It had been raining heavily all day when the Indigenous All Stars took on their Maori counterparts at CommBank Stadium on Saturday night, and the torrent just intensified over the course of the match, ebbing and flowing in tandem with the peaks and troughs of this uniquely passionate game in the NRL season. Seven Sharks were on the park, including Nicho Hynes, while Jordan Rapana would encapsulate the volatility of the evening with two shoulder charges in the first quarter, a falcon in the second, and some superb saves in the back half.
In another universe, Latrell Mitchell would have been free to play on the Indigenous side, and the Roosters would have permitted Joey Manu to add his name to the Maori squad. Even with that dramatic clash ruled out, however, it was great to see Latrell’s older brother Shaquai take the park, while the game had enough intensity without a reprisal of that infamous Roosters-Rabbitohs showdown, eventually crystallising around a sublime Preston Campbell Medal for Joe Tapine, who racked up a terrific try and assist for the Maori men.
Chanel Harris-Tevita took the kickoff behind the line, James Fisher-Harris had the first carry, and a pack of Indigenous players combined to keep Tapine behind the line on tackle two. Rapana only just made it over the thirty by play four, and Kodi Nikorima had to kick from the same spot, while Hynes booted it just over halfway, sending it sliding across the sideline to give his team some early breathing-space. Nikorima got twenty metres early in the next count, and this time the Maori broke the opposition half.
Rapana mirrored Nikorima’s run down the other end of the field, and Chanel booted it just inside the thirty, although the Maori didn’t put any real pressure on Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow when he took it on the full, deep in the left corner. Even so, the Indigenous side found it hard to garner position now, as a driving Maori defence forced Braydon Trindall to kick at his own thirty. Conversely, a quick play-the-ball got Morgan Harper over the halfway line, before Nikorima hoisted it high to the right corner.
The Maori summoned a better kick this time around, but Ado-Carr was still able to take it on the full, as the rain started to really plummet down, forcing the first error from Andrew Fifita, who put down a Reuben Cotter ball ten out from his own line. The visitors had the first scrum of the night, and lost fifteen metres off the opening play, albeit recouping it with a strong Nikorima run and Briton Nikora offload a tackle later. It was agonising, then, when the rain got the better of Erin Clark, who let the Steeden slip onto the ground on the third.
Now it was the Indigenous side’s turn to get a scrum, from the same part of the park – and Cotter’s turn to lose the sodden Steeden, thanks to a big hit from Patrick Herbert on tackle two. The Maori now consolidated by finishing their first full set in the Indigenous half, as Kevin Proctor made an immediate impact off the bench, almost breaking away from the defence midway through the count. Nikorima ended with a chip to the right, where Brent Naden couldn’t take it clean, forcing Hynes to reach out his right hand and tap it into touch.
The Maori now had the first dropout, 63% of possession and 13-0 tackles in the opposition half. They also had their first side-to-side sweeps, shifting it from left to right on play two, and then from right to left on play three. This elasticised their entire game, almost sending Kenny Bromwich across on the left corner, so it was a big letoff when Will Kennedy took Chanel’s final dab on the chest. Trindall capped it off with a good strike from inside his own forty to hit the Maori twenty, and Dylan Walker responded in kind with a barnstorming kick return.
Tuku Hau Tapuha took them over the halfway line midway through the count, and would have made it a long way past the forty as well if Albert Kelly hadn’t come in for the hardest contact of the night, lifting the Rooster clean off his feet to rob this set of its rhythm. David Fifita translated that aggro into attack midway through the next Indigenous set, receiving the footy at the end of a compressed right sweep at his thirty, and disposing of ankle taps from Herbert, Walker and Chanel by the time he broke into space halfway up the park.
From there it was clear sailing for the Gold Coast enforcer, who now proved why he’s the hardest man in the NRL to tackle, tempting Rapana to come in late for shoulder contact, by which stage he’d already popped it inside for Jesse Ramien to cruise up the middle and score untouched. The Indigenous side had put down the first try against the run of play, and remained four ahead when Hynes hung the conversion attempt out to the left of the posts. They’d finally found their flow, and exuded a new energy and exhilaration on the restart.
