ALL STARS: Maori v. Indigenous (Rotorua International Stadium, 11/2/23, 24-28)

Saturday night’s All Stars clash was a footy conundrum – how does an almost unbeatable Maori forward pack looking coming up against an almost unbeatable Indigenous backline? The result was one of the most exciting All Stars contest in years, from Selwyn Cobbo redeeming a frustrated first quarter with a hat trick in the final twenty, to Zach Dockar-Clay showing extraordinary vision from hooker, despite being named in the halves, and Nicho Hynes continuing his sublime 2022 flow with a Preston Campbell Medal-worthy offering.

However, the main headline was the first Indigenous win since 2019, a tribute to the dexterity of the backline, but also the resilience of the big boppers, in combating a Maori outfit that, on paper, should have been able to break up the park at every opportunity. The win was all the more dramatic in that this was a Maori home game, stepped in the regional ambience of Rotorua International Stadium, while the Indigenous men were without one of their most rousing and heroic icons in Josh Ado-Carr, who had decided to focus on his Bulldogs duties.

Ryan James took the first charge of the night, taking the field as an edge forward for a change, before weathering another hit-up on the third. Nicho Hynes opted for an early kick, deep inside his own end, and Hayze Perham did well to take it in the face of a big Indigenous chase, while James Fisher-Harris and Joe Tapine drove it fast and hard up the middle. Like Hynes, Zach Dockar-Clay kicked early, from dummy half, for what should have been an easy catch for Selwyn Cobbo, who instead fumbled it to set up the first try from Dockar-Clay himself.

The Indigenous side hadn’t even reached the opposition half and the Maori had a full set in the opposition twenty, as Tapine brought the footy right to the line, Paul Turner drew in a swathe of defenders beside the left post, and Dockar-Clay brought this escalating momentum together with an inspired kick – straight off the right padding and back into his hands, with a force that would have sent it dead if his aim wasn’t pinpoint perfect. Again, this was out of dummy half, although he was named at six, a terrific display of versatility to start the game.

Jordan Rapana added the extras from right in front, and the Maori side were over a point per minute. Fish slammed himself into the defence on play one of the restart, Jordan Riki followed in his wake, and Royce Hunt after that, as the Indigenous players mounted a solid wall, and maintained it on the right edge, setting the home side their biggest fight for position until Tapine dodged around the tackle and made a couple of extra metres to break halfway. Still, the Indigenous side finally hit Maori territory on the next set, and were starting to fire up.

Josh Kerr got them rolling with a deft offload back to Cody Walker, before Hynes soared his first bomb to the left wing, where Perham tried to match Kerr’s second phase under pressure of being dragged back in goal, but couldn’t quite pull it off, forcing Morgan Harper to scoot around and clean it up. Tapine was already taking a break on the bench as Hunt banged up the middle again, before Riki made fifteen after contact, and Perham oped for another clutchy play, a kick at speed on the left edge that he clean missed as he tried to thread the needle.

By this stage, the Maori had 70% of possession, so it was a small victory that the Indigenous players had only conceded six points. They got their first real attacking opportunity a beat later, off a beautiful Walker chip that bounced horribly, heading in the opposite direction that Perham was expecting, until he really had to scramble to get back in the field of play. Still, with Brent Naden knocking on the dropout, the hosts had a chance to respond, and Turner stepped up with a shallow but spiraling bomb that Cobbo did well to contain on the volley.

Hynes tried to elasticized the match with a cut-out to his fullback midway through the next set, but now it was Cobbo’s shot to take a swing and a miss with the left edge kick. Briton Nikora had his first great carry of the night towards the end of the next set, tucking the footy under his arm and almost breaking through the line, as it started to feel like the next big play would determine the rest of this quarter, so close had both teams come to brilliance over the last few minutes. To that end, the Maori started to really accelerate on the next set.

Rapana got them rolling with big metres up the right, and Jesse Arthars was just as good, while Hynes hit back with a searching return, and appeared to have lost the ball only to win a penalty from Adam Pompey for a flop. He tried to tap and go, to no avail, but it didn’t much matter, since with a ruck error from Austin Dias, the Indigenous players had their first accumulation of field position, and a chance to make good on that botched dropout. Again, Hynes had the vision, driving the footy deep into the line for their first great right sweep.

Walker was just as good, measuring the cut-out ball so that Naden had time to get outside Pompey, and space to flick the assist out to Tyrell Sloan, who curved around behind the posts for a resounding Indigenous try. Latrell Mitchell slotted it though from the sideline, and the visitors exuded a new conviction as they lined up to begin the restart, with Sloan and Hynes, in particular, staring down the oncoming wall like they were facing the opening haka all over again. It was good they did too, since the Maori summoned some impressive defence now.

