New Zealand's Māori rugby league administration are in talks with their Indigenous Australian counterparts to to lock-in a fixture between the two teams during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. The game would serve as an exhibition match in the tournament and would not have any baring on the championship.
"Everyone within the NZRL whānau (family) are excited about it and we actually tested the waters in Newcastle at the Kiwis (Kiwis vs Australia Test) game and there was a very favourable action and very positive," New Zealand Māori Rugby League Chairman John Devonshire told Māori Television.
If successful it would be the first time the two teams have met since their explosive encounter back in 2008 (won by the First Australians) when they played a curtain raiser to the Australia vs New Zealand world cup match. Rugby League World Cup 2017 Chief Executive Officer, Michael Brown confirmed talks were underway.
"There have been preliminary discussions between a number of parties around the possibility of a game featuring a New Zealand Māori team and an Indigenous Australian team to be staged during the Rugby League World Cup 2017 tournament period with further talks to take place," he said.
Both the New Zealand Māori and First Australian populations are disproportionately represented in the National Rugby League. Despite making up just 2.4% of Australia's population, First Australians make up 12% of NRL players, including several of the game's top players, including all-time great, Jonathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Sam Thaiday, Andrew Fifita, Dane Gagai and Blake Ferguson.
It's a similar story with New Zealand's Māori who are well-represented in the New Zealand Warriors line-up along with several more teams across the league. Leading Sydney Roosters front-rower and proud Māori, Jared Warea-Hargreaves threw his weight behind the concept last year, saying "I'd like to see the Indigenous [players] of both New Zealand and Australia come together to see who's better. I reckon New Zealand would get it. It would be awesome."
The situation is not so positive off the field for the Māori or First Australians. More than half of New Zealand's prison population is Māorigiving them one of the highest incarceration rates in the western world. Several lifestyle indicators among First Australians also paint a bleak picture. Aboriginal infants have an infant mortality rate more than double non-indigenous children; Aboriginal juveniles are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous; while Aboriginals adults have a death rate five times that of non-indigenous Australians.
The National Rugby League has taken a pro-active approach to helping First Australians better their situation. In 2014, the National Rugby League became the first national sporting organisation to implement a Reconciliation Action Plan, which, among several objectives over a three-year period, established a partnership with the Recognise Campaign to support Constitutional recognition; provided Welfare Officers and mentoring programs for elite junior and senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players to support education, training and employment; and aimed to increase employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to five per cent.
The concept of an all-indigenous super-clash was first devised by New Zealand rugby league greats and Māori, Howie and Kevin Tamati. Kevin etched himself into rugby league folklore in 1985 with his sideline stoush against Kangaroos hardman, Greg Dowling. Both are pushing for a 2008 re-match with Warriors' legend Stacey Jones and Former Kiwi and Parramatta Eels Captain Nathan Cayless listed as candidates to take over coaching duties.
The NRL has hosted an Indigenous All-Stars vs NRL All-stars fixture since 2010 though the concept recently came under threat after plunging ticket sales saw the NRL register a loss of $500 000 dollars. Several Indigenous and white NRL greats, including Jonathan Thurston and coaching legend, Wayne Bennett called for the fixture not to be abandoned. A bumper 37,339 strong crowd at Lang Park this year to watch the NRL All-Stars beat the indigenous outfit 12-8 (squaring up the series 3-3 between the two teams) likely cemented the concept's future for at least another few years.
"One of the attractions for me is playing another indigenous people. We have got a strong relationship. We have had a few games against the Arthur Beetson foundation, the Murri from Queensland. We have formed relationships and it brings that x-factor to the games," said New Zealand Māori Rugby League Chairman, John Devonshire.
Thumbnail image by paddynapper, via Wikimedia Commons
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