Almanac Rugby League: They just love their footy

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, Boxing.com 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 non-sports fans, kicking and throwing around a leather bladder is a pointless triviality compared to the realities that confront us daily. But what they miss is sport’s role in preparing its participants to deal with those same realities – confronting fear, punctuality, learning to lose, building coping mechanisms, and the development of humility through submitting to a system. Sport can seem trivial but it produces manageable pressure and a fund of stories that people want to tell and re-tell, tales forged in the furnace.

 

On a deeper level, sport has replaced the ancient meat hunt as the creator of heroes and stories. We know this through ancient hunter/gatherer societies that still exist today. In the Hazda tribe of Tanzania, the top hunter’s stories are tracked and celebrated by the younger tribal boys. To become a Paleolithic rock star, small prey was not acceptable. The bigger the prey, the greater the risk, the more meat to share, the greater the tales. Around the campfire each night, the young boys of the tribe idolise their favourite hunter, mimicking stories and replaying actions.

 

This tradition lives on today with millions of Australian boys imitating their heroes, taking a backyard hanger or executing a ‘Benji’ sidestep. As father time beats relentlessly and I get farther from my misty sporting peak, the tougher, faster and stronger I was in my sports stories. The selective amnesia of nostalgia.

 

But some never had the chance to create the tall tales. Medical conditions meant that, for some, sport has been something that other people do, a luxury for the fit, the healthy, the lucky. The greatness and disappointments of the contest are always other people’s, never their own.

 

Some are lucky enough to get their chance when a group’s barriers to participation are removed and they get to play the sport they love. The NSW Physical Disability Rugby League Association (NSWPDRLA) is one such group. The NSWPDRLA is the brainchild of Chairperson and player George Tonna, a father of three from Ingleburn in the rugby league heartland of south-western Sydney.

 

George experienced the heightened emotions of representative sport, representing Australia as Vice-Captain in soccer at the Paralympian games in 2000. George is also a South Sydney Rabbitohs fanatic and helped start rugby league in Malta as a founder of the Maltese Knights Rugby League Club. He is also famous for his rugby league video collection. George has cerebral palsy and started the NSWPDRLA as a platform to unite the physically disabled to live their dream and play the game they love. His social media posts reveal his infectiously positive approach to life.

 

“Life is what u want to make of it now stand up and be heard be proud of who u are yes I am disabled and living life to the fullest.”

 

The NSWPDRLA commenced in 2010 and brings together a broad group of physically disabled rugby league players who live with cerebral palsy, acquired brain injuries, muscular atrophy, and upper and lower body amputations. The Association plays every third weekend and is made up of four clubs representing famous Sydney rugby league clubs, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Sydney Roosters, Newtown Jets and Manly Sea Eagles. The clubs supply kits, cover the events on their websites and, sometimes, host these games as curtain raisers. This allows the disabled participants to play on hallowed grounds like ANZ Stadium, Henson Park and Brookvale Oval.

 

George Tonna and his team put serious thought into rule modifications to ensure that the game is as inclusive as possible. Each team is broken up into “red shorts” and “black shorts”. “Red shorts” are players with more advanced physical disability, so they are not tackled but “touched” to trigger a play the ball. This non-contact for “red shorts” players allow juniors and women to participate, creating a game for everybody. “Black shorts” are players whose disability or movement is less restricted and they play normal NRL rules, including full contact big hits.

 

Each team is allowed two “able bodied” players on the field but they are effectively football eunuchs. They cannot score tries, kick goals or kick in general play. Able bodied players can tackle and be tackled but, in the spirit of things, these are mostly standing bear hugs.

 

Four years into running the NSW Physical Disability Rugby League Sydney tournament, George Tonna decided to realise another of his dreams: to host his first “rep game” by replicating the NRL’s showcase representative fixture, the Aboriginal All Stars vs the NRL All Stars. In this case, to celebrate NAIDOC week, it featured a Combined Indigenous Nations Team against the NSWPDRLA All Stars.

 

By day, George works in Redfern as a Land and Notification officer with NTS CORP, a service provider for Aboriginal native title issues in NSW. “Through my work, I know that a lot of the Aboriginal community love their footy, and in the community there is a group of physically disabled rugby league fans who have waited their whole life for the chance to run onto the field,” George said. “To represent their mob is a mind blowing concept for these guys, something they would never have imagined.”

