
All Blacks play the game, All Blacks play the game
And if the other fella gets a little dirty, we’ll do just the same
We keep the ball in motion, just like a rolling ocean


Brad Cooke was right. It was a thing of beauty laced with history, resistance and very appropriate here next to the ocean on a wretched day. A mobile, urban blackfella song line that every winter moves from park to park, unifying and strengthening.


As I left Pioneers Park, my final image was Grandma smiling as Mark Hickey emerged from the change room to be swamped by his boys and nephews. Just another day in the office for “The Freak”.


I drove past Long Bay Gaol on the way home. The Aboriginal flag flapped furiously out the front, a place of misery and heartache for the community. I reflected on how lucky we are to have the Redfern All Blacks, building community pride and capacity, a platform for resistance to the community being assimilated to invisibility.


A few weeks later and prior to the Black Diggers march on Anzac Day, I had lunch at the Redfern Oval Park Café with Aboriginal ABC NRL commentator Brad Cooke. He introduced me to one of the legends of the Redfern All Blacks, Uncle Chicka Madden, now in his 70s, who first played for the All Blacks at age 14. He had Redfern All Blacks stories to burn, from their two premierships and 10 Koori Knockout wins to the great characters of the club. The famous All Blacks premiership victory of 1974 when the community danced till dawn. How they played the French national team in the late 40s and filled Redfern Oval.


He told of how the great boxer Tony Mundine had escaped to Sydney from the dreaded Baryulgil Asbestos mine with a career in rugby league in his sights, and how he only tried boxing to stay fit for All Blacks games. He showed so much promise as a boxer that his trainer, Ern McQuillan, wouldn’t let him return to play for the All Blacks. How Tony went on to become one of the great Australian alpha males of the 70s, his humility, humour and no nonsense approach winning him millions of fans on both sides of the old colour divide. He had taken the torch from the great Lionel Rose, the man who single-handedly unified Australia after the 1967 Aboriginal referendum with his extraordinary world title win in Tokyo against ‘Fighting’ Harada. Lionel had attended many an All Blacks game in the 60s and 70s.


He told of how Hollywood royalty Russell Crowe used to beg his father to come down to Redfern Oval to watch lightning quick Uncle Micky Mundine score tries. Uncle Micky Mundine is a community stalwart who has been CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Company, overseeing the “Block” for 30 years. With movie star timing, he turned up at the Park Café and embraced Brad Cooke with a hug. After some brief pleasantries, they launched into each other. Uncle Mick said to Brad, “Your mob, the Bidjigal, you let Captain Cook in, brother. He came right through your country.” Brad replied, “That’s right, Uncle. And we didn’t have much backup.” The whole group roared in unison.


Uncle Chicka was on a roll “We’ve got all the All Black records at home in a big case. We’ve got it all.” His wife of 50 years, Lilie, chimed in. “It’s all about family.”


In 2014, the Redfern All Blacks celebrated their 70th year as the spine of Redfern, a key institution in the maintenance of urban Aboriginal identity, a fundamental building block of Aboriginal Sydney as the silent menace of gentrification changes the demographics of Redfern.


The Redfern All Blacks – keeping the ball in motion, like the rolling of the ocean. 123… RAB!


You can read more of Patrick Skene’s Almanac pieces by clicking here.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



About Patrick Skene

An Epicurean Celt interested in Sport, Culture & History.


  1. Thanks, Patrick, for this insight into the Redfern All Blacks. That lad Josh Addo-Carr has done alright for himself, hasn’t he?

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