The 2020 NRL Indigenous Round is being staged this week as the NRL and its 16 clubs set out to honour and recognise the role of the Indigenous community and its athletes in our great game.
Given the wealth of talented Indigenous players who’ve graced rugby league’s fields, it’s a no-brainer that the code would honour the contributions of Aboriginal Australians to the code. These players have been some of the true greats of our game, with a list that includes the likes of Artie Beetson, Cliff Lyons, Laurie Daley, Preston Campbell and Johnathan Thurston. They brought entertainment to the masses and success to their clubs.
As a major Australian sporting code, it’s also important for the NRL to be involved in educating the wider community and to assist in the journey towards eliminating racism. Sport connects people, and rugby league is an avenue to important conversations.
This week, the NRL published a list 62 Indigenous players and the First Nations People with which they identify. Impressively, that means that almost 13% of NRL players have indigenous heritage, including current Eels Blake Ferguson, Jai Field and Will Smith. That percentage is amazing, considering that Indigenous people account for just over 3% of the Australian population.
The Parramatta NRL Club is readily recognised for its link to Aboriginal people. Taken as an anglicised version of Burramatta, Parramatta refers to either “Place of the eels” or “place where the eels lie”.
The traditional owners of the land, the Burramattagal, are a clan of the Darug people and the eel is their totem. With its location on the point of the river where fresh water and salt water met, Burramatta was an important gathering place for indigenous people.
This time every year, I list my own Parramatta “Dream Team” as a way for TCT to recognise some of the talented Aboriginal players who’ve donned the famous Blue and Gold jersey.
Of course, the listing can only apply to players that I’ve watched during my lifetime following the Eels, and it’s merely my opinion.
I’ll be interested if any readers can identify Indigenous players that I may have overlooked. As always, debate over my selections is naturally welcomed.
This list is:
Fullback – Bevan French
During his time at Parra, French earned plaudits for his freakish try scoring ability. His selection in the 2017 Indigenous All Stars team marked his early impact on the NRL. Now plying his trade in the ESL, Bevan’s elusiveness is being appreciated beyond our shores.
Wing – Blake Ferguson
What can you say about Blake Ferguson that hasn’t already been said? Origin star, Australian rep, Premiership winner and proudly Indigenous All-Star – the powerful Eels winger has done it all and been one of the NRL’s “characters” on that journey. He can now add “scored one of the greatest tries that wasn’t” to his CV.
Wing – David Liddiard
A speedy winger, Liddiard was both the Dally M rookie of the year and a Premiership winner with the Eels in an incredible 1983 season. His finishing ability made him a real punctuation point on the end of a potent Parramatta backline. Liddiard has since gone on to kick plenty of goals as an advocate and administrator for Aboriginal Youth organisations.
Centre – Steve Ella
It’s probably impossible to adequately summarise the career and contributions of Steve Ella. Local junior, premiership winner, Origin star, Kangaroo, Eels legend. Zip Zip had the ability to change direction without losing pace. Ella is another Indigenous star who has proudly gone on to work with the Aboriginal community.
Centre – Timana Tahu
Another backline star recruited from the Newcastle club, Tahu had two stints with the Eels that were punctuated by his foray into rugby union. Blessed with both power and pace, the talented three quarter was a handful for opposition defences. An Origin star, Tahu also had the distinction of being a dual international.
Five – Eighth – Corey Norman
Corey Norman always seemed to be on the cusp of Origin selection, and after leaving the Eels he finally achieved that honour. Though his last year at Parra wasn’t indicative of his best football, he was one of the most naturally talented players to have represented the Eels during the last decade.
Half – John Simon
Once praised by Brian Smith as the smartest player he had coached, Simon earned Origin and Australian honours during his career. The talented half was part of Parramatta’s revival in the early years of Smith’s coaching tenure in the late 1990s. The solidly built Simon had exceptional kicking skills and deceptive pace. Plenty of Eels fans were disappointed when he was moved on.
Lock – Daniel Wagon
One of a number of Brian Smith recruits on this list, this time from the Dragons, Wagon would go on to clock up over 200 games for the Eels. Although originally a winger, he eventually made his mark as both a back rower and pivot with the Eels. Wagon played 3 games for Queensland in 2001 and was a member of the 2001 Kangaroo tour.