The Indigenous players were able to withstand it for the few couple of tackles, but it all came apart midway through, when Kerr twisted into the defence, tried to offload the footy backwards, but lost it instead. On the other side of the Steeden, Riki not only reprised his fifteen post-contacts up the left, but added five more, and won a ruck error from Walker in the process. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Jack Wighton stopped this Maori buildup dead in its tracks by coming in low and hard to rattle the footy out of Fisher-Harris’ grasp.

This had the potential to be the most significant individual play of the first quarter, so it was agonising when Cobbo bookended it with another choke. Like clockwork, Walker collected the ball from dummy half on the left, and fed it out for Latrell to deliver a textbook assist that the Brisbane backliner somehow knocked on. Between Wighton’s superb contact, and Cobbo’s inexplicable putdown, lay the Indigenous frustration of the first quarter, which ended, appropriately enough, with Selwyn himself bundled into touch by a big Maori effort.

Jamayne Taunoa-Brown was met with a monster Maori pack on play one of the second quarter, big enough to induce Hynes to take his first kick early this time as well. Perham responded with another strong return, Nikora almost hit a hole, Bailey Butler got done for a strip, and the hosts capped off their best bout of field position by showing they could sweep right just as well – or that they didn’t need to, since a second assist from Dockar-Clay meant Arthars was able to take it on the chest, swing past Wighton, and smash over further infield.

The Indigenous players might have been silky moving it out to the wing, but the Maori hadn’t even had to sweep it that far, as Rapana ricocheted the kick off the upright for another two points. Again, Fish was swarmed on play one of the restart, as was Harper on tackle two, but Preston Riki took inspiration from brother Jordan with some post-contacts on the third, laying the foundation for a strong back half to the set that ended with Dockar-Clay hanging it high from just outside the opposition forty, forcing Hynes to leap a metre off the turf to take it.

Corey Harawira-Naera came within a hair’s-breadth of aerial contact to ensure the Dally M winner was tumbled out of a return, while the Maori got an extra tackle on their next set off an overlong kick from Nicho. Add to that a James penalty for a hand in the ruck, and it felt like the New Zealanders might well summon the same flow that had led to Arthars’ crossover if the Australians didn’t make a big defensive statement now. Perham ended with a spinning crossfield bomb to the right, where three Indigenous players tried and failed to clean it up.

At least, that’s how it looked at first, since the Bunker ruled that one of the Maori men had got a hand to it, and so Hynes found himself setting up the first run of a fresh set instead of preparing himself for what looked destined to be a short dropout, given how frantically he was barking out orders to his men. Arthars tried to reverse the rhythm with a  Walker-Latrell intercept, but ended up knocking it on, gifting the Indigenous players a midield scrum, and a chance to accumulate some position of their own, starting with Naden carving up the right.

They got six again a play later, and were inside the Maori ten by tackle three, where Kerr put in one of the best steps of the game to swivel around the defence and come down five from the line, before Trindall rolled the kick up Perham’s torso only to knock on as he tried to scoop up the ricochet. The Indigenous players put in some of their best defence on the subsequent scrum, led largely by Albert Kelly, who had a hand in virtually every play to prevent them getting beyond their forty by the time that Dockar-Clay tried to recover with a 40/20 kick.

He didn’t quite nail the angle, while the Indigenous side were buoyed up by this defensive surge, consolidating into their most aggressive right sweep since their try, and their fastest long-range effort on that side all afternoon. Sloan ended by booting it in goal, where Perham got done for deliberately knocking the footy forward in an effort to avoid the putdown, or the dropout, and providing the visitors with their first full set inside the twenty, and then their first really sustained attack on the Maori chalk, as Hynes started a huge sweep to the left.

For a moment, it looked like it was all going to come apart when some heavy Rapana-Latrell contact cost the Indigenous players twenty metres, but Cobbo stepped up now, making up for his rough opening quarter by circling around the Steeden, scooping it up with the silkiest handling of the night, and barging straight into Riki, who was still reeling from the contact when Hynes received the footy from James, and darted past him to slide through the hole he’d glimpsed back beyond the play-the-ball, crossing untouched for a rousing Indigenous try.

This time Hynes lined up the tee too, as if his sheer footy flow was enough to put him ahead of Latrell as first choice kicker, and sure enough he slotted through the conversion, bringing us to a two point game with three minutes on the clock. That’s how it remained until the siren too, although the drama was far from over, with Latrell and Rapana’s fates colliding once more, as the Rabbitoh coughed up the next high ball, and the Raider got pinged for offside downtown, thanks in part to a passionate Hynes remonstrating with the ref for the penalty.

