Another entertaining and high quality match between the Indigenous All Stars and the NRL All Stars is done. The indigenous side won a spirited battle 20-6. And while fans got to see some of the best players in the world fighting it out for four twenty minute quarters the spectre of racism still looms over the concept.
While many believe the All Stars concept is new, it has its origins in a time when racism was much more prevalent.
The first recognised rugby league match between teams selected according to race was in 1963. A team of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders played against a team of white Australians at Barcauldine. Unashamedly known as ‘Blacks versus Whites’ games, the matches were played annually until 1984.
Since that first game Aboriginal sides have been competing against other racially selected teams. In 1973 a team of Aboriginal players was assembled for a match against Auckland club Te Atatu. Selecting only aboriginal players, the side competed in the Pacific Cup in 1990, 1992, and 1994.
After the close of the 1999 NRL regular season rugby league great Arthur Beetson assembled a side to play (and beat) the imposing Papua New Guinea Kumuls. Beetson went on to push for an Australia Day game against an Australian national team.
It took until 2008 for his dreams to be realised. As part of the official opening to the World Cup, on 26 October, a ‘Dreamtime Team’ was assembled to play a commemorative match against a New Zealand Maori side. The match was dubbed the ‘Welcome to the Country Match’.
In 2010 indigenous NRL player Preston Campbell sought to bring the concept back to life. Two sides were selected according to whether or not players were indigenous to the country in which they lived. The game was played prior to the regular NRL season.
Opinion is divided as to All Stars concept; its aims and relevancy.
Players are made available to respective sides according to each individual’s heritage. Whether or not a player is indigenous to their homeland seems to be a matter of conjecture. Backers say the concept improves the self-esteem and prospects of marginalised indigenous communities through a Reconciliation Action Plan.
The plan states, “Funds raised from the Harvey Norman All Stars match have provided over $7 million in funding to the 16 NRL Clubs for the purpose of delivering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific programs at the grassroots level.”
It further seeks to, ” reconnect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players with their heritage and cultural history,”
Opponents believe the concept creates another division in the national community, with ‘heritage’ taking the place of ‘race’.
There is no currently is no word for discriminating against a person according to their heritage. At last night’s game members of the audience waved countless aboriginal flags, though not one Australian (or non-indigenous) flag was to be seen.
Non-indigenous rugby league fans seem to largely ignore the game. Most are content to follow their favourite players (regardless of their heritage, race, or country of origin) during the regular season.
For many Australians the All Stars concept seems to drive a knife into attempts at reconciliation. Selecting teams according to a player’s heritage brings to the national consciousness the division between indigenous and non-indigenous elements of the Australian community. It encourages a separation (one of heritage rather than race) the indigenous community claim they are attempting to eradicate.