 

The media release looked intriguing.

 

‘The New South Wales Physical Disability Rugby League Association (NSWPDRLA) is pleased to announce that during the 2014 NAIDOC celebrations on Saturday July 12th 2014 at Redfern Oval, Souths Cares will host a physical disability representative rugby league match with teams comprised of our playing members.

The Combined Indigenous Nations side will take on the NSWPDRLA All Stars side.

Former South Sydney Rabbitohs Superstar Rhys Wesser will turn out for the Combined Indigenous Nations side as an Able Bodied player on the day.’

 

And so it was to be, the first Physically Disabled Rugby League All Stars representative game. On a crisp and breezy Saturday morning, Redfern Park was a colourful flotsam of families, hipsters, canines and arguing couples. The morning saw a new addition to the human landscape. In they came, marching past fountain and cenotaph, around the steel art installations, stomping around the imposing Moreton Bay figs and swaying Canary Island palm trees. Some had limps, others were limbless, a few strutted, some wore grins, many bore the scar tissue of exclusion. The Physical Disability Rugby League boys were in town. Today was their day.

 

They strode forward with a sense of purpose for history was in the making as a group of disparate men came together to play the game they loved and represent their communities. Redfern Park Café was ground zero as the players, friends, families and carers assembled for battle. Lists were ticked off, coffee and eggs consumed, banter was rolling and the air crackled with expectation.

 

I was joined at the table by the first Aboriginal ABC rugby league caller, Brad Cooke, who was pointing out various players and their stories. He compiled a report on physically disabled rugby league a few years ago on NITV and was hooked on the great characters that this form of the game produced.

 

I flicked through the official Match Program and the “Words from the purposing Captains” caught my eye. The Combined Indigenous Nations captain’s speech read, “My name is Bill Bussell. I have always wanted to play footy since I was small. I only started walking at four years of age because of Cerebral Palsy. When I was about 10 years old, I was a mascot for a couple of teams at Minto Cobras. I used to watch every game I could with my little brothers Glen and Greg. My two teams included Ken and Kevin McGuiness and John Skandallis (NRL stars), and my dad and uncle in the A Grade. And now it’s my turn.”

 

As the minutes ticked on towards a very generous 11.00am start, more players arrived and the café came alive with a flurry of hail-fellow-well-met, hugs, chest bumps, special handshakes, hair rustles and cackles of laughter.

 

Organiser George Tonna was beaming. His tribe had assembled and magic lay ahead. Stories would be created today. George said, “Today is a special one for these guys. We just want to play like everyone else, no special treatment. People focus on what you can’t do and it’s exciting to prove people wrong.”

 

Writing about disability sports can be challenging, trying to capture the lives of extraordinary people who ask to be treated as normal as possible. A few of the players were whispering to each other about some of the recent arrivals to the now overflowing café group. Some legends were in the house. Manly Sea Eagles and NSW legend Ron “Rambo” Gibbs was to coach the Combined Indigenous Nations team. A proud Barkindji man, Gibbs was considered by some to be, pound for pound, the hardest man in rugby league in the 1990s. In his career, he both took and gave some heavy shots but here he was, looking fit and sharp, fresh off a drive from Dubbo.

 

He was chatting with one of the great characters of rugby league, 300-game Manly, Kangaroos and Aboriginal league legend Cliff ‘Cliffy’ Lyons who had volunteered as one of the Combined Indigenous Nations ‘Able Bodied’ players. From the mighty Wiradjuri nation, Cliffy played well into his 40s and, in addition to being one of the game’s greatest ever creative five-eighths, was one of rugby league’s last full-time cigarette smokers. A pack a day back in the day.

 

They were joined by one of the game’s true gentlemen, former Queensland, Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL star Rhys Wesser. Rhys was named as the Panthers’ greatest ever fullback and, throughout his 177 games, electrified the fans at the foot of the Blue Mountains, scoring a club record 113 tries. Rhys came down from Rockhampton to have a go at rugby league and was so successful that he now has the Rhys Wesser Carnival named after him in his hometown. These days, Rhys runs Aboriginal programs for Souths Cares Foundation providing inner-city Aboriginal kids with an accessible and genuine role model. Rhys was the other Combined Indigenous Nations ‘Able Bodied’ player alongside Cliffy Lyons. Today they would make other people look good. In turn, the Combined Indigenous Nations team would be running off some legends.

