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Culture motivates key men of All Stars teams

Andrew Mathieson -

It's not the first time the Indigenous All Stars, gathered from vast Communities across their Country, have rehearsed the customary formalities to show their pride in culture and in the traditions of First Nations people.

But sure enough the celebrated commemoration on Wulgurukaba lands for respected Maori visitors on Monday never gets old for this rugby league mob.

Combatants of both traditional Australian and Aotearoa teams filed into a significant cultural site for another Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony from both the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people that embody the soil surrounding Townsville.

"It was a great welcome," Indigenous All Stars veteran Latrell Mitchell told NRL.com.

"We did our cleansing dance to just show our respect to the Elders of this land, their (Wulgurukaba and Bindal) custodians.

"I think it was also a great way for our TI (Torres Strait Islander) mob to show their dances off too.

"I just love the way they express themselves when they bring their big drums in – it's just so deadly."

Mitchell is pulling on the Indigenous jersey for a sixth time since his debut in 2017.

But four days out from the contest, the Biripi and Wiradjuri man was feeling the heat on Monday that will have more to do with wearing the tightly-fitting strips under the North Queensland night skies than just grappling through vigorous Maori tackles.

"I tell you what, we didn't have to warm up today," Mitchell laughed.

"We just put the boots on afterwards and started going through the motions because we were all so hot.

"It was still good to be able to throw the footy around and just get involved, especially with some fresh faces because we just wanted to get some combinations going."

While Friday's anticipated fixture is the 14th occasion the All Stars match is running, dating back to 2010, the Maori All Stars are appearing for a sixth successive year.

Past incarnations of the clashes with the NRL All Stars and World All Stars have since been dumped.

New Maori coach Adam Blair feels the spirit between players of the original inhabitants of their respective nations is one of his best experiences going around for the very few stars of the NRL that are eligible to participate.

The build-up to kickoff alone consolidates what the unique concept is all about.

"I really enjoyed the way the ceremonies finished off just for the reason that everyone came together, men and women, in that moment to celebrate our countries' cultures, and our two Indigenous cultures that are rich in everything we've done," Blair said.

"Then to have the chats, shake hands and to do those special things, is something we don't get every day."

Blair only played against the Indigenous All Stars three times – and his debut was for the NRL All Stars in the embryonic game while first starring for the Melbourne Storm.

The fact the retired backrower for four NRL clubs had to wait nine years to represent a Maori side in this cultural gathering almost masking as a game of football has made the one-time team captain appreciate the annual battle.

"I enjoy these camps the most because we are all one, we are all connected, we are all blood and the feeling is the same throughout for everyone," Blair said.

"It's a thing when you grow up as a kid through your culture and your customs, that it is an opportunity for myself, and everyone else to feel connected."

It doesn't stop there for Blair.

The encounter is not like any other.

Not every week NRL matches, not international Tests nor in the State of Origin hype.

The match is played at a different pace and for a different purpose.

It is the one time that football takes a back seat to culture, momentarily.

Once the first whistle blows, it's more of an expression of the people the players run out to represent.

"This is what this game created," Blair said.

"It gives us opportunities for our people to be able to go out and display, and also play a game that they normally don't play at clubland.

"They can come here and be free with the ball.

"We always say in these camps, we are just the caretakers of this jersey, and we're not only representing ourselves, but for our people, our family, our tikis, our rivers, our mountains, and we're creating a pathway for our next generation coming through."

Kotoni Staggs is surprisingly only making his second Indigenous All Stars appearance on Friday.

Circumstances has condemned the Brisbane 100-game centre to just the one match all the way back to his second NRL season in 2019.

Heading into the Indigenous camp, the memories are flooding back for Staggs.

"It's pretty special to be a part of it with the cultures of both sides and just seeing all of the dancing," the Wiradjuri man said.

"We learned our dance (on Sunday) night and that reminded it's good to be back with the boys."

After marking a milestone with the 2023 NRL grand final defeat, the 25-year-old this time is running onto North Queensland Stadium with a different energy.

But Staggs wants to employ the extension of the NRL preseason trials to benefit his Broncos teammates that include a short list that have been forced to watch from the sidelines.

"I understand these games here are not just a game," he said.

"They are there to give back to your culture and to represent where you are from.

"It is also a start of a big season again and it does get you ready deep inside.

"We try and take a lot out of it to go back to your clubs."

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will return to the lineup after a single appearance in the 2022 fixture.

He openly admitted that playing for the Indigenous All Stars the first time was "the sort of thing you dream about".

But two years on, there's a new dream for the enthusiastic Torres Strait Islander amid his other return back to his former Cowboys' home since leaving for the Dolphins.

"Latrell is the big one for me – I have never played with him yet," Tabuai-Fidow said.

"I'm very excited to catch up with him this week.

"Just to go and train, and pick his brain as well.

"His ball-playing skills are pretty good and just how he competes.

"I want to see how he goes through training and into the game."

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