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'Lloydies' keep defying the odds

Andrew Mathieson -

Time after time, just like Lloyd McDermott did to earn his dual 1962 Test caps, the Aboriginal rugby development team that bears his name continues to prove the doubters wrong.

Underfunded, under-resourced and somewhat underestimated in some quarters, the "Lloydies", a ragtag but talented Indigenous rugby collective is affectionately known, recently almost pulled off a tournament win on the international stage.

During typically oppressive and muggy Singapore conditions, it took a band of Fijians, who play the sevens game as harmonically and naturally as they sing a good Christian hymn in celebration afterwards, to claim a 36-17 victory in the recent final.

Daveta has won the Ablitt Cup silverware eight times, all since 1994, after the annual Singapore Cricket Club International Rugby Sevens tournament first began in 1948.

The victors were the only rival across the Lloyd McDermott Development Team's six fixtures to defeat Australia's representatives in what the Lloydies president Tom Evans admitted to having a lacklustre but unavoidable preparation.

"We only pulled a side together probably five to six weeks beforehand," Evans said.

"They actually had just the one training session together on a Wednesday night before we left on Thursday.

"They had another training session on the Friday and then they played the event.

"Most of the boys had never played together before; maybe one or two boys had, but this team had never played together."

Should such a performance be championed for its ingenuity to throw a mix of young Indigenous men from different cities and towns, different rugby union clubs, not to mention different mobs that players previously only came together at the odd camp? Probably. Definitely.

Their spirit of the running game in the fast-paced, seven-a-side version of rugby made their runners-up finish in the senior elite division of 16 entrants from all points of the world all the more remarkable.

While this was not quite the Hong Kong Sevens from which the world circuit evolved, the names of past winners that include France Development Sevens, England Sevens Academy and the Springboks Sevens Academy, just from 2015 to 2017, alone is impressive.

Randwick Rugby Club also won in 1993, but unfortunately were the last Australian side to do so.

"So making the final and getting close to the Fijians was fantastic – they were the only team that beat us," Evans said.

"But on our way to semi-finals, we picked up a couple of knocks and had injuries, but that is just the way sevens go.

"We showed a fair bit of resolve and if bounce of the ball went our way, then the score would have got a little bit closer to win."

There were plenty of words of praise, some backslapping, even a celebratory drink.

But according to Evans, the end result is less of a surprise for the invitational Lloydies concept behind the run-on side that has yielded a number of Super Rugby stars of late, which some of the past alumni are on the verge of breaking into the Wallabies XV.

"We've done that sort of thing before we have," he said.

"We've come up to the hottest sevens before and traditionally we've performed pretty well.

"We did that the last time (in Singapore) 10 or 12 years ago – we have made this final and performed pretty well there.

"We've got to the final of Byron Bay, we've got to the other finals, and we've even won tournaments on a whim.

"That's generally how we sort of rally and when we can't bring our players together to train altogether, they come from all over.

"So we were expecting our guys would do well."

Filling up a trophy cabinet, one without club rooms, is hardly the point of establishing the Lloyd McDermott Development Team.

It really is about picking the eyes of an under-represented rugby community that only counts 14 Indigenous players out of some 969 current and past Wallabies.

"A lot of people said to us when we started in 2008 that this whole thing won't work," Evans said.

"That is, Aboriginal people don't play rugby union, you won't get a following, and all this sort of negative stuff.

"Well, we were able to identify Maurice Longbottom through the Ella Sevens, plus a couple of girls like Mahalia Murphy."

McDermott was the first Wallabies international at that time to identify as Aboriginal, and despite halfback Cecil Ramalli debuting 24 years earlier but the history books not discovering the son of Afghan Muslim trader also had Gomeroi blood on his mother's side, the Mununjali and Wakka Wakka man was then the first to experience racism on the field.

The winger played twice against the All Blacks in Australia, but the next year refused to tour Apartheid South Africa after only being allowed entry as a token white citizen.

No one has since done more to advance and embrace Indigenous rugby than the man of principles, who later was Australia's first Aboriginal barrister and even refused to accept Australia Day honours multiple times until the rights of his people were recognised.

McDermott's philanthropy went some way to founding the Lloydies' rugby trust for aspiring Indigenous players right until his sad death in 2018, aged 79.

But the breadth of talent out there is easily matched by the soaring costs behind it.

The trip to Singapore to broaden the squad's horizons cost $25,000 for the long weekend away.

That is a lot of sausages to sizzle, lamingtons to sell or donations tins to rattle.

By goodwill and a belief in the concept, only its committed sponsors could wipe out a share of the costs after forking $20,000 to help pay for the travel bill.

"We could do a lot more if we had the finance behind us and the staff," Evans said.

"If we got half the finances that some other organisations get to mentor young people, we'd be going a lot better still.

"We feel that we still have a really good process in place of identifying kids.

"We don't get all of them, there are talented kids we miss out on, just because we can't get out to see all of the kids.

"But we know as we say, 'we are part of the solution, not a part of the problem'.

"We're also not the silver bullet either.

"We are a part of an opportunity in the game for our mob to get a run."

Evans, who has a close working relationship with Rugby Australia, insisted despite of recent criticism directed at the functionality of the code's national body that they were doing their best to provide for the Lloydies' program.

But there remains a concern that among Aboriginal players more needs to be done to prevent gifted youngsters only wanting to leave for the cash of rugby league.

One future star in the game is Gage Phillips, named player of the Singapore tournament.

Evans has followed the journey of the playmaker for close to a decade and feels players like Phillips is a good enough reason to keep their hard work going.

"We have a little team playing out of Redfern for a few years that was called the Eora Warriors, and Gage played in that when he was 10, 11 and 12, and did really well," he said.

"I took him over for an interview at Newington, one of the private schools, and they offered him to go over on a scholarship to play his footy there with them.

"But he's now playing really well at Randwick."

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