 

The players were buzzing and excited to play at Redfern Oval, and rightfully so. They normally played on outer suburban cow paddocks which made Redfern Oval look like Wembley by comparison. For hardcore league fans, Redfern Oval is holy ground. From 1948-1987, Redfern Oval was the home of the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs, a rugby league juggernaut which won nine premierships there. This included two great dynasties, a legendary team in the mid-1950s and, later, the all-conquering team of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a spiritual green space for the Aboriginal community. The current Souths team train there and it is the home of the local Redfern All Blacks team.

 

The café hubbub was pierced by the shouts and screams of women playing in the first game on Redfern Oval. The inner-city Aboriginal Redfern All Blacks Women’s team posted a length of the field try against their outer suburban Polynesian sisters from Doonside.

 

Today was rugby league in all its inclusive glory. At 10.15am, both teams moved out of the Redfern Park Café to the warm-up areas in Redfern Park followed by their support crews. Brand new jerseys were handed out to thrilled players. The NSWPDRLA All Stars were in silky blue while the Combined Indigenous Nations wore brown, black and white uniforms, the same colours as the NRL Indigenous All Stars jumper.

 

Having a locally designed Combined Indigenous Nations jersey was George Tonna’s dream. This jumper was designed by local La Perouse girl Karlie Stewart, guided by Elder Kay Bussell, mother of the captain Bill Bussell.

 

Combined Indigenous Nations captain Bill Bussell, who came from Israel Folau’s hometown of Minto, rallied his team into a group for ‘Rambo’ Ron Gibbs to start the warm-ups. Bill is a tall Wiradjuri, Yorta man who was born with significant cerebral palsy. The committee selected him as captain as a reward for the faith he has shown in the Association, having been there since day one. Bill’s team-mates couldn’t understand some of his speech but they could feel his passion, the real currency of team sport. Bill’s team was a combination of Indigenous, Maori and Middle Eastern players and even one Chinese to complete the mix.

 

The All Stars team was captained by David Grech, a rugby league disciple from Mount Annan in rugby league’s south-west heartland. One of the most popular characters in the Association, his never say die attitude and love for rugby league won David the inaugural All Stars captain’s role. ‘Grechy’ is a super-confident rugby league fanatic who loves bodybuilding, showing off his amazing abdominal six-pack to interested onlookers. His team started their warm-ups with some basic passing drills.

 

Groups of family, carers, friends, media and general football fans gathered around both groups, the enormity of what they were witnessing slowly marinating. The drills represented a challenge in themselves. Some players with a low level movement disability charged through their formations with crisp passes and clean catching. Others struggled to catch, pass and run or bend down and pick up. For some “red shorts” running was a great struggle.

 

Somerset Maugham once said “But what can you know of life unless you have lived it?”

 

The warm-up drills rolled on. Balls were caught, balls were spilled, bodies were warmed up, and motivational messages were barked by coaches, captains and team mates. An interesting phenomena was unfolding before us. The men and women watching on the side, friends, family and carers, were shedding tears. Tears in rugby league are alien imposters. It’s a hard-nosed, throwback, unemotional sport. Weakness is a sin and crying is for the more “emotional” sports.

 

But not today. Blue-collar hard men were wiping away tears, overwhelmed by seeing the simple joy of opportunity realised, observing men and women as they made the most of the hand they’d been dealt. Today the players would get the opportunity to pay back their carers, family and friends and repay their investment of time and care.

 

“I am disabled I am proud of who I am now look inside yourself and start living and never take a backward step go forward in life and enjoy.” George Tonna (Tweet)

 

The warm-ups were faithfully captured by National Indigenous Television producer/presenter/cameraman Kris Flanders who was here to cover the game. What a buzz it was for the Indigenous players to have NITV News covering their games. So many times they had watched their heroes on NITV but today they were to be the feature story.