Meanwhile, the Maori had to recover their early advantage before the first quarter break. They got the first restart of the game on their next set, off a ruck error from Curran, and further position off a Will Smith error, gaining their first full stint within the opposition twenty, and almost delivering a Tapine try on tackle two. Driving deep into the line, the Canberra enforcer offloaded to Jazz Tevaga, only for the biggest Indigenous pack of the night to knock it back into his chest, giving him a second shot to get it down with the defence piling on.
This would have been an incredible hitback before the break, so it was equally amazing for the Indigenous side when the replay (supposedly) showed Smith somehow getting his hand beneath the Steeden at the last second. Even so, the Maori had another full set in the twenty, but the rhythm shifted in the wake of Smith’s save, as Rapana coughed it up on play one, Nikorima was pinged for holding down, and Walker intercepted a Kennedy catch-and-pass for what would have been a certain try if he hadn’t let the Steeden slip from his grasp.
Everything was Indigenous from here, as Shaq Mitchell took his first big run, Kenny Bromwich conceded a restart, and the hosts shifted it right on the very next tackle. Ramien looked set to cross over in the corner before Rapana shoved him into touch with his second shoulder charge in ten minutes, Rapana and Fifita were both sent to the bin for throwing the first punches in the melee that ensued, and Trindall booted through the sole penalty kick of the night to bring the Indigenous side to a converted try lead as the first quarter ended.
All the passion of the opening ceremonies had coalesced into pure footy drama here, upping the stakes even further as the players returned to the park. Walker took a driving run to refuel the Maori men, and Tapine did the same, bringing it over the thirty only for Fisher-Harris to drop the footy for a full Indigenous set in the opposition half, most of it in their red zone. Nikora slammed in to shut down Hynes late in the count, but Trindall’s grubber still did the job, forcing Walker to slide to ground on the chalk and bat it over the dead ball line.
Mitchell broke the thirty, Curran broke the twenty off a strong set-up from Ryan James, and James himself crossed the ten a play later, so it was frustrating when Trindall tanked the most methodical Indigenous set so far by striking it too hard on the last. With Hynes pinged for an illegal strip a play later, the Maori had their best position since the break, and got a fresh set when Curran infringed the ruck. They only need a single tackle to score, responding to that efficient Indigenous set with their most clinical sequence of passes so far.
Fish started ten metres out, in front of the crossbar, with a short ball to Tapine, who twisted through a low ankle from Hynes and offloaded out to Nikorima. Kodi looked flat-footed at first, but he summoned enough speed to shrug off Tabuai-Fidow and slam through Tyrell Fuimaono right on the line for the first Maori try beneath the posts. Herbert added the extras to level the game at 6-6, while Fish got some joy after succumbing to the slippery conditions earlier on, since the rain had intensified severalfold during this last bout of Maori possession.
They were raring for more points on the restart, right down to the rousing TC Robati run that brought them to the ten, but like Trindall before him, Nikorima booted the kick too hard, giving the Indigenous men seven tackles to start working their way back from this last try, as Fifita returned from the bin. Rapana followed a minute later, and was penalised immediately for being offside downtown, although he returned the favour spectacularly at the end of the next set, when he pulled back from the high ball at the last minute to falcon it into Fifita.
The Maori didn’t waste any time capitalising off this penalty, sinking into their silkiest sweep four tackles into the next set. Kenny Bromwich was the key ingredient, driving the footy deep into the defence, and showing Fifita how to pull off a late offload as he reached out an arm and sent it round the corner for Herbert to assist Esan Marsters for an untouched try on the wing. Herbert missed the extras, but the visitors had taken the lead for the first time, and made good on their opening surge, when they headed to the sheds for half time.
Fifita got the Indigenous men rolling with two big carries on the first set back from the break, and the hosts glimpsed a try when Rapana pulled back from the high ball, unwilling to risk the bounce, which was freaky enough for Naden to come up with and offload back in field. Marsters ended up containing it, but this was still a precarious moment for both sides, although both were also bostered by a string of interchanges to start this second forty – four for the Maori, five for the Indigenous representatives.
The rain now seemed to be intensifying in response to the game, bucketing down as Cobbo came up with a great take on Reimis Smith beneath the next high ball, only for Brent Naden to follow up with a dangerous tackle, in the same way that Rapana had ruined Herbert’s terrific contact on Ramien. Accordingly, it produced another mini-fracas, although by this stage both sides were too focused on scoring the next try to unleash too much aggro here, especially since the slippery conditions were making ball handling harder than ever.
