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The Indigenous rugby prodigy that could be lost to the Australian game

Andrew Mathieson -

Not even engaging with the boss of rugby union in the country of his ancestors could resolve a gifted First Nations 16-year-old from switching allegiances to New Zealand.

Port Macquarie student Kaylan Morris and his mum Kristal Kinsela have become so disillusioned that they are prepared to finish his final year of school away from family, friends and their social network after exhausting culturally safe choices to pursue the game to the next level.

Turning to Phil Waugh, the past Wallabies great and Rugby Australia's chief executive could not provide comfort to them on how to navigate what an Indigenous pathway looks like for players plucked from the bush, and not the privileged schools or clubs.

So Morris will now attend Rotorua Boys' High School – a nursery for nine past All Blacks, more Super Rugby players and much of the backbone that holds up Bay of Plenty's provincial rugby – to bring his own game up to speed.

While education is hardly the motivation, and besides the school previously bringing the national secondary school championship title back four times, Rotorua boys also has grown its reputation for culturally shaping the lives of its Indigenous Maori and Pacific Islander students in the community.

"I have been pretty keen on moving," Morris said.

"I have been wanting to go since last year after we were over there (on a visit).

"After hearing the reputation of the school's rugby team, it basically makes me want to go even more now.

"We had a chat with the strength and conditioning coach, and of what opportunities are there for me."

The teenage fullback played a pivotal role in his Port Macquarie Pirates winning this season's Mid North Coast rugby union premiership.

Some thought it was too much too soon when coach Cameron Gray, a New Zealander, identified his raw ability to play for the first grade side halfway through his first under-18s year in what was also just his fourth season of playing the code.

After beginning his sporting life in junior soccer circles, Morris had not played a lick of rugby until blindly starting out in the top-age of under-14s with a few mates who asked him to tag along.

The lightly-built teen was still green by the end of his first year, and was so concerned about having to play under-16s the following season and taking the physical hits on the last line of defence that the union granted him special dispensation to stay back a year.

But after ultimately being forced to jump up three grades – from the under-14s to the under-16s and onto the under-18s – in as many years, the Pirates again had to ask for dispensation, but this time to play up against grown men so mercurial his talents were.

But that grand final performance under pressure left Morris in a dilemma: continue elsewhere to prosper a growing game or play on against the Coffs Harbour Snappers of the region and possibly stagnate where his potential goes unrewarded.

Morris will attend New Zealand's Rotorua Boys' High School in 2024 to further his game.(Image: supplied)

"If I was to stay in Port Mac now, I would just be playing in the same club competition and our representative games, and the stuff for our school here," he said.

"This New Zealand program has more to offer, plus there with the sevens (rugby) they have this big super eight tournament every year.

"I'd be keen for that next year."

The ambitious targets in a new land where his peers were born to play the running game captured the imagination that he could well be good enough to play for Australia one day.

But the proud Jawoyn, Wiradjuri, Dunghutti and Biripi youngster is acutely aware of 124 years of international Test rugby, just the 14 players of First Nations origins have become Wallabies.

That fact left Morris asking philosophical questions of whether or not the low number from nearly 1000 capped players was sheer coincidence or will history doom his opportunities.

It even brought his mum to hastily arrange meetings with the powerbrokers that walk the corridors of the Rugby Australia building that also houses a national headquarters for Indigenous and grassroots rugby development.

After dealing with Waratahs Talent Identification manager, Andrew Cleverley, of their home state, Kinsela was surprised to hear what Waugh had said quite bluntly to her.

"Phil blamed the state (union): 'That's a state problem if there is nothing happening. We give them the money and they organise the rest,'" she recalled the conversation.

"He couldn't give me answers on why there's no First Nations strategy, more broadly.

"He said that Lloyd McDermott (development program for identifying top Indigenous players) run the Ella sevens, but that's it."

One of Australia's greatest openside flankers missed the tackle there like he never once did in any one of his 79 Test matches.

A lack of information on the Australian Rugby Union's websites of how exceptional Indigenous players can follow a structured program in the standard 15-a-side game, she said, was either outdated or simply the "links don't work".

"So even going to Lloyd McDermott, to me there is a lack of a sense or clarity around of how you could access the support," Kinsela said.

"That's certainly not a discredit to them – I don't want to discredit the work that they have done because they have produced a lot of great players, who have had support from Lloydies, at least.

Morris' Mum, Kristal Kinsela (right) believes her son has a better chance at furthering his rugby career in New Zealand. (Image: Supplied).

"But I just couldn't find any information of where I can get support that my son needs.

"He's got raw talent and, I think if someone can harness that, I was told he will kill it."

Pirates supporters that have rallied around Morris all year, suggesting that he heads to one of the elite private schools that almost puts rugby ahead of education, but that option was not plausible for a single mother living on one working wage.

More Wallabies than not though have been capped via the prestigious GPS system like the Sydney Church of England Grammar alumni who's running the game and Rugby Australia have in the past appeared to use schooling as the tiebreaker in final selection calls.

But the proud Aboriginal family has wanted to avoid that old-boys club mentality filled with white privilege and entitlement.

Morris already had one bad experience at a local private school that forced him to settle into a public government school.

"They are more focused on private schools to develop all their players," Kinsela said.

Rugby Australia was contacted for further comment on the matter.

Kinsela is more concerned the elite GPS institutions are not culturally safe to handle Indigenous students, even just for one year of her son's life.

Waratahs utility Dylan Pietsch has publicly said after attending the Kings School in Sydney that he initially felt isolated after his Aboriginality was questioned before later changing attitudes and perspectives of many, but also not before thinking about taking his own life.

Kinsela has since reached out to Pietsch's father, an Indigenous Elder in a Wiradjuri community, on how to deal with endemic cultural issues in the code.

"He was messaging me this past week or so, and I asked if it would be possible to get our boys to meet?" she said, "And he said, 'Yeah, of course.'"

Morris has nothing to prove to his culture after representing a statewide Koori team at the 2023 Rugby Pasifika Youth Cup last November.

But proving a point to make the cut for the NSW youth sevens squad from an internal trial on Sunday in Sydney may be a tougher task.

Morris played a pivotal role in his Port Macquarie Pirates winning this season's Mid North Coast rugby union premiership. (Image: supplied)

"We might get down there and they say you've just discredited rugby in Australia, or they might say if he's going to New Zealand, he can't play," Kinsela said.

Clontarf Foundation for Indigenous students had once told Kinsela that none of their 141 nationwide academies can get enough numbers to play rugby union too.

"So I think, 100 per cent, this move (to Rotorua) is the right thing to do," she said.

"The standard of development and coaching will be world-class – it won't be like here.

"He's going to be at a public school, doing rugby as a subject, and he is taken in as a domestic student because of the bilateral agreement between the countries.

"I don't have the private school fees, which is good because that school is just so well-equipped."

Even though Morris will board at the school, Kinsela is also relocating across the Tasman between flying back once a month for her Indigenous consulting business and other commitments.

After washing the team jerseys, feeding supporters in the canteen and running water for exhausted Port Macquarie Pirates players, she is ready to watch her son write the next chapter to his own rugby narrative.

"The club have taken him as far as they can here," Kinsela said.

"I'm very mindful of his age – he turns 17 next month and he is at that crucial time in his rugby."

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