Latrell had experienced a rough couple of minutes here, and they continued on the right wing, where he found himself dancing along the sideline, and flicking the footy back in without managing to clear the Maori defenders. Ten seconds from the siren, Kerr smashed into Fish shoulder-first, but the Penrith enforcer was so tough, and his response so minimal, given the circumstances, that it took a while for the refs to realise just how serious the contact had been, at which point the big bopper from St. George was sent to the bin for his troubles.

Hunt took the first charge back from the break, but was held well by Fuimaono, while Fish barged into the defence like he was going to make more post-contacts that he eventually did. Nikora was then driven back a good two or three metres, meaning that Turner was still inside his forty by the time he put boot too ball – a solid Indigenous defensive set to compensate for their man off the park. Hynes chipped his next one from the opposition thirty, and while Perham was in place to collect it, the chase prevented him from any chance of a return.

Wighton continued the Indigenous defensive burst by surging across field for his second enormous shot of the night, on Raiders team mate Rapana, right when the Maori seemed to have found their attacking feet with a near-break from Pompey, their first really convincing run since the break. Some good Dockar-Clay service created space for Nikora up the middle now, but another Wighton hit on Perham, and a near-constant defensive wall from James, culminating with a massive shot on Harris, meant the hosts were held up inside the twenty.

Even better, Hopgood got inside Turner and made about fifteen metres before three Maori brought them down, injecting a fresh shot of adrenalin up the Indigenous right edge, spearheaded by some superb vision from Hynes. First, he popped it outside to Laurie, then he collected the bounce when the Tigers backliner kicked at speed, before flicking a one-handed assist out for Naden to curve around and ground it inside the posts. It was the most spectacular try so far, so luckily the Bunker ratified it, and Hynes booted through the goal.

This was probably the turning-point of the game – a try against the run of play, the best try so far, and a flourishing of Hynes’ footy genius all condensed into ten spectacular seconds. Now it was the New Zealanders’ turn to mount some solid defence, and while Hynes was almost at halfway by the time he kicked, he lobbed it too hard, sending the Steeden over the sideline to grant the Maori a bump up the park. Buoyed up by the extra position, player after player almost busted through the line, before the hosts got six again off a Wighton offside.

Finally, the Maori had a full set on the Indigenous chalk, but it all came to nothing with a rare Dockar-Clay misfire, as he followed Hynes by weighting it too heavy, meaning Cobbo was secure waiting for the footy to bump into touch as Kerr trotted back onto the park. Fuimaono lost the ball a beat later, in what felt like it must lead to the next Indigenous try, so it was a potential turning-point when Tapine insisted on sending it upstairs, and the replay showed that Dockar-Clay had indeed pulled back from the tackle before Thompson ripped it free.

Midway through the second quarter, and four points down, this had to be a convincing set for the Maori, especially after that last Dockar-Clay kick, but the set fizzled apart on the fourth, when Perham went to ground to avoid an offside, and Laurie took the footy with a swarm of defenders around him a metre behind the goal, only to elude all of them to plunge his way back in field. Things came full circle when Naden coughed it up, and managed to sell it as a Harawira-Naera strip, as the Indigenous players made their way down the park once again.

Add a superb Hopgood offload to Kelly, who popped it across to Walker, and we were back in the same flow that had produced the Hynes-Laurie-Naden combo, so it was a real deflation when Latrell knocked on during the very next play. Again, the Maori had a let-off, as Harawira-Naera steeled them, and made up for the frustration of Naden’s milking, by bumping off a couple of defenders early in the tackle. Fish wasn’t qute as successful later on, but it didn’t matter, since he laid the platform for Preston Riki to cut through the line a tackle after that.

In a fairytale finish, the next linebreak came from brother Jordan, who collected a short ball from Turner, was brought to ground by Kerr, but managed to retain enough momentum to get up again and bang through Isaiah Tass for exactly the gutsy try that the Maori men needed now. Rapana’s kick put them two ahead, but the Indigenous side still had plenty left in the tank. Latrell might have fumbled the footy on the line, and set all this up, but he’d showed he could bounce back with the monster tackle that had prevented Preston scoring himself.

Harper began the restart with a searching run, breaking the mould of the battering rams the Maori had used to start most of their sets since the break, but this effort to inject the dexterity of the last try back into the early tackles came apart when Fisher-Harris knocked it on a beat later. Hynes attempted a sweep to the right, but Laurie couldn’t break through, Shaq Mitchell dragged several defenders through the line, and Hynes stepped into the spotlight again by almost putting James over the chalk, as Dockar-Clay came in for a heroic last-ditch tackle.

