Key figures … Johnathan Thurston with ARL commissioner Chris Sarra at Suncorp Stadium.GREG Inglis shrugs his shoulders and wonders how it could have taken this long. There are camps for just about everything in his sport: clubs pitch their tents for pre-season camps everywhere from army barracks to remote bushland to beachside resorts. The refs have camps, the rookies have camps, yet until now there has been no indigenous camp, aside from the build-up to the All Stars contest.
Surely one of the most important camps through rugby league’s long and proud history of camping out, will take place next month. Without a heap of hoopla, but with much hope.
On February 1, every indigenous player contracted to an NRL club (46 in total), along with selected younger players, will assemble in the Glass House Mountains for the inaugural indigenous camp.
”We’ve never really had a strong voice up until now,” Inglis said. ”But indigenous players within rugby league have a unique opportunity to showcase not only their ability on the field, but their ability off the field.”
Inglis, the South Sydney, Queensland and Australia star, has led the push for the camp, along with other indigenous leaders Nathan Merritt, Sam Thaiday, Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen. He is not expecting it to be a one-off.
”The thing that we’re trying to achieve is to make this a first stepping stone to bigger and better things,” Inglis said. ”Next year, we might want to go to Darwin, or the back of Bourke, or the Blue Mountains. It’s about showcasing the ability of our culture, where we come from. This is what we do; music, laughter, family. This is what we’re all about.”
But it is not a holiday. There will be a strict no-alcohol policy during the three-day camp, which will include presentations from Tom Calma, the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission, comedian Sean Choolburra, as well as street rappers and storytellers. There will be workshops on spear making and throwing, and boomerang painting.
Bowen, from Hope Vale on the Cape York Peninsula, will welcome the players in his language. The idea for the camp was raised when Inglis, Thurston, Thaiday and Justin Hodges met last year. Yet it has grown quickly. It will take place in conjunction with the NRL, and will be the first major project of the administration’s new player welfare and education programs manager, former first-grader Dean Widders.
”We’ve got some great leaders amongst the boys that some of these young guys need to learn off, about the way they hold themselves off the field, and the way they approach their training, and how professional they are with their approach to everything,” Widders said.
Another of those leaders is Chris Sarra, the educator and ARL commissioner, who believes the camp is as significant as the All Stars concept.
”We want these young guys to be … if you’re feeling great in your own skin, you’ll be feeling great on the field,” Sarra said. ”It bothers me to watch young guys who are not feeling as strong about their identity. That has the potential to mess with your head a bit. We want these young guys to understand that just being Aboriginal is an exceptional thing. What we want them to do is understand the truth and power and wisdom of being Aboriginal, as opposed to it being a negative stereotype. We’ve got to get them to identify with the positive aspects of being Aboriginal, not being weighed down by the complexities of negative stereotypes with being Aboriginal.
”As a result, they’ll feel more comfortable in their own skin, and they’ll be more exceptional on the field.”
That is some prospect. While indigenous players accounted for 12 per cent of NRL players last year, they also represented 35 per cent of Australian teams in the same year, and 21 per cent of the State of Origin squads.
But that will not be emphasised by the players taking part; whether a seasoned star or a rookie, Inglis said every player will be equal, bonded by the link in their background.
”We’re not just there to say, ‘I’ve been in the game for so many years now, I’m a leader, etc etc,’ ” Inglis said. ”It’s the way you conduct yourself off the field that makes you one of them [a leader]. Always there, wanting to put your hand up and help a young player.
”We want to knock down some walls, we want to take it to the next level; we want to keep going higher and higher, take it further and further. We want to tell our stories. And the way we tell our stories is through dance, music – really show that the boys are really proud of, and comfortable with, who they are, and where they come from, and make sure that they know that we’re always around here to help.”
But this is not simply about educating indigenous players.
”While the All Stars has been fantastic for what it’s done for the game and our people, now it’s time that we start giving the boys some artillery … about knowing a bit more about your culture, knowing the stories,” Widders said.
”So they’re not just out there being a leader on the field – they can walk off and talk about these cultural things because they know a bit about the indigenous history, and they know a bit about the struggles. They understand that a bit more, and they can have a voice about how it needs to change.
”We don’t just want black fellas to be proud of the Aboriginal culture – we want everyone in Australia to be proud of our culture. I think the whole country is looking to learn a bit more about the Aboriginal culture. But we’ve got to learn it ourselves. That’s why we’re taking these steps.
”Until we become a strong unit, we can’t address anything, because we’re scattered all over the place and going in different directions … Footballers are looked upon as leaders in our communities, and held in high regard. If we can give the boys a little bit of information, they can take it anywhere they want.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.