INDIGENOUS ALL-STARS v. MAORI ALL-STARS (Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 20/2/21)

The  Maori came away with a 36-10 win on the Gold Coast for the 2020 All Stars clash, but this year it was a 10-10 deadlock in Townsville, with Alex Johnston getting his first ever All Stars try. At first the Storm were the best represented team, but all seven players were ruled out when Melbourne went into lockdown – Josh Ado-Carr for the Indigenous side, and Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Reimis and Brandon Smith, Jahrome Hughes and Nelson Asofa-Solomona for the Maori. 

Cody Walker was skippering the Indigenous players after his shoulder injury prevented him partaking in the 2020 clash, while Latrell Mitchell was finally back on the park after his injury against the Eels in Round 16 last year, channeling Greg Inglis as he led the war cry in the pre-match ceremonies. Jamal Fogarty was at halfback in place of Jack Wighton, who headed out to the centres, and Wade Graham was out altogether, since a perforated eardrum meant he couldn’t take the plane up to North Queensland.

On the other side of the Steeden, Dallin Watene Zelezniak and Joe Tapine were sharing captaincy, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was in the fullback jersey with Kalyn Ponga still recovering from the shoulder injury that prevented him donning a Queensland jersey in last year’s post-finals Origin season. Benji Marshall was in the Maori side for the first time after 31 New Zealand tests, and playing for the first time alongside brother Jeremy Marshall-King, who was coming off the bench.

If the Storm hadn’t been locked down, Jarome Luai would have been playing alongside grand final nemesis Jahrome Hughes in the halves, while Joey Manu’s appearance was also contoured by grand finals appearances, since the World Club Challenge had ruled him out in 2019 and 2020, making this his debut match. Despite their differences, though, both sides were raring to go, and galvanised by the special energy of this particular match, as the humidity sat sticky and greasy over the new Townsville venue.

The All Stars encounter always has this energy, but it was exacerbated this year by all the new rules that have been introduced into the game over the off-season, many of which were trialed in their first appearance here. Despite the fact that this was a low-scoring affair, then, with long gaps between points (the first try didn’t come until fifty minutes in) it exuded all the speed, pace and intensity of a much higher-scoring match, accelerating so fast that you almost needed the four-quarter structure to keep up.

James Fisher-Harris took the first hit-up, and Russell Packer followed suit, while Latrell Mitchell took his first run since tearing his hamstring when the Indigenous side got the ball, only for Jack Wighton to put down his pass, and give the Maori outfit an early burst of field position. Packer and Briton Nikora took a couple of big runs in front of the posts, before the New Zealanders settled into a rapid left sweep that ended with Dylan Walker flicking the footy out to Patrick Herbert, who crossed over on the wing.

The pass was called forward, as the Indigenous All-Stars now got stuck in for their first completed set of the game. Still, the Maori got their next big chance in the Indigenous half soon after, when Tyrell Fuimaono was pinged for a hand in the ruck, producing the first of many restarts over the course of this match. Indigenous needed a big defensive effort to reassert themselves – and Blake Ferguson provided it by spearheading a massive pack effort to drag Walker over the sideline midway through the tackle count.

Reuben Cotter had a huge carry on the next set, but Cody Walker’s last-tackle kick found touch before Alex Johnston could get there, gifting the Maori side a quick tap instead of a scrum – one of the new rules of 2021. Adding to the scintillating pace of the game, both teams now had a rapid series of interchanges at the ten minute mark, while the Maori continued to build their momentum when Fergo lost the next high ball, setting up the green and white for yet another short-range assault at the line.

They got a restart off a Cody Walker error, and clamoured for a penalty when Jamal Fogarty seemed to come in for an early tackle as Jordan Riki was shaping to collect a Benji Marshall ball, but the Indigenous side were pinged for a knock-on anyway, as the Maoris settled into the most sustained attacking position so far. Once again they swept left, and stayed in that part of the field, where Jarome Luai aimed for a bullet ball to the wing, only to send it over the sideline instead, as another Herbert try went begging.

This was the second time that the Maori had failed to capitalise on that left edge play, so the momentum seemed to shift when the Indigenous side took control of the footy again, especially since they got a restart off a ruck error from Riki. Herbert now had some joy after his two missed tries, however, slamming in to rattle the footy free from Walker, who responded in turn with a grapple on Dallin Watene Zelenak one tackle out of the subsequent scrum, prompting some fighting words in the middle of the park. 

Benji came up with the best last-tackle option a minute later, grubbering it off the side of his boot to trap Johnston in goal, before calling for a sin bin when Wighton obstructed Charnze Nicoll-Kolkstad’s kick chase. It was only a penalty, but the Maori still tightened the screws, pummeling the Indigenous line with one short-range charge after another, until it seemed as if they had to score. They got a restart late in the count, and shifted left again, as the Indigenous men had their biggest challenge yet.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Fergo now led his second pack effort to drag Riki over the sideline, making this three times that the Maori had failed to capitalise on this part of the field. The Indigenous men were clearly tired, and had spent most of this quarter defending their line, but the game had shifted even further in their direction, since with so much time in the opposition ten, the Maori really should have scored.

