ALL STARS: Indigenous v. Maori (AAMI Park, 15/2/19)
The first year of the Indigenous v Maori All Stars concept brought a new intensity and visceral focus to the annual fixture, resulting in a series of spectacular performances from both sides that bode well for the 2019 season. Latrell Mitchell and Josh Ado-Carr, in particular, suggested that they are going to outperform even their stellar 2018 seasons, while at the other end of the spectrum the game provided younger players like Josh Kerr with an exciting taste of the NRL stage.
The Maori side were the first to score, with Dane Gagai crashing over on their right edge two minutes in off the back of a beautiful pass from Dean Whare. He was almost stopped in his tracks by Mitchell, who put in one of the best trysaving tackles of the first half, but managed to bend his leg to ensure that he remained just within the field of play as the Sydney centre tried to bundle him into touch. Using the same leg to boot through a difficult sideline conversion moments after, Gagai established himself as one of the key Maori playmakers in these opening minutes of the game.
The next part of the night belonged to the Indigenous side, however, starting with a lost ball from James Tamou following some big pressure from Andrew Fifita right on the Maori line. While Blake Ferguson might have lost the ball shortly into the following scrum, and Alex Johnston fumbled the high ball a couple of sets later, Josh Ado-Carr proved to be a force of consolidation with a blinding run down the short side of the field later in the set, foreshadowing the massive game he would enjoy over the next sixty minutes or so.
Towards the end of the same set, the Fox initially looked to be on the verge of his first tryscoring opportunity, as a series of passes found him with the footy on the left edge of the field. These passes captured the energy of the Indigenous side over the course of the match, and were a combination of offloads and on-the-ground efforts that saw the ball rise higher and higher on its way to the Fox. By the time they reached him, though, the Maori side had tightened their defence, while Jordan Kahukuranui managed to pop the ball into touch on the right edge before Ado-Carr could clean up a last-tackle grubber.
Still, the Indigenous players got their chance at the end of the next dropout, when they repeated their ball play out to the left side. This time, the critical move came from Tyrone Roberts, who double pumped before sending out the widest pass of the night so far – a pass so wide and high that it actually bounced on the ground before being scooped up by Ado-Carr, as if gathering and intensifying all the height and speed of the passes that had almost sent him over midway through the previous set.
No surprise, then, that the Fox put down the first Indigenous points of the night without a hitch, although it was more striking when he scored in almost the same circumstances a set later. Once again, the ball moved to the left, starting with a quick pass out of dummy half from Nathan Peats, followed by some deft timing from Cody Walker, who brought it into the line and paused just long enough to open up some space for Roberts, who was therefore able to send across a comparatively simpler pass this time around.
The different ingredient, this time, was a terrific one-on-one contest between Mitchell and Gagai, as the Rooster collected the football and waited just long enough for the Rabbitoh to come in, before shifting it across to Ado-Carr to clock up his second try of the evening so far. The simplicity of the play was what made it so striking, as Mitchell simply waited for his adversary to come in for the tackle, confident that he would be able to flip the footy across during the minute window he had to make the pass.
One of the longest periods in the game without points now ensued, although both teams came pretty close to scoring at various moments. Spurred on by the Indigenous double, the Maori side started to get the leading edge, as evinced in two successive efforts by Danny Levi to crash over in a single set thirteen minutes out from the siren – the second only just held up by a massive tackle, and a possible professional foul, by Craig Garvey. Tamou was also particularly brainstorming during this period, exhausting the Indigenous side with each big run, culminating with a massive effort beneath the uprights midway through the set following Levi’s double effort.
Everything now aligned for the Maori side, who now scored again in the most rousing way – with another gymnastic try from Gagai in the corner, off another silky try assist from Whare. Ado-Carr’s double was now bookended by a Gagai double – a situation encapsulated in the slow motion footage of the Rabbitoh backliner’s superb putdown, where an age seemed to pass after he’d grounded the footy before the Fox launched into the frame to try and slam his fellow no. 5 into touch.
Roberts signaled the Indigenous response with a spiraling bomb shortly after, but with Peta Hiku cleaning it up pretty seamlessly it was clear that the Indigenous side needed to make a special effort to reclaim control of the game. Fifita now took a well-timed risk, sending across a one-handed offload during a tackle from Brad Takairangi and Tohu Harris that saw Jesse Ramien break into open space. Running the middle third of the field, Ramien hesitated and dummied for the briefest of moments, before booting it forward for one of his team mates to gather and ground.