 

The Combined Indigenous Nations drills were mesmerising to watch. In true Aboriginal style, there was a rhythm to the drills, drawing in all onlookers to this circle of men undertaking their new tribal rites. NRL Legend ‘Rambo’ Ronny Gibbs walked between his Combined Indigenous Nations troops, passing, kicking, cajoling and laughing. A man with nothing to prove, delighted to be giving back.

 

He was accompanied by ‘Big G’, Gary Ta, a Maori rugby league fanatic and unofficial assistant coach who was carrying an injury and couldn’t play. ‘Big G’ was all business dressed in his NSW Blues hat and scarf. George Tonna said that ‘Big G’ was one of the great success stories of the NSWPDRLA. He had been a high level rugby league representative player in New Zealand and his team-mates, friends and siblings believed he was bound for the NRL. Then a stroke brought his world tumbling down, restricting his mobility and sending him into depression. George said, “‘Big G’ thought he was never going to play rugby league again before he found us. Look at his confidence now.”

 

They were a diverse crew indeed. Able Bodied legends Cliffy Lyons and Rhys Wesser were in the mix, advising, laughing and listening to their new team-mates.

 

“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” Heywood Broun, sportscaster.

 

Slowly the confidence built and the characters started to emerge. Combined Indigenous Nations captain Bill Bussell dropped a ball and gave his thigh a slap before his team-mates surrounded him with support. Some of the more severely affected cerebral palsy players took 20 quivering seconds to pick up a dropped ball. Team-mates waited patiently, chatting among themselves, one peppering his hero, now team-mate, Cliff Lyons with questions.

 

A roar of positivity accompanied every pass caught, every ball picked up. Support and encouragement were meat and drink for this team. One Combined Indigenous Nations player completed every drill with a huge grin. Proud Yuin, Wodi, Monaro man, Kevin Mundy had made the journey from the South Coast with his equally proud father, Paul Campbell. Paul broke down and cried watching the warm-ups, swelling with pride that his son was not only playing footy but also representing his community.

 

Kevin has built a thriving life despite brain damage and has a deep love of rugby league, like most Aboriginal boys on the South Coast. One can only imagine their excitement on the father and son road trip to play for an Indigenous representative team at the famous Redfern Oval.

 

The blue-uniformed All Stars were completing their own drills with similar patience levels and fraternity. These were less focused on ball skills and more on general movement exercises, the sideways walking squat presenting challenges of its own. A ball spilled in my direction and their captain, David Grech, was standing in front of me. “Your team enjoying themselves, Skipper?” I asked. “Beats watching!” he said with a huge grin before returning to his drills with a knee-rattling canter.

 

Some of the All Stars looked nervous, soaked with doubts and the physical fear of waiting for battle. Having George Tonna on their team helped immensely, his experience and calm guiding them through the pre-match nerves. George was excited because all of the NSW physically disabled rugby league games to date had been nine-a-side while today was the first 13-a-side version.

 

The All Stars were coached by David Smith, the football operations manager for the NSWPDRLA and a familiar friend to the team. His passing drills ran smoothly, overlaid by simple, clear and timeless instructions. “If someone scores a try, all go in and celebrate. Shake your mate’s hand. Know the limitations of your team-mates. If the guy next to you is slower than you, reduce your speed.”

 

The mood was lightened as a ball caught one of the All Stars players flush on the side of head. The resounding and familiar thump brought a huge roar of laughter from the team who love a ‘falcon’. This team was full of characters, jokers having a laugh with lots of backslapping. The coach, David Smith, captain David Grech and George Tonna brought the All Stars team back into the huddle for the final chat.

 

The final whistle blew on the Redfern All Blacks vs Doonside women’s game. It had been competitive early on but the athleticism of the Aboriginal women won the day 54-6 over their bigger and less mobile opponents from outer western Sydney.

 

Back in the Combined Indigenous Nations camp, Coach ‘Rambo’ Ronny Gibbs called the team together for the pre-game talk. The mood was buoyant. ‘Rambo’ ran through the rules. “Anyone with red shorts, it’s a two handed grab around the shoulders and you can’t go to ground. No scrums. Don’t be a ball hog!”

