Arabella Douglas grew up supporting New South Wales in State of Origin. Her family have always looked south from Tweed Heads for work, for education and for sport. “Sydney is your reference point even though Brisbane is only an hour away,” she says. “My family still watch Sydney news – they consider themselves NSW people.”
In May 2014, however, Douglas and her family switched allegiance to Queensland. “I’m a blue-blood, but I’m bone-black and so I have a Maroon political affection,” she says. The Douglas family gradually started to notice the kids putting up posters of Queensland players Greg Inglis and Jonathan Thurston. So just before the 2014 Origin series, at Uncle Leroy’s house in Taree, a council of about 20 elders and guardians made the emotional decision to switch sides.
Like many NSW Aboriginal people, Douglas and her family feel that the Queensland Origin side honours and provides opportunity to Aboriginal players. “What my family say when we address an issue is that we are bone-black,” she says. “We are a sovereign people first before we are cut by a border at Coolangatta. If I’m ever in conflict over border issues, my position must go back to a sovereign position, which is bone-black. Even in sport.”
In 2010, when former NSW assistant coach Andrew Johns referred to Queensland player Greg Inglis as a “black c—” in a training camp, Timana Tahu, an Aboriginal Blues player, famously walked out in protest. Inglis, born in Kempsey in northern NSW, had reportedly chosen to play for Queensland because he believed it was fairer to Aboriginal players. A media storm ensued, with Queensland coach Mal Meninga supporting Tahu, and NSW Rugby League denying claims its selection policies had ever been racially motivated.
But many in the Indigenous community believe there is a recurring theme – NSW Aboriginal players either don’t get picked or are used sparingly. And every time an Indigenous player is overlooked, for whatever reason, that perception is reinforced. South Sydney Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston – 28 tries in 29 NRL appearances, recently capped for Australia – was not selected for the Blues. is the latest high-profile player to be left out of NSW Origin. Nathan Merritt, a leading try-scorer for Souths, was picked only once, in the twilight of his career. Top Indigenous players including David Peachey, Preston Campbell and Anthony Mundine were either not picked or used sparingly. Then there’s Nathan Blacklock – Australian representative, top try-scorer three seasons running between 1999 and 2001 – never picked for NSW. “I think I would have had a better chance playing for Queensland in State of Origin,” Blacklock says. “I honestly don’t know what it is, hey? I was never given a phone call – no reason whatsoever of why I didn’t play. Why was I not good enough to play for my state but could play for my country?”
Blacklock had wanted to play for NSW for as long as he could remember. His father, Merv, would tell him to keep his head down, keep working. But when Merv died in 2001, just after his son debuted for Australia, Blacklock had seen enough. He made the switch to rugby union not long after. “I thought I was wasting my time with rugby league,” he says. “I played for my country … I reached that pinnacle … but all I wanted to do was play for NSW. Personally, it really hurt me, and I tried to hide it. But, yeah, it made me change. I had to play for NSW somehow so I played for the [rugby union side NSW] Waratahs.”
Blacklock also started supporting Queensland. Maroons players and coaches reached out, he says, telling him that if he were eligible, he’d be first picked. “I showed my support for NSW and got nothing out of it,” Blacklock says. He reckons he’s mellowed since, but the feeling is still there.
Dave Trodden, NSWRL CEO dismissed the idea that NSW was perceived as biased as “nonsense”. “Our head coach (Laurie Daley) is the coach of the Aboriginal All Stars, and a proud Indigenous person himself.
“The NSW rugby league is the only peak organisation in Australia, and I think the only sporting organisation in Australia, (with) a constitutional objective of the organisation, to increase and facilitate Indigenous participation in our sport.
“I can’t control what people think, but what I deal with is realities, and they’re the realities”, said Trodden.
Geoff Carr, former NSWRL CEO, said NSW had a proud history of Indigenous representation. He believed any misconceptions of bias may have arisen from some widely publicised “misguided” comments: “‘Choc’ [Anthony] Mundine who is a fantastic player said, you know, ‘you never get picked for NSW because there was a bias against Indigenous players’.
“Well, the thing he kept forgetting is that Laurie Daley is the one that was picked ahead of him and he’s an Indigenous player.
“So as good as ‘Choc’ was, he was probably up against Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler for the five-eighth position, and although he made Origin off the bench, it was always going to be a huge task to be selected ahead of two players that made the top hundred of the century.”
Carr recalls Mundine also suggested it was Nathan Merritt’s Aboriginality that caused him to miss NSW selection initially.
“That really, again, was misguided, because as good a player as Nathan was, we had some fantastic wingers. And it’s always difficult to get selected at Origin, and eventually Nathan did get selected,” said Carr.
“The fact that you’re a great player and you get beaten by another great player for a spot is not a slight on your abilities, it’s just how competitive NSW has always been.
State of Origin is about representation. State against state, they say. Mate against mate. Australia-born players are expected to play for the state they were born in. Fans follow the players they identify as being part of their imagined community. For Douglas, this creates tension – to whom does she and her family owe loyalty?
“I don’t have an imagined border,” she says. “I have a border through oral history that tells me where I belong. Regretfully, Queensland and NSW cut through that in a white context. When we look at a game we are passionate about, there is no place for us to go but to be bone- black first. We see Queensland are servicing that notion more than NSW. Why?”
Statistically, Aboriginal players are better represented north of the border. Brad Cooke, a Bidjigal man from La Perouse, is the first ball-by-ball Aboriginal rugby league commentator for the ABC. A staunch Blues supporter, he’s been collating the stats since 2008. Since Origin began in 1980, Cooke says 33 Aboriginal players have played 330 games for Queensland. For NSW, 22 Aboriginal players have played 113 games. “When you take out Laurie Daley, the most capped Aboriginal player for NSW and currently the coach, you get 21 players for 90 games,” Cooke says.
Yet at the most recent census, there were more Aboriginal people living in NSW than in Queensland, and Cooke says the annual NSW Koori Knockout is bigger than Queensland’s equivalent Murri Carnival. But he barely sees any Blues jerseys at the Knockout, as opposed to the numerous Maroons jerseys at the Murri Carnivals. Something, evidently, is missing.
“The stats and the numbers really don’t lie,” Cooke says. “I absolutely see a very large number of Kooris from NSW cheer for Queensland, purely because of the non-selection of our players over time and some of those off-field incidents that have happened over the years. Blackfellas put two and two together.”
Indeed, the symbolism is as important as the statistics. Queensland has a long line of Aboriginal heroes going back to Arthur Beetson, an out and proud Aboriginal man who captained the Maroons to victory in the inaugural match. “Arthur set up the culture where you had to respect the Indigenous player, he was the father figure that everyone looked up to,” says Larry Corowa, who represented NSW before the Origin series began. “When State of Origin came in, Arthur was the one who changed everything. If Arthur was born and bred in NSW it’d be different – he would have changed the process of how they see Aboriginal people.”
Corowa says many Aboriginal kids will be supporting Queensland “because their idols are playing; there’s more in that team than NSW”. Douglas knows one of these kids – her 14-year old nephew Isaac Bamblett. Whereas Douglas grew up looking south, Bamblett, a Redfern All Blacks junior from Zetland, is looking north. He stopped supporting NSW when they dropped Merritt.
I ask why he thinks Merritt wasn’t selected. “Because he was [sic] Aboriginal,” he replies. His favourite player? “Greg Inglis”. Who does he want to play for when he grows up? “Queensland”. Why? “They pick good players on how they play and not their colour”.