Redfern All Blacks – Keeping the ball in motion

@patrick_skene

 

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, where hairy men reign supreme, respect is elusive and honour earnt through bruises, corks, fractures and breaks.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Men in the Great Depression playing for pride and rabbit meat.

 

The Coogee Dolphins playing on after the decimation of their team by the Bali Bombing.

 

Club volunteers running meat raffles to pay for life-saving operations or widow’s expenses or NRL player spinal injuries.

 

And the Redfern All Blacks.

 

An extraordinary Rugby League club that has served the Sydney and NSW Aboriginal communities with fire and distinction for the past 70 years.

 

The oldest remaining Aboriginal Rugby League club in Australia.

 

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.

 

A club so inspired by the 1930’s exhibition matches between the now defunct Tweed Heads All Blacks and mighty St George Dragons that they started their own All Blacks club to beat the whitefella at his own game.

 

A club born by lack of opportunity from White Australia rugby league clubs in a society that classified them as fauna.

 

A club on ASIO’s watch list as a Communist and Black Power hot bed in the 70’s.

 

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.

 

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.

 

The type of club that usually disappears to become part of urban folklore – kept alive 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 less a historic milestone and more 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.

 

An appropriately spartan venue to play a brutal contact sport from another time and place.

 

In former times the unmistakable smell of Malabar treatment plant would ambush spectators, a normally welcome sea breeze prompting dryheaving in the weak and mouth breathing in the strong.

 

No such surprises now the effluent is pumped four kilometres out to sea.

 

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 in to them.

 

“No silly passes”

 

“Don’t tackle high”

 

“Don’t let your teammates down”

 

The All Blacks loyal fans huddled in front of the change sheds, desperately trying to stay dry and in 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 in the heart of Wiradjuri country, 400 kilometres west of Sydney.

 

Under the great warrior Windradyne, the Wiradjuri had 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 Parramatta Rugby League legend and tough man Ray Price, a story told in delightfully great detail in his autobiography.

 

Wellington had long been a provider of players for the All Blacks and in turn Redfern had 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.

 

A Bundjalung, Bidjigal and Wonorua man, both of Shane’s grandfathers played for the famous Tweed Heads All Blacks in the 1930s.

 

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.

 

The architect of brilliant Aboriginal cultural engagement programs such as Tribal Warrior and Clean Slate Without Prejudice boxing program, he is the former Local Hero for the Australian of the Year Awards 2013.

 

That title meant little under the relentless rain, moulding 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 had met at Koori Radio where for years he had been the resident political firebrand.

 

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 from Port Macquarie to Sydney in search of opportunity, 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 before then 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!”

 

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 had coached Frederick West as a junior and “Freddo” had never been quite good enough to play in the halves, numbers 6 or 7.

 

Instead he had always been slotted in a less glamorous role, 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 shaved headed Maori.

 

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 his son had been accepted into Trinity College on a scholarship.

 

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 signalled the start of the second half as both teams returned to the field.

 

“1.2.3 RAB” boomed out the Reserves war cry, the unifying Redfern songline said 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 1970’s for exclusively playing Aboriginal players, there is 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 were playing 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 was rebounding off startled canteen patrons and 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 whom, 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,” yelled Auntie Bertha 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 relented to nephew Stan’s request and headed out in the light rain to play in an open grass area.

 

Relieved Grandma stayed put, minding her other two grandsons on the blanket who 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.

 

‘Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council’ logo on the front and ‘Australian Technology Park’ on the back.

 

“Hold, Hold, Up,” yelled seventeen men 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 far North East NSW town of Armidale, as a young boy Dean had grown 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 formation in 1977, the Narwan Eels had 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 Koori Knockout 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 in the final by Alf’s young son wearing 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 Eeel, Dean Widders at 35, a man 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 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 change sheds.

 

“Next time boys!”

 

Coach Shane Phillips read the Reserves the riot act inside the change 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, all shapes and sizes on display, backline athletes built for speed mixed with 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 ofAnglo, Polynesian and Mediterranean ancestry players, 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 for an arm injury.

 

“He’s alright, its not broken,” said the doctor.

 

Captain Coach Dean Widders using all his NRL guile to beat defenders and urge his players forward, to keep their concentration and discipline.

 

The niggle and tension between the teams increased and almost erupted a few times, the teams 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 crowd were furious at the missed opportunities.

 

The half time siren sounded.

 

Nathan Moran appeared with a smile, gear had been packed, players lectured, his duties were now complete.

 

A tall teenager walked by and 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 20’s 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,”

 

“Gordon 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,” he clarified.