 

Another South Sydney try-scoring legend, Terry Fahey aka ‘The Redfern Express’, joined the onlookers of the Combined Indigenous Nations. He looked in great shape and had volunteered to be the Assistant Coach of the team. He made the trip from his home in Dubbo and had a special interest in proceedings because his daughter Tessa was the only female player today. His body language betrayed his delight as she participated in the drills.

 

‘Rambo’ Ron Gibbs continued his instructions. “Able bodied players are wearing the orange vests. You’re lucky to have two of the greats to run off today, Rhys and Cliffy.” Abdul, the Lebanese connection in the Combined Indigenous Nations, scratched his head and pointed to Cliffy Lyons. “Who’s this guy?” One of the players replied, “It’s Cliffy Lyons. Legend, brotha.” “I never seen ‘im,” said Abdul, unimpressed. The players roared with belly laughter.

 

‘Rambo’ went around to each player to check and remove any jewelry and got to the last player, Robert Murray aka ‘the Dubbo Express’. “Any jewelry, Robert?” He replied, “Do the family jewels count?” and pointed to his nether regions. The whole squad buckled over with laughter, some nervous and some the real thing. Robert was a character, a Gamilaroi man from Collarenabri who had been named on the bench for the Combined Indigenous Nations. He wasn’t physically disabled but intellectually disabled or ‘ID’. To make up the numbers, a few ‘ID’ ring-ins had been added to the squads.

 

‘Rambo’ Ron Gibbs allocated the final roles. “Who wants to be the kicker?” Robert Murray volunteered. Ron replied, “You’re not the kicker, you can’t kick.” The group went deathly quiet. Assistant Coach ‘Big G’ spoke up, pulling his Coach into line. “Ron, don’t tell him what he can’t do, you know that.” Ron apologised to Robert and the drills went on.

 

The iron clad rules of engaging the disabled apply to everybody. The simple mantras apply universally: play the ball not the man, see the person not the disability. Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes once said that the biggest problem limiting the achievement of people with disability is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Today was to be a day without limitations.

 

The teams were photographed and then took to the field, “red shorts” mixed with “black shorts” and facilitated by two orange-vested able bodied players. The handicappers had had a busy day but had brought everybody to parity. The crowd at Redfern Oval was buzzing, friends, families and the curious.

 

“Be heard and not seen, now roar for joy and acknowledge who u are in life, life is too short, now get busy living.” George Tonna (Tweet)

 

NSW Minister for Disability Services John Ajaka led both proud captains away for the coin toss which was won by David Grech from the NSWPDRLA All Stars. The football gods smiled on this day and delivered a gentle breeze across Redfern Oval under a sun-kissed blue sky.

 

The referee’s whistle blew and the historic first representative game was under way with a kick-off from the Combined Indigenous Nations team. The next 30 minutes was a blur of colour and motion with too many heroic moments to recount. Cut-out passes, big hits, tackling with energy and tenacity. The “black shorts” and the “red shorts” lined each other up, mini battles within the war.

 

The “black shorts” from both teams warmed to the theme early, plunging into each other and launching into tackles with a sunny willingness. The joy of contact. For the “red shorts”, forward movement was the goal and opposing players would allow a “red shorts” player to run 10 metres before tipping them, a gentlemen’s agreement that held for the game.

 

An early standout for the “black shorts” was elusive Combined Indigenous Nations fullback, Kyle Schaberg. Born in South Africa and now living in the northern beaches, Kyle cannot speak but communicates through ‘Facebook and mannerisms’. And he loves to run. And so did his All Stars opponent from Narellan in South-West Sydney, Nick Richies. Two men of equal ability who found each other. Nick scored a couple of length-of-the-field tries, Afro hairstyle bobbing in the wind, chased relentlessly by Kyle Schaberg. Redfern Oval became the savannah. Sometimes predator, sometimes prey, these two men felt the joy of the chase and created a story together, nipping at each other’s heels.

 

I consulted my trusty Official Match Program for their season stats and there they were, first and second in the NSWPDRLA try-scoring season rankings, Richies with nine tries and Schaberg with six. Back and forth they went and, for those 40 minutes, it was a rivalry to match Federer and Nadal.