Laurie didn’t have the height to collect Hynes’ next chip to the wing, and so the score remained locked at 18-16 as the third quarter came to a close with a Perham error. The final break of the game came and went, and again Hunt took the opening charge, as Fisher took a hard run beyond the forty to ensure that the Maori made it into opposition territory this time back. Sure enough, Simpkins hit halfway, and offloaded for an early acceleration that built and built until it was absorbed by Cobbo for the first try in a fourth quarter hat trick.

It all started (or ended) with an Arthars chip that Cobbo managed to take at a tricky angle, before banging off Rapana and Arthars, turning around to fend away Perham while running backwards, and then running the length of the field, with no chance of being touched by the time he broke his own thirty. It was a Latrell-like play, leaning into the spirit of Latrell’s comeback tackle against Preston Riki, and when Cobbo banged to the ground with Preston at his back, it felt like the Indigenous players had this, even if Hynes didn’t manage the kick.

The visitors made good progress on the restart, with Hopgood hitting the Maori forty with a tough run up the middle on play three, Mosely almost busting through the line a tackle later, and Walker almost banging the kick over the head of Pompey, who did well to reach out both hands, curve around and take the footy on the full to avert a certain goal line dropout. Still, the hosts were trapped in their own twenty for the first three tackles, and while Thompson roused them with a gutsy run, he was contained and absorbed by the Indigenous defence.

In the end, Dockar-Clay only got to the kick outside the forty, and shanked it off the side of his boot to grant the Australians another attack in the opposition end. The visitors got unlucky when a Hynes sweep falconed off Naden to force a turnover, and yet once again the Maori were struggling to make position, only just breaking the twenty, on the fourth play, when Nikora got done for a forward pass out to the right edge. Hynes wasted no time in regrouping, carving up the right straight off the scrum, before Naden managed a good settler back in field.

With the right edge consolidated again, Hynes took a low ball and tried to bang over himself before the right post, before Wighton parlayed that energy into another big collision with Rapana on the left, Trindall popped a quick play-the-ball out to Walker, and the Indigenous veteran brought all this escalating energy together with a wonderfully relaxed chip out to the corner. Dockar-Clay tried and failed to rein it in, so Cobbo was able to respond in kind, barely picking up the footy before popping it down again in the most languorous grounding so far.

Again, Hynes missed the kick, but even so the Indigenous side were a converted try ahead, with ten minutes left for them to break the All Stars trend of the last few years. Walker had one of his sharpest touches with the boot yet at the end of the restart, landing it a centimetre in field, inside the twenty, to force the Maori players to work it out of their own end once again. Hynes now led a monstrous pack to smash Harper to ground, forcing the footy free in the midst of such a maelstrom that the subsequent Kiwi challenge came back inconclusive.

A calm resolve settled over the Indigenous side as they packed the scum, before Latrell and Kelly drove it up the middle, Hynes fed it out for James to break the ten, and Hynes took control again, showing a brief dummy before taking a crack at the line himself. Kerr took a similar charge before the uprights, and yet this period of consolidation ended with Cobbo putting down a second potential Latrell assist on the wing – this time a beautiful arcing harbour bridge ball – giving the Maori a critical chance to take control of the narrative.

Instead, Hunt put it down as quickly as Harper before him, giving Cobbo the chance he needed for total redemption – both from that last error and his spotty opening quarter. A few tackles in, Latrell again swept to the left, but dug deeper into the line this time, while relying on Wighton to pop the catch-and-pass out for the Brisbane flyer to smash it down just before Perham and Nikora could drag him into touch. It was a full stop on the game, while a missed kick from Latrell couldn’t detract from his silky skill in setting up Cobbo’s hat trick.

A Hynes error later, the Maori men were back on the Indigenous line, delivering some of their best attack of the fourth quarter, including a burly charge up the right from Harawira-Naera before Rapana flicked a last-ditch offload back in the field and found the Indigenous side waiting for it. Yet the New Zealanders got one last chance, off a slight fracturing of the last try, in the form of a Latrell-Cobbo forward ball. They made the most of it, starting with a mad dash from Perham that set up Arthars for another ten and quick play-the-ball up the middle.

The Indigenous men were starting to tire now, as a Moseley ruck error set up Preston Riki to make good on the linebreak that had paved the way for brother Jordan’s opening try, bringing the Maori to a 24-28 deficit by the time the final siren had rung out. They had another frustrated challenge, when they contested a Fisher-Harris error a minute from the end, but by this point the game already felt like it was over, as the Indigenous All Stars hoisted their first trophy since before the pandemic, with Hynes a very worthy Preston Campbell recipient.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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