 

“Aden Ridgeway, Australia’s first Aboriginal senator was a Club Secretary of the All Blacks.”

 

“The All Blacks story is the Aboriginal story.”

 

And Nathan 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 at 6 foot 1 and 16 stone and considered the new ‘Arthur Beetson’.

 

He had played three games a prop for the South Sydney Rabbitohs including a massive game in the Amco Cup in Tamworth where 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 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 tryscorer ever, Nathan Merritt.”

 

“His kids are now running around in All Blacks Juniors.”

 

“Both Greg Inglis’ Uncles played for the All Blacks.”

 

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.

 

As the Warumpi Band once asked the nation in their iconic Song Blackfella Whitefella:

 

“Are you the one who understands these family plans?”

 

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, 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 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 field one of the All Blacks centres, Mark Hickey, stood out as the class act, dangerous on every touch, making line breaks, 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 had 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 calmly kick the conversion, launching further celebrations including screams of joy from the boys.

 

There’s no app for that.

 

All Blacks ahead by 4.

 

On further inquiry I found out Auntie Bertha had been a brilliant basketballer and touch footy player.

 

Nathan gave me a wink.

 

“Its all about the bloodlines.”

 

Turns out 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, both teams lurching forward in the mud to gain precious territory with 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 20’s 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 “coathanger” tackle and was sent off by the referee, banished for the rest of game.

 

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.

 

“Cmon Blacks, run hard.”

 

“Anything can happen when Mark’s got the ball.”

 

“Give it to Mark.”

 

The slippery ball caused another 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 60’s or the Black Power 70’s – Rugby League (as well as boxing), providing the only way Aboriginal men could meet the white man on equal terms – and legally smash him.

 

In the 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, 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 16-14 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,”

 

“Lets 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 9 players on the field, and 11 on the bench.

 

The 9 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 songline 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 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 70’s who first played for the All Blacks at age 14.

 

He had Redfern All Blacks stories to burn, from their 2 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 40’s and filled Redfern Oval.

 

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, 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 70’s, 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 60’s and 70’s.

 

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.

 

A common theme of early settlers and explorer interaction was the amazing laughter and merriment of the Aboriginal groups they met.

 

Not much has changed.

 

Humour as a form of communication, link between mobs, morale builder, insulator and a bloodless reminder of the unbroken Aboriginal spirit.

 

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.

 

“Its all about family.”

 

In 2014 the Redfern All Blacks celebrate 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

 

@patrick_skene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Patrick Skene

An Epicurean Celt interested in Sport, Culture & History.

Comments

  1. Loved this story at so many levels. Thanks Patrick. The matter of fact way you captured so many noble and uncomfortable truths. The good, the bad and the ugly. No punches pulled. So many lines hit me right in the guts:
    “Men in the Great Depression playing for pride and rabbit meat.”
    “You don’t have to be black to be an All Black”.
    Perhaps most importantly:
    “Dean Widders was happy to disadvantage his team to get the discipline message across to his players.”
    The subtle, proud, strong leadership of elders on and off the pitch shone through in Patrick’s story. Like most whitefellas I’ve struggled with understanding of indigenous culture and what helps them to live fulfilling and purposeful lives. The waste and destruction fills all of us – black, white and brindle – with a head in the sand helplessness.
    But in recent years I have seen that the answer is very clear, and the Redfern All Blacks embodies it. A young person has to be proud and strong in their own culture and origins before they can feel good in another’s. Where the direct family is afflicted with drugs, depression and self loathing – their own community elders can ‘re-parent’ troubled kids to feel proud and belong to their broader origins.
    Its a tough ask but the coaches, elders and aunties of the Redfern All Blacks show us one way of how to do it.
    Grateful.

  2. Patrick Skene says:

    My pleasure Peter,
    Over time I’ve come to the same conclusion.
    The closer a group is to their culture the less self destructive behaviour from its members.
    Sport offers a relatively bloodless way for people to connect or reconnect with their culture and build pride in identity.
    Thats why community strengthening clubs like the Redfern All Blacks have such a crucial role to play.
    Thanks.

  3. Arabella Douglas says:

    Patrick,
    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and inspiring story about the The Redfern All Blacks. As a family member of the Tweed ‘Currie Family” descendant of James Currie I and Ellen Currie and their 8 children:
    James II
    Charles
    Harry II (Jumbo)
    Henry (Barney)
    Jane
    Lilly
    David and
    Ellen II

    I would like to extend my gracious thanks for highlighting some of the beauty and magnificence of the All Blacks story.

    Like most of the Black families of the Tweed ( which also respectfully included islanders) football, and the magic and strength of the game encouraged our communities when we were suffocated by limitations, and inspired our families with stories of glory and courage when we doubted our abilities.