Luai came up with his best run on the next set, darting up the ruck, and Joe Tapine followed with a silky offload to Issac Luke right in front of the posts, clearing up space for Luai to showcase his footwork for the second successive tackle. For a moment, the Maori side seemed to be shifting up a gear, aiming for even more dexterous and elastic plays, rather than just relying on field position and short-run attacks at the line, so the Indigenous men got another boost of confidence when Luke knocked on a tackle later.

Latrell was raring to bust through on the left edge, with one minute on the clock, and Fogarty ended the set with the highest and toughest Indigenous bomb of the game so far, copping a late tackle from DWZ for his troubles. Incredibly, after virtually no field position, the Indigenous All-Stars headed into the first break two ahead, after Fogarty booted through the penalty kick from right in front. Both teams now huddled to rouse themselves for a second quarter that promised to be every bit as volatile as the first.

Once again Fish took the first hit-up, and once again Latrell took the first Indigenous hit-up, but this time there was a better balance between Indigenous and Maori field position from the outset. Andrew Fifita played a big role in resetting the rhythm, kicking a Fogarty bomb forward after several players from both sides had a go at it. Corey Thompson then booted it a third time, driving it deep enough in goal that DWZ was unable to bring it back over the line in time to avoid the first dropout of the game.

Now it was the Maori’s turn to defend an onslaught on their line, as Latrell threw the widest bullet ball of the game out to Fergo, who still couldn’t get on the outside of CNK, although the replay showed that Trell had knocked on before passing anyway. A  Indigenous try celebration went begging, as the Maori got their first real field position of the second quarter when David Fifita was penalised for not being square at marker.

The New Zealanders continued right where they left off, sliding their way up the middle of the park, and while Latrell cleaned up the kick on the last, they got a second burst of field position when Cade Cust was pinged for an illegal strip a minute later. Benji booted it over the sideline, and brother JMK set up Emry Pere for the following tackle, while Zane Musgrave channeled the short-range runs of the first quarter, only for Cust to get some joy by joining Walker to force Zane to cough up the footy in the process.

By this point the Indigenous players had 0 tackles in the opposition twenty (the Maori had 23) and only 33% of possession, so it was quite extraordinary that they were still two ahead. Fergo became the next casualty of the new rules, fumbling the play-the-ball for a Maori handover, but the Indigenous men rallied and regathered almost immediately, as Wighton surged in on Joey Manu to rattle the footy loose, forcing CNK to storm in for a last-ditch effort that Walker and Thompson cleaned up just as quickly.

Andrew Fifita was immense at the start of the next set, getting his men a restart off a Nikora ruck error, and Latrell found space up the left edge, but flicked it too hard to Johnston, sending the footy ricocheting off his winger’s chest. Zac Saddler took out his team’s frustration with a high shot on JMK, and the Maori got their sixth penalty (the Indigenous men only had one), opting for a rare right-side play to DWZ, who brought the football back into the middle of the field before Luai headed left on the last again.

Once more, though, the Maori couldn’t score off this left sweep, although this time Benji’s wide ball to Walker, and Walker’s flick pass back to Luai, set up Marsters for the first Maori dropout of the night, thanks to a deft grubber off the Cowboy’s boot that Fergo was forced to bump into touch at the last minute. This was crunch time for the New Zealand side, the moment when they had to score or else concede the momentum back to the Indigenous players – and for a second they looked good to go.

The key ingredient was Benji’s kick on the fourth – a superb chip to the right that seemed destined to find DWZ. Instead, Johnston leapeda metre and a half in the air to collect it on the full. No Maori sequence had been defused quite so clinically, and Musgrove took out his frustration with an shoulder charge on Fuimaono a tackle later, making his way to the bin for finding contact with the St. George second-rower’s head.

This was just the break that the Indigenous side needed, since they’d already been playing as if they were one man down, at least in terms of field position and possession. No surprise that their next set was one of their most assured, even if Walker followed Johnston by leaping up to collect the other Walker’s kick. Amazingly, they retained their two-point lead heading into the main break, putting serious pressure on the Maori men to show they could build on field position when they returned to the park.

Fergo took the first run back, and the Indigenous men got six more a tackle later, along with their first play-the-ball within the Maori twenty off a barnstorming run from David Fifita on the penultimate play. This in itself was a significant show of strength given the Indigenous men were still sitting at only 37% of possession – and Fuimaono consolidated further with a late offload to Cotter midway through the next set.

Fergo found space up the right edge, and booted at speed, but nobody was in place to collect his kick, meaning CNK had more than enough time to bring the footy back over the chalk. Still, Indigenous were making better inroads into Maori territory than in the first two quarters, and got their next dropout a minute later, when Dylan Walker was forced to bump an Johnston grubber into touch. Full credit to Cody Walker too, for the superb run and second phase play that got Johnston in position to begin with.