Bevan French was the finisher, and deserves full credit for a pretty difficult pickup, since the footy was bouncing irregularly, right on the ground, forcing him to fold it awkwardly into his lower chest with both hands before properly securing it. The Indigenous side were now firing on all cylinders, riding a wave of energy that crystallised with Fergo’s putdown just before half time – and his subsequent celebration. Running towards the try line and doing a backflip in the air, his reaction said something about the sheer exuberance of wearing the Indigenous jersey, especially in the first All Stars fixture to be exclusively populated by players with an indigenous heritage.
Nevertheless, this must have been a heart-in-mouth moment for Brad Arthur and Parramatta supporters, especially since Fergo’s gangly frame meant that he didn’t quite make the spin before hitting the ground, landing at an awkward angle that could easily have seen him injure his leg or arm if he’d come to ground a fraction sooner. For a player who had been hospitalized with a foot infection and suffered a broken fibula in the last couple of months, it was both a resounding return from injury and a terrifying risk, injecting just the slightest atmosphere of precarity into the Indigenous side, who had to rally themselves again as the second half opened, despite being double the Maori side at 20-10.
Still, Fergo steadied the ship at the start of the second half, with a big take under the high ball and then a big run halfway down the field. Moments later, a kick to the corner from Cody Walker saw David Fifita contribute the kick chase of the night, locking his eyes on the ball and getting just ahead of Hiku to place it to ground before tumbling into touch. A rake-on-rake tackle saw Peats force an error from Smith shortly after, but the Indigenous momentum was quelled after some reckless kicking from Andrew Fifita caught Smith square in the face on the next set.
The Maori side made the most of their field position for what would be their final try of the evening, as Ponga reversed the momentum with a dropout at the end of the next set, and then sent through a superb cut-out-pass for Esan Marsters to twist and spin across on their left corner a couple of tackles later. It was a visceral moment, and yet the team could’t quite build on it over the next ten minutes, which saw them notch up one near-miss after another as the third quarter started to count down.
First, it was Kenny Bromwich breaking through the line ten metres out from the chalk, only to find nobody waiting to collect the footy from him. Then it was Danny Levi coming up short once again, albeit managing to force an offside penalty from the Indigenous team in the process. Finally, it was Joseph Tapine with the nearest no-try of the night, stretching out a hand over the line, beneath the posts, only for the ref to call that he hadn’t quite manage to ground the football on the line by the time that the Indigenous side had held him up.
A tackle later, Ponga almost broke through le, but the Maori side had used up all their chances, with Ferguson now shifting the momentum in the most spectacular way before the set could finish. Intercepting another cut-out pass – and another attempted try assist – from Ponga, Fergo gathered the footy under his arm and ran the length of the park, before being bundled into touch ten metres out from the Maori line. It might not have produced points, but coming just before the end of the third quarter, it was an emphatic way for the Indigenous side to take a break, and the second twenty minutes in the match that Fergo had signed off on.
The last quarter was all Indigenous, starting with a try from captain Cody Walker, on the back of a deft offload from Andrew Fifita, followed by a signature sequence from James Roberts, who shrugged off a low tackle from Ponga and barely registered an attempted tackle from Marsters to showcase his trailblazing speed at its very best, before popping the footy across to Walker about twenty metres out from the line. Mitchell didn’t make the conversion – he’d had a bit of an uneven night with the boot – but this was still the pinnacle of the game for the Indigenous side, and a rousing victory lap for their captain.
After a spectacular try from the captain and veteran, it was poetic to see the last four points go to one of the youngest members of the Indigenous side, with Josh Kerr scoring off the back of a scrum feed eight minutes out from the end of the match. As with Fifita’s try, the kick chase was where the next generation showed their courage and conviction, with Josh Kerr now chasing down a Tyrone Peachey grubber for the final four points of the Indigenous-Maori fixture before having even played a regular NRL match.
Neither team would score again, but the sense of competition – and celebration – continued down to the final minute. The All Stars match is always one of the most memorable fixtures of the NRL calendar, and the transformation of it into an Indigenous-Maori event has made it even better. Here’s hoping that all of these players will manage to put in this kind of form of the 2018 season – Nathan Peats had a great night too, although I haven’t mentioned him much – and that the game continues to flourish as a testament to the galvanising power of indigenous pride.
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