    Football and its heros were cemented by the Redfern All Blacks era when it was originally the Tweed All Blacks. Communities met and galvanised their stories, their connections and their linkages at the games, and football replaced to some degree missionary movements which was how my family moved between missions and communities prior to the game of football.

    Its why the game still resonates with so many communities not just for the sport but for the coming-together, the communal liberation of sheer talent, excellence and pride we were allowed to rejoice in and make our own. Most every Black household on the Tweed, has pictures of their family playing for the All Blacks as pride of place, a signifier to excellence unbound by social constraints.

    Our family like many hold football, its teams, and its unbridled opportunities with high regard, in many ways because it seemed the closest to an even playing field in a society that was at times challenging, brutal and unforgiving. Like the comfort of falling into Black family slang (as a sign of resistance) , football offers the same comfort to my family and to many. A sharp physical reminder of human capability; relied upon and revered when Australia bombarded us with the limitation, exclusion, doubt, and hate.

    We celebrate with football, we affirm our excellence through it, we die embraced by team colours, we connect, we share history and we survived with echos of missionary music that soon turned to the chant ‘keep the ball in motion’.

    My family sing that song proudly even when not at a game, and we celebrate its poignancy of a song of overcoming struggle, together.

    I thank you sincerely for sharing a part of this incredible story with your audience. I acknowledge with humble respect Great Uncle Charlie Currie’s son Uncle Stokel Currie, Uncle Napier Paulson ( Jane Currie son), the great Larry Corowa (Uncle Jack and Aunty Martha family), the great Uncle Lionel Morgan, (son-in-law of Charlie Currie), Uncle Geoffrey Compton ( grandson of Charlie), Tony Currie (grandson of Stokel), and the many Currie family descendants who continue to play a brilliant game for reasons greater than a game score.

    warmest energy
    Arabella
    (Great Granddaughter of Jane Currie)

  4. Outstanding read! Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  5. Patrick, thank you for this wonderful piece of observation, history, social comment.

    I think Arabella’s comment tells us what an important piece this is – and equally Arabella’s comment captures the significance of the All Blacks and of rugby league . Thank you Arabella. Would love to publish your stories as well.

    On the Curries: I met Tony (whom you mention Patrick and Arabella) at his tyre shop in Morningside (Wynnum Rd?) in Brisbane. He was a brilliant player himself of course. But he has also been an important leader/mentor/teacher. For example, he really took a young Steve Renouf under his wing when they were both at the Broncos. Steve credits Tony with having a profound influence on him. That part of the chat Tony and I had was important for our research, but Tony also told me his own family story, and the place of sport (cricket has an important part in it too from memory) in that story.

    I learnt so much from writing that book with Steve. Your piece reminded me of those times, Patrick. I had so many conversations which helped me start to develop an appreciation of exactly what you have explained Arabella.

    Again, thanks.

    It shows the depth of a world which is only occasionally represented faithfully in the conservative media.

  6. Wonderful, wonderful stuff Patrick.

    How would the Magnificent Murri Nine go against the 9 starters of the Redfern All Blacks, I wonder?

  7. Patrick_Skene says:

    Arabella – Thank you so much for your wonderful and humbling post. The power of a song and the power of football illustrated beautifully!

    John – Thanks – Tony Currie co-incidentally was my hero at the Bulldogs growing up and has become a personal friend. He is furiously preparing for the Murri knockout at the moment. A great man!

    Tom – Brilliant pickup! – It hadn’t crossed my mind. Apparently the Redfern All Blacks and Brisbane Natives once played in the Kempsey knockout in 1978 and the Blacks got up in a tight one. Thanks

  8. Nick Hatzoglou says:

    Another outstanding narration by Patrick Skene. Understanding, respect, reconciliation, and empathy for all people at a time when they are all rapidly disappearing. Patrick is a true leader of our time. Keep the stories coming Patrick

  9. sean gorman says:

    What an epic. Good stuff.

  10. Nathan Moran says:

    Deadly article Patrick well done. RAB is a great club with a tremendous history.

    Just one slight update and amendment I was actually the coach of A res Shane was helping out on the day as he does tirelessly as a RAB legend. RAB ARes fro 0from 4 start went on to make grand final so we got to sing the song many many times together in 2014. Whilst we came up short on the day losing by 8 we did well considering played Coogee who did not field a AGrade team unlike RAB and are well known for their abundance of wealth and resources in comparison to our club who cannot afford to pay its players.

    Thanks again Patrick for highlighting the great RAB club and hopefully you will get to hear the song sung loud and proud many more times in the future.

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