The Maori now sunk into a mini-slump, starting on the last tackle of the next set, when Harris-Tevita shot the Steeden too wide. Even then, Tapine toed it, and almost scooped it up into his chest, but couldn’t bring it all together, while Clark tried to restore the rhythm with a huge hit on Selwyn Cobbo, who nevertheless beat the tackle and garnered a penalty from Tapine for not being square at marker. The game intensified again when Kennedy missed Ramien’s next offload, and a waterfall of players cascaded onto the footy as it slid downfield.
For a brief moment, it looked like there was only a single knock-on, from Tevaga, but the Maori got a successful challenge here, as the replay showed that both Tevaga and Harris-Tevita had tumbled over the footy without ever making direct contact. The visitors needed to use this set to reset the game, and the Indigenous men knew it, as Smith and Fuimaono surged in to dump Proctor on his back on tackle two, and Smith followed up with a massive hit on Nikora, even though he couldn’t contain an offload round the corner to Clark.
Yet Clark couldn’t handle the slippery Steeden either, while Cobbo got the better of him a second time by coming up with it for a fresh Indigenous set. This ushered in the most precarious moment in the game, as both sides searched for the breakout play needed to crack the four-point difference. With a Proctor penalty and a Kenny Bromwich ruck error bumping him up the park, Hynes put ball to boot midway through the count, just outside the ten, shaping for a kick along the turf but chipping it over the defence at the last minute.
It was the right play, forcing Clark to pop it dead with Naden on his back, and while Rapana went long with the kick, it didn’t take James long to recoup the position from halfway, while Kennedy made twenty on the left edge off a Hynes offload. Herbert slammed into shut him down, and yet Curran reprised the same rhythm on the right, despite some hard contact from Kenny Bromwich, before this escalating energy culminated with a dummy-and-run from Curran, who lost the footy in his enthusiasm.
Rapana was pumped by the turnaround, barking out orders to his men as Proctor took the first carry, only for Fish to make his second handling error of the evening with a messy offload that Clark was never going to collect clean. After such volatile shifts in possession, and with a roughly equal completion rate of 77% to the Indigenous and 73% to the Maori, the hosts really needed to consolidate with their next scrum at the twenty. Instead, Fifita and Taunoa-Brown could barely make a dent in the line, and didn’t even glimpse a second phase option.
At this very moment the rain reached peak velocity, turning it into a slog for the ages, as all the Indigenous hopes came down to a Hynes chip to the left, where Curran was knocked out before anyone quite knew what had happened. Resorting to the replay footage, the refs determined that Rapana’s contact was incidental, directed at the footy rather than the man, even if it had the same damaging brunt as a front-on collision. In the wake of his two shoulder charges in the first quarter, it was rousing to see Rapana get the hard contact correct here.
No surprise, then, that it ushered in the next period of Maori dominance, starting with a barnstorming run from Fish to begin the next set, before Rapana himself glimpsed space on play two. While his flick pass ricocheted off Smith, the visitors did well to keep the Indigenous boys bunched in their own end on the following set, until Trindall was forced to content himself with a chip from the twenty three tackles in. With each fresh change in possession, the game was wiring up to a new level of passion and intensity.
Many of these tipping-points had occurred around replays that showed how freakily both sides were eluding knock-ons in the sodden conditions. The next came from the Indigenous side, who successfully proved that Kennedy hadn’t knocked on while contesting the footy with Tevaga on the ground, in a slow-motion masterclass of ball handling that showed every nuance with which the Cronulla fullback slid his arm as close as possible to the Steeden while avoiding any deliberate deflection.
Despite this let-off, Tevaga came up with the ball, ushering in a long period of Maori consolidation, starting with a strong save from Walker, who scooped up an overlong pass on the left edge. Things moved quickly from here, as Ramien was sent to the bin for a professional foul, and Tapine scored on the very first stint against twelve men. It came unexpectedly, at the end of an aborted right sweep, when Fisher-Harris chose to straighten up despite numbers on the wing, forcing play back to the left post, where Tapine took control.
At first, this looked like a mere steadying tackle, as Tapine decelerated, sized up the opposition, and decided to just rip in, dissolving the defence so smoothly that he seemed to simply walk through them. All he had to do was bump off Fifita and skittle through Kelly and Taunoa-Brown, but it looked like they’d voluntarily pulled back from the play, so clean was Tapine’s passage, which made him an immediate contender for the Preston Campbell Medal, especially in the wake of his superbly timed assist for Nikorima.