The Indigenous side got six again early in the tackle count, and were in prime position to take control of the game if they could make it an eight point lead here. Saddler took a shot at the line beside the posts, but Fogarty kicked too early, although they got another chance (or seemed to) when Marsters juggled the footy a tackle later. We now had another glimpse into the revised rules for 2021 – or would have if the Challenge was inconclusive, since this time around the replay supported the Maori players.

In one of the deftest moments in the match, Marsters had managed to regathered the footy without knocking on into Ramien, whose contact had forced it loose in the first place, in yet another potential consolidation moment for the Maori. For the first time in the game, they made the most of it, finally scoring the first try of this All Stars clash after Fergo sent the next high ball across the sideline while trying to outleap Herbert.

After so many left edge plays, it all came down to a tough run from Riki, who collected a short ball from Benji, twisted through a low tackle from Fogarty, and bounced off Johnston before planting it down beneath a sea of Indigenous jerseys. Herbert added the extras with no trouble, Riki made a Maori hand gesture for the audience, and the host team were ahead for the first time of the game – although only four points ahead.

Maori conceded a penalty at the end of their restart, as DWZ got put on report for one of the oddest high tackles in some time, grazing Johnston on the head as he tumbled over him on the ground. DWZ got some joy pretty quickly, though, as Many intercepted a Fogarty pass and ran up the middle of the park, clearing most of the field before popping it over to Dallin to score. Only Latrell came close to catching him, but even then Manu was a good ten metres ahead of him, and was always going to assist here.

This was as much a stealth play as an intercept – or at least less opportunistic than most intercepts, since Manu seemed to be watching and waiting for Fogarty’s pass, to the point where the pass almost seemed intended for him in the first place. Yet these would be the last points that the Maori side put on the board, as Herbert sailed the Steeden away to the left of the posts, and the Indigenous men got stuck in for an eight point comeback.

For the moment, however, the green and white were on a roll, as Luai stuck a boot on the sideline to get his men yet another penalty, while Walker and Marsters crowded him on each side to confirm that this had indeed been an incorrect restart. With so much momentum now behind them, there was a real risk that they might score three in a row, but they lost a bit of energy when Tapine struggled to play the ball, while the Indigenous men got a big let-off when Manu tapped Benji’s kick over the dead ball line.

Benji’s kick had been strong, so if Manu had got both hands to the footy this might well have been another tryscoring situation, but as it was David Fifita now had another rhythm-changing play, holding up four big men to clear up space for Walker, whose kick trapped Herbert behind the line. Once again, Latrell and Luai came together for some salty banter, as the Indigenous men started to flex their muscles, and regain their confidence, starting with an enormous opening carry from Josh Kerr.

Andrew Fifita couldn’t offload on the second tackle, and Cotter was grounded by Fish on the third, while Thompson was forced to clean up a wayward pass on the fifth, before Peachey was sent to the sin bin, forty seconds out from the third break, for pushing CNK to ground. Somehow, the Indigenous All Stars had wilted in the wake of their dropout, as all the exhaustion of an hour of defence took its toll in the first fracas with a real edge of aggression – between Brian Kelly and Issac Luke on the sideline.

Johnston found space down the same sideline as soon as the fourth quarter got going, receiving the footy from Latrell and kicking at the thirty, and while Walker was hit with an accidental offside a moment later, this turned out to be the key moment for the Indigenous men. Herbert lost the ball on the next Maori set, and the hosts ploughed up the middle out of the scrum, before Walker set up Latrell to kick on the third, and Johnston timed the bounce perfectly to slam down a long-awaited in the left corner.

It was a great linkup between the Bunnies’ backline, and a tantalising prelude to the Charity Shield in two weeks, narrowing the deficit to two points once Latrell added the extras from the sideline, in the best conversion of the night. They looked set to do just as well, or nearly as well on the restart, but lost their rhythm when Wighton booted the ball over the sideline on the last – part and parcel of the frustrated momentum of this game for both sides.

Meanwhile, Packer got the Maori side rolling again with some of the best post-contact metres of the match, and Fish set up Musgrove to follow in big Russell’s wake with a driving run to the right side of the posts. Kelly nearly came up with an interept to rival Manu’s sublime effort in the third, but instead he knocked down Benji’s ball, gifting the Maori a scrum at the ten. They shifted left immediately, where Ramien wrapped up Walker with panache, and then headed inside for some hard runs from the big men.

After some swimming around on the left edge Luke tried to go it alone, but the Indigenous side had regathered by this point, and had now spent seventy minutes defending their line – enough to develop a pretty good sense of this particular Maori outfit’s attacking rhythms. Indigenous got a few more chances over the last eighth of the match, but only levelled the score in the final minute, when Latrell followed Fogarty by booting through a penalty kick on the back of an early tackle from Fisher-Harris.

While both sides shone, Latrell was the stand-out player of the game – not always the best on the park, but the most visible and emphatic, either scoring or having a hand in nearly every Indigenous point, and returning to the footy field with gusto after such a disappointing end to the Rabbitohs’ finals hopes in 2020. The Charity Shield will be a natural sequel to this particular All Stars clash then – and if Latrell can continue in this vein, the Bunnies may well be in for a premiership season over the next nine months.

About Billy Stevenson (557 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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