Could there be a more significant meeting of two NRL clubs in Indigenous Round than the Eels taking on the Rabbitohs?
Long regarded as the Indigenous heart of Rugby League, the South Sydney Rabbitohs have been renowned for the talented Aboriginal players who’ve worn the famous cardinal and myrtle jersey.
That list of first grade players has extended well past 100. My earliest memories were of their amazing goal kickers from the 1960s – Eric Simms and Kevin Longbottom. Today they boast a couple of the most gifted footballers and biggest Indigenous identities in Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker.
The South Sydney club has always walked the walk in embracing the Aboriginal community. In 2009 they deepened their ties when they replaced the traditional running white Rabbit emblem with a black one for home games. Off the field, their community programs have focussed on assisting Indigenous youth.
As for the Parramatta Eels, the club is readily recognised for its link to Aboriginal people. Taken from an anglicised version of the Darug name Burramada or Burramatta, Parramatta refers to either “place of the eels” or “place where the eels lie”. The eel is the totem of the Burramattagal people.
No other NRL club has a name so closely associated with the traditional owners of the land on which they play.
In the past, the area now known as Parramatta was a major gathering place for First Nation people. With its location where fresh water and salt water meet, the Parramatta River and surrounding land was used as a food source, cultural practice ground and a means of transport.
The crest for Parramatta Council features an Aboriginal man and woman fishing in the river, and it’s been the focal point of that crest since 1862. From 1947 to 1974, the logo on the Eels jersey was a stylised version of this council crest.
Today, Western Sydney has the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of any region in Australia, whilst La Perouse is the individual suburb with the largest Indigenous population.
Indigenous links certainly run deep for the communities that both the Eels and the Rabbitohs represent, and so Indigenous Round has a special place on the calendar of both clubs. With their respective histories, this will always be the case.
For this reason, I’d propose that the Eels and Rabbitohs match should be an annual fixture on Indigenous Round.
The importance of Indigenous Round cannot be understated. As a major Australian sporting code, the NRL has positioned itself as a leader in educating the wider community and assisting in the journey towards eliminating racism.
Sport breaks down barriers and connects people. It is the avenue for important conversations. No sport in Australia has done that better than Rugby League.
When the legendary Arthur Beetson was appointed as the captain of the Australian Rugby League team in 1973, a clear message was sent to the wider community.
Arthur was the first Indigenous player to captain an Australian team in any sport. In an era when full equality for Indigenous people across Australia had been an ongoing battle (see the 1967 referendum and the 1983 Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act) Rugby League had officially anointed an Aboriginal player as its leader and number one role model.
It’s fitting that the theme for the 2023 Indigenous Round is Moving Forward Together. Let’s all unite to celebrate living in a country which is home to the oldest continuing culture in the world – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Now, “Moving Forward”, let’s lock in the match between the two clubs with the deepest Indigenous links – make the Eels vs the Rabbitohs an annual Indigenous Round fixture.
The 2023 Eels Jersey
After his sensational 2022 design, it’s no surprise to see that Sean Kinchela was again commissioned for this year’s Burramattagal Eels jersey.
His design celebrates the beautiful landscape and wildlife of Dharug country, as well respecting the Burramattagal people and their language.
Once more, it’s a jersey to good to be worn just once. In addition to the clash with the Rabbitohs, let’s hope the Eels can don the jersey in the upcoming home match against the Cowboys.
The Eels Dream Team
This time every year, I publish my 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.
I’ve made some tweaks over the years as more becomes known about the heritage of individual players.
Revisiting the list of players reminds me of how blessed the Eels have been when it comes to Indigenous players who have worn the Blue and Gold.
As this is an opinion piece, the list only applies to players that I’ve watched during my lifetime following the Eels.
I’ll be interested if any readers can identify Indigenous players that I might have overlooked. I’m especially interested if any reader knows of Indigenous players to have made first grade at the Eels prior to 1969.
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. After being on the Eels radar for a 2020 return, Bevan continues to ply his trade in the ESL.
Wing – Blake Ferguson
Origin star, Australian rep, Premiership winner and proudly Indigenous All-Star – the powerful winger did it all and was one of the NRL’s “characters” on that journey.
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. Another legend that TCT have had the honour to host at Parra Leagues.
Centre – Steve Ella
What a talent. What a quality bloke! 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. TCT has now had the good fortune to host Steve in two of our appearances at Parra Leagues.
Centre – Timana Tahu
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 – 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.
Half – John Simon
Once praised by Brian Smith as the smartest player he had coached, Simon validated that judgement by earning 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 – J’Maine Hopgood
A likely future Parramatta captain and potential Queensland Origin player, J’Maine is the current Eel in this line up. Although only new to first grade, the talented lock has already been a stand out for the Indigenous all-Star team. After being recruited from the Panthers for 2023 and beyond, Hopgood’s offloading skill has added an extra dimension to the Eels pack.
Second Row – Dean Widders
The 2004 Ken Stephens Award winner joined the Eels from the Roosters in 2002. The highly skilled back rower became renowned for his creativity and deceptive pace. A Country Origin and Prime Ministers 13 representative, Widders has received deserved praise for his services to Aboriginal education and is the current coach of the Eels NRLW team.
Second Row – John Vincent
John played with the Eels from 1969 to 1976 and was a fast, hard running second rower who was also used to great effect at centre and wing. Was he the first player of Indigenous heritage to play top grade for the Eels? I’m hoping a reader might be able to shed some light on this.
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
Peats’ courageous play for the Eels earned him a legion of Blue & Gold fans. A tenacious defender renowned for his line speed, his performances were rewarded with City jerseys, Indigenous All Star appearances and a Blues Origin hooking spot.
Prop – Arthur Beetson
An Immortal has a place in a 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.
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 less than memorable, but in his prime he was a very, very good forward.
Carl is currently battling serious health issues and our thoughts are with him.
Although primarily a centre or winger, at 187cm and 98kg, Wright also had the frame to play back row, even playing in that position in some lower grade games. Hence his selection on the bench. Originally from Newcastle, he joined the Eels for the 2009 and 2010 seasons and eventually enjoyed a 121 game career across five clubs.
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.
Over the years, the versatile Smith moved closer to a starting spot in this team. However, Wilbur’s ability to cover virtually every backline position, on top of the dummy half role or even lock make him the ideal interchange player. After departing the Eels at the end of 2021, and moving to the Titans, Will is now plying his trade at the Tigers.
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.
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.
Josh Hoffman played in every backline position. He also lists Indigenous All Star representation on his resume.
Others to make a mark included Ethan Parry, Anthony Mitchell, Glenn Liddiard, Reece Robinson, Luke Kelly, Dennis Moran, Mark Bugden, Brad Garrett, Ronald Prince, Esi Tonga, Jai Field and Beau Champion.
Since the last listing I have been unable to clarify the heritage of Corey Norman. He is formally recognised as having Māori heritage, but there are only informal references to an Aboriginal background.
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.
Images credit: South Sydney Rabbitohs Media, Eels Media, NRL Media