Nikorima booted through the extras, and the Maori hit the biggest lead of the match at 16-6, while this was a particularly cathartic moment for Tapine, a reminder he can still bring his A-game after an inconsistent year for Canberra. Meanwhile, the Indigenous boys got another blow when Smith joined Curran on the sidelines, as Fifita took the ball on the bounce to prevent another try on the restart. Once again, the rhythm shifted as the Foxx fed it out to Naden, who broke into space up the left, with Ado-Carr barking out for it on his inside.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Rapana now delivered one of the great chases of the game, culminating with an ankle tap that didn’t quite pop Naden into touch, but destabilised him enough to unsettle his offload on the ground. The Steeden would have been forward for any Indigenous players in the vicinity, and yet Tevaga knocked it on, and the hosts parlayed Naden’s run back into a full set from just outside the ten, only for Herbert to cap off a sublime night of defence by summoning a bone-rattling tackle on Trindall to force the footy free.
The Maori just needed one scintillating set now to reclaim that Indigenous momentum as their own. Instead, they came up with one of their more conventional sequences, remaining bunched in their own end until Nikorima broke the halfway line on the fourth, and even then devolving into a pretty standard Chanel kick on the last. Galvanised by that lacklustre performance, Tyrell Sloan stepped into the spotlight at both ends of the park, with a classy pickup at the ten and his debut All Stars try off a ruck error from Wiremu Greig.
Once again, Hynes kicked on the third, angling it out to the right corner, and splitting the difference between Chanel and Marsters as the young Dragon read the play just right, before missing the conversion to keep it a six point game. His boot was just as wobbly at the end of the restart, when his bomb sailed five metres back, and as the footy tumbled further upfield, Fifita came up with a chip that Chanel took confidently, before barging up the centre and straight past Fifita, who seemed momentarily stalled by the pressure of getting boot to ball.
Chanel was back at his own ten by the time that Hynes and Tabuai-Fidow brought him to ground, gifting the Maori a much-needed bout of goal line attack, bolstered by a James offside. Their left sweep on the third looked promising, and led to three successive efforts on that wing, the last two out of dummy half – Kenny Bromwich, Marsters, Herbert – but the Indigenous side stayed strong, as we reached the last ten minutes of the match, and the peak of all the passion that goes into this unique fixture.
By the time the hosts got the ball back, they’d displayed the best goal line defence of the game, and the Maori pack tried to mirror it by almost dragging Cobbo back over the line, beneath the crossbar, early in the count. Still, the Indigenous side made metres with a pair of offloads on the left edge – the first from Kerr, right on the ground, through Harper; the second from Ado-Carr, who almost broke through Smith in the process – before Kelly kept their hopes alive with a 40/20 that injected the game with one final burst of emotion and momentum.
It was all the more dramatic in that Kelly didn’t initially seem to have gotten the angle right. Yet the footy kept rolling, straightened up, and slid over the twenty metre line at the last minute, setting us up for a spectacular finish. If Kelly’s subsequent dummy and run had produced a try, it would have been a win for the ages, but while he got through Royce Hunt, Clark stopped him in his tracks, and he coughed up the Steeden, before Herbert delivered his last great hit of the match to absolutely skittle Herbert beneath the next Maori kick.
Everything intensified for one last time on both sides of the park now, as Walker charged ten post-contacts through Kennedy, Ramien and Will Smith out on the left, and Taunoa-Brown was pinged for a second effort out on the right, saving Harper from a slide over the sideline at the back of a Reimis Smith catch-and-pass. The Maori had a repeat set right on the Indigenous line, and condensed all their earlier left edge aggro into one climactic charge from Kenny Bromwich, who Kennedy stopped in his tracks before coming up with the footy.
Add to that an unsuccessful Indigenous challenge two seconds out from the siren and it was another classic All Stars fixture, along with a great counterpoint to last year’s draw in Townsville. From the young guns to the veterans, all the players were pumped with the passion of playing for their land and culture, marking the official beginning of the 2021 NRL year with some brilliant performances, capped off by a very worthy Preston Campbell Medal for Tapine, who looks set to be a gun for Canberra this year on the basis of this game.