 

Nick’s second-rower team mate, Allan Lockwood, was putting in some hard yards in indigenous designed headgear. A proud Aniwan/Dhungutti man, he had made his way from his hometown of Armidale, a six hour drive from Sydney. He ran the ball into the All Stars defence as if his life depended on it.

 

Tries were scored, there were big tackles between the “black shorts”, and players helped each other up most of the time. Cliffy Lyons and Rhys Wesser ran amongst their Combined Indigenous Nations team-mates, looked for pockets to gently insert their own abilities and enjoyed the organised chaos. Robert “Crown Jewels” Murray was everywhere, bobbing and weaving, a darting, dark, smiling force.

 

The most intriguing story of the day lay with those in the “red shorts”. Alex Ma, the Chinese Connection in the Combined Indigenous Nations, was a standout. Last year, Alex could not run any further than two metres at a time in tiny steps, effectively running on the spot. He opted for an operation in which both his hips were broken and realigned for a better walking style. And here he was today, running the ball up for a no-nonsense 10 metres, having been hand delivered the ball from his hero, Cliffy Lyons. Alex plays for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles in the NSWPDRL and has been adopted by the Manly NRL team as their number one supporter, attending awards nights and running out with the team before games.

 

One incident that remains in my memory was a battle royale of “red shorts”. Slowly and jerkily, Alex Ma took the ball forward towards All Stars captain David Grech. Both have severe cerebral palsy and, sensing a level playing field, they ‘charged’ slowly at each other. At the point of contact, their exciting collision of wills continued and, as if on pogo sticks, they bounced into each other a number of times, every fibre of their being committed to winning vital metres. They fell down onto each other in a grunting tangle and helped each other up.

 

“As I live and learn from my disability cerebral palsy I now understand that the disability has made the person I am today” George Tonna (Tweet)

 

I walked among the crowd. They were transfixed, relatives, partners and carers bursting with pride. One Aboriginal woman in full Rasta gear said to her male companion, “You should appreciate what you got and stop whinin’.”

 

The All Stars scored again. David Grech missed a long range conversion from a 45 degree angle. We knew he would but that wasn’t the point. The siren rang for half-time and the score was NSWPDRLA All Stars 12, Combined Indigenous Nations 6.

 

Coach ‘Rambo’ Ron Gibbs gathered the Combined Indigenous Nations around him and distributed water and oranges. He addressed the team. “You mightn’t be thirsty, but take a drink. Spread the ball around, ay? Chris, very good running. Kyle, excellent chasing. Everybody has to make at least two tackles. Put your hand up if you haven’t made two tackles.” Number four, Matthew Ngametua, honestly shot his hand up answering, “I’ve got none but they are scared to run at me.” Assistant Trainer ‘Big G’ chimed in, “Take the legs, boy.”

 

Matthew Ngametua is a proud Maori rugby league fanatic who has cerebral palsy. He got in touch with George Tonna on Facebook and was so inspired that he came across from Auckland to play in the game. He wants to start a disability league in New Zealand and, one day, play a Test match together. Today he wanted to tackle. I asked him how he was enjoying the day. “Overwhelmed and surprised, bro,” he replied.

 

The second half started and, with spirits revived, it was more of the same, length of the field tries, big hits, rampaging runs, dummies. I walked among the standing crowd and could feel that they had turned from sympathetic to outright respectful. The spectators were wiser in the rules of the game and could now anticipate outcomes based on the varied abilities of the players. They evolved from cheering for their loved ones to being completely absorbed, vested in the highs and lows of the game.

 

Robert Murray, ‘the Dubbo Express’, was running amok. Although intellectually disabled, he was a good rugby league player and hadn’t received the memo to slow down for his physically disabled brethren. He scored a try and converted it himself to bring the score back to 18-12.

 

Tessa Fahey ran the ball up, crab like, and then straightened before being tipped. Tessa is intellectually disabled and wore the “red shorts” today. She looked over at her father, Terry, who looked super proud of his warrior queen.

 

The “black shorts” on both teams lined each other up. George Tonna looked a bit lost with the pace of the game. Alex Ma took the ball up relentlessly, black leg braces on his calves, knees cracking together.