Second Row – Dean Widders
The 2004 Ken Stephens Award winner joined the Eels from the Roosters in 2002. The talented back rower became renowned for his creativity and deceptive pace. A Country Origin and Prime Ministers 13 representative, Widders has also received deserved praise for his services to Aboriginal education.
Second Row – Mark Tookey
What a crowd favourite this big fella was at Parramatta Stadium! Although primarily a prop, I’ve selected “Tooks” in the back row. Recruited from the now defunct Crushers in 1998, Tookey made his name as an impact player during his 40 appearances with the Eels. I’ve been told that it’s a very trim version of Tookey that people would meet these days.
Prop – Geoff Bugden
One of the 1986 “bookends”, the rugged prop joined the Eels from Newtown in 1982. A Rothmans Medalist in 1980, his move would bring him premiership success during Parramatta’s golden era and also earn 1983 Origin selection. Following an outstanding 1986, he was desperately unlucky not to score a place on the Kangaroo tour of that year.
Dummy Half – Nathan Peats
Although currently playing for the Titans, Peats’ courageous play for the Eels earned him a legion of Blue & Gold fans. A tenacious defender renowned for his line speed, his performances have been rewarded with City jerseys, Indigenous All Star appearances and a Blues Origin hooking spot.
Prop – Arthur Beetson
What an honour it is to be able to name one of rugby league’s immortals in this Parramatta list. Artie Beetson was the master of what is now referred to as second phase play. Although he joined the Eels towards the end of his illustrious career, the mercurial forward could still mesmerise the Cumberland crowd with his ability to offload the ball in traffic. Selected from Parramatta for the inaugural Origin match, his “interaction” with Eels team mate Mick Cronin really kick started the “mate against mate” folklore of Origin footy.
Another player selected for his versatlity. In his junior representative days, Hoffman starred in the halves. As his career evolved, he went on to play in every backline position, along with Indigenous All Star representation.
This recruit from Newcastle made the 2002 Origin team on the back of his strong form with the Eels. A member of the record breaking 2001 Parramatta side, the tall and pacy winger was the ideal finisher for a team renowned for its attacking prowess.
The versatile Smith has the ability to cover virtually every backline position, on top of the dummy half role. As such, Wilbur is the ideal interchange player. His pace sets him as one of the fastest at the club, and despite his light frame, he’s capable of producing some big shots in defence.
Webb doesn’t earn his spot on the list via his limited appearances with the Eels. However, he earned 15 Origin jerseys, made a test appearance for Australia and appeared in two Indigenous All Star matches. His time with the Eels may be best forgotten, but in his prime he was a very good forward.
It was difficult to omit Willie Tonga in the selection battle with David Liddiard. Tonga was an Origin star and Australian representative, though he reached those heights after departing the Eels. He wouldn’t let this team down.
Current Eels player, Jai Field, is in the early stages of his NRL career and has just posted his first three games for the Eels. The fastest player in the club, he used that pace to score an important try in his first appearance for the Blue and Gold.
John Vincent was an original selection when I first started these lists. He played with the Eels from 1969 to 1976 and was a fast, hard running second rower who was also used to great effect out on the wing.
There were some other fine players from the past that didn’t make my team, and it’s important to acknowledge them. Chris Sandow, and PJ Marsh certainly had claims for inclusion in the top 17.
Others to make a mark included Anthony Mitchell, Glenn Liddiard, Reece Robinson, Luke Kelly, Dennis Moran, Mark Bugden, Brad Garrett, Ronald Prince, Esi Tonga, Jono Wright and Beau Champion.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive and there may be players of Aboriginal heritage that I have unfortunately overlooked. For those that I haven’t named, let me still thank you for wearing the Parramatta jersey.
Speaking of jerseys, the Parramatta Eels will play the Bulldogs wearing specially designed jerseys by Aboriginal artist Danielle Mate Sullivan, with input from Will Smith.
As always, in this important NRL Round, let’s all pause for a moment to recognise that we are fortunate to live in a country which is home to the oldest continuing culture in the world – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands people.
I’m certainly grateful.