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Indigenous All Stars match ready to expand annual concept: Griffiths

Andrew Mathieson -

The annual NRL All Stars match will forever be credited to former star Preston Campbell.

But the evolution of the Indigenous All Stars could point to Ronald Griffiths as an inspiration since their coach took over the team from league icon Laurie Daley.

While the second-year Indigenous head coach has not featured in charge of any NRL side, Griffiths is fast becoming an innovator in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander circles and could go down in the annals of the All Stars story as a revolutionary.

Griffiths has been holding discussions with ARL commission chair Peter V'Landys and NRL chief executive Andrew Adbo over a proposal to expand the concept of the Indigenous All Stars from the one-off match against the Maori All Stars into something far bigger.

When Campbell suggested an Indigenous All Stars should play a preseason encounter before every season after they clashed with a Maori side in a 2008 World Cup curtain-raiser, the premise behind the match was simply all about showcasing a contest of proud peoples connected to their traditional lands.

Now Griffiths is turning the cultural aspect of representing First Nations people to be as equally as important as the final result that included inviting a Maori All Stars side to replace of the original NRL All Stars in 2010 or their World All Stars predecessor years later.

"When I was his assistant coach, I spoke with Laurie because I thought we just needed to change our cultural aspect of the program, and Laurie embraced it – he was open to it," Griffiths said.

"We probably didn't change it enough that first year, but he gave us an opportunity to build on it and over the last two years, we've totally reinvented this camp and what it means to be an (Indigenous) All Star."

While the celebration of culture is visual on the night in front of embracing crowds, Griffiths has made sure that his playing group understood their culture that in some cases has not always been taught in their own Communities and is now a part of the build-up before stepping out for the hyped-matchday experience.

While the soon-to-be NSW Cup coach of Newcastle Knights was somewhat tight-lipped in the press conference after last Friday night's 22-14 victory over the Maori rivals, he wanted more matches for emerging Indigenous talent to exhibit their cultural ways.

The Indigenous All Stars camp that includes training sessions starts in the week four days prior to the match, but contains a heavy emphasis on First Nations experiences that players will not encounter inside the walls of their club sides.

"We've got some fantastic ideas that we want to float, and we believe this could be the evolution of this game and different things within the game to develop our next crop of players coming through and find more games for this team," Griffiths said.

"At the end of the day, they are in camp for one week, and we build them up culturally and socially, and emotionally they walk out of here stronger and it sets up our players for the year.

"But we also believe there is a void at the back end of the year when they are with their clubs, and that is an opportunity for us to regroup and do something else.

"Plans are afoot, but we need to talk to the powers that be because I think we have something special now. From day one we spoke about how this program will be etched in history and I think moving forward that is something we will do long-term."

Whether that includes an overseas tour against international teams will be revealed in the coming weeks or months after further talks with the NRL hierarchy.

Griffiths said much of the internal talk has been about setting up annual camps in a number of Indigenous communities, including spending time in the Torres Strait Islands.

The thought-bubble behind the camps will exist not only for the male Indigenous hopefuls but also for the female players.

"These aren't things that happen overnight, but we have been thinking about our long-term objectives: how do we grow our staff in the game, how do we grow our supporter base and how do we grow our players?" Griffiths said.

"And that is by taking our players into the Community, so they can interact with the kids, run clinics in the Community.

"They are their heroes and we can run coaches in those camps over those days, and develop them along the way.

"It's a really big job, but we're trying to work our way through it and see where it all lands, but those thoughts are certainly in our minds.

"On the back of that, the culmination would be when I roll out of this job, there will be coaches that will roll in.

"When Latrell rolls out of his playing position, our strength will be so good that there will be someone who will roll in off the production line. That is what we are working on with the NRL."

Mitchell, sitting alongside Griffiths, was left nodding and acknowledging the direction of the Indigenous All Stars concept to be much more than just playing the 80 minutes once each year.

The fullback and Indigenous captain lauded how the North Queensland communities embraced a "perfect" week.

He reflected on one unique Aboriginal people that were transplanted from their traditional lands more than 100 years ago that on reflection nearly brought the South Sydney star, who was full of pride, to tears.

"I went over to Palm Island to a smoking ceremony where I got to experience all their land and their culture," Mitchell said.

"Aboriginal people are all about resilience and built on adaption, and they got put on that island, and their culture shows you how strong and powerful they are.

"They had to adapt to the lifestyle, the salt water – they hadn't seen salt water before – so you have to put that into perspective, alright?

"But to be put on that island, to adapt and be resilient, that is Aboriginal people right there.

"I can't put it into words, how proud I am of that, and how proud we both are to be Aboriginal men."


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