 

An All Stars player took a one-handed catch from the kick-off. Another All Stars player, Marik Gleizer, scored a try and was having a great day, tackling with gusto. He was born able bodied and was a good field hockey player but suffered a stroke and became disabled. He played Cerebral Palsy Soccer for Australia and was a true team player, unselfishly passing twice to lead to tries.

 

The stories continued to grow. All Stars number eight, Geoff Clark, proudly wore a graze on his cheek. He had an intense head clash with Kevin Mundy, the Combined Indigenous Nations winger. There was no way either man would come off the field today and, later, they laughed about it over a beer. In addition to cerebral palsy, Geoff had only 15% eyesight and ran forward with blind faith. Geoff had no idea when he was about to be tackled, a level of bravery no NRL player has ever had to contemplate.

 

I walked through the crowd one final time. Grassroots sports fans have a finely tuned intuition and can smell authenticity. The more it means to the participants, the more they buy in. Today’s buy-in was beyond doubt. They had been delivered an experience rich beyond understanding. Each carer, friend and family member knew the individual battles that had taken place just to get on the field.

 

The siren squealed and it was over. The NSWPDRLA All Stars triumphed over the Combined Indigenous Nations 28-16.

 

“You can achieve so much in life if you have a healthy mind and never give up on your dreams and hopes be prepared to take the knocks to achieve.” George Tonna (Tweet)

 

The crowd stood as one to applaud this group of improbable heroes who had shown there is greatness in us all. The scene resembled a Grand Final as parents, siblings, friends, guardians and carers ran onto the field to spend time with their loved ones, bursting with pride at their achievements. Rusted on rugby league fans are a group not given to hyperbole but this group was gushing as they mobbed both teams. It was pure crystalline joy.

 

Strangers shook hands and talked like old friends around the bonfire. The players came together as one. They had conquered their doubts and fear of failure, the fear of embarrassing themselves. Numbers were swapped. One of the tough judges said, “That’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.” A committee member of the NSW Physically Disabled Rugby League swooped at the opportunity. “That’s great. What’s your number, mate? We need refs.”

 

The post-match celebrations were the very essence of sport. Overjoyed and relieved parents and carers hugged and reminisced with their heroes who had come through unscathed. Kris Flanders from NITV was feverishly interviewing players and capturing the jubilant scene. I asked him between interviews, “How are you going to fit this all in, Kris?” He smiled and replied, “Wasn’t that amazing? We have to spread this over two nights.”

 

Nobody wanted to leave. Both teams were asked repeatedly to clear the field for the following A Reserve game. The players needed it to last as long as possible. Today meant so much. Finally they came to the sidelines for the presentation.

 

I spoke to Alex Ma’s proud Chinese father, Max, who was overwhelmed by the day. “One of the best days of Alex’s life. What a game rugby league is! I don’t know why it isn’t big in China. It’s different to soccer where you show your weakness all the time. In league, you spend 80 minutes trying not to look injured, hiding your weakness. It’s a man’s game, I love it.”

 

Captains Bill Bussell and David Grech came to the front of the presentation area to give their speeches. Someone yelled, “Don’t swear, Grechy.” He finished his speech with a resounding, “Let’s party”, and held the winner’s shield aloft. Bill Bussell gave an excited, heartfelt speech that only his mum could understand. George Tonna said to me later, “We didn’t need to understand him to know what he said.” I looked over at NRL legend Rhys Wesser who smiled and said to me, “They just love their footy.”

 

George Tonna’s speech was short and sweet. “We all share the passion of rugby league. How wonderful that a new group got to play rep footy today. Listen in, fellas. Let’s all get dressed and head to the pub for a BBQ. It’s at the Tudor on Pitt Street.”

 

Players from both teams limped off to the pub. They had slain some big game and were off to tell their stories. It had all been on display today, leadership, bravery, positivity, not accepting boundaries and leading by example. Through the whim of fate and conjunction of circumstances, these athletes had come together to create a simple tale of heroes.

 

As I watched them leave I realised that, for some players, I had witnessed the most important day in their lives. It had been an honour to share it. I left Redfern Oval thinking that the great Louis Armstrong was right: for all its complexity and unfairness, it is indeed a wonderful world.

 

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.

Comments

  1. Great story, Patrick! Life and sport at their complementary best.

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