Indigenous rugby team triumph over stacked odds in North America

Brendan and Sam Doggett with Scott and Nick Boland pictured here with a statue of Indigenous fast bowler Eddie Gilbert. Photo by Queensland Cricket.
The IAIR team pack in for a scrum against Army West Point Athletics. Photo by Paula Brown.

Referee controversy in Quebec, collapsing scrums, a 55-hour transit and torrential rain are not stopping the Indigenous Australian Invitational Rugby Team (IAIR) from scoring big on their tour of North America.

Twenty-six young Indigenous rugby players are in North America for a two-week trip to immerse themselves in Native American culture and test their skills against foreign teams.

The players were selected from union clubs around the country and have saved the funds to join the adventure as part of the second IAIR.

The team started in New York on the East Coast, travelling north to West Point, Boston, Portland Maine, Toronto and Montreal with mixed results. They’re now on their way to Denver, Colorado for the key moment of the trip, followed by Long Beach, California.

Coach John Browne said the trip has several purposes, at the centre of which is to forge a band of new Indigenous leaders.

“They don’t have to be the best players in the world, but they do have to be good role models for their community and act responsibly,” Browne told a Quebec newspaper.

The side is recovering after two heavy encounters in Canada. The most recent clash saw the IAIR go down 50-points to 21 to the Ontario Blues.

“I was really impressed with the way Ontario played and the spirit of the game was really positive,” team manager Darrell Morris said.

Ontario hosted the IAIR at Thompson Park in the town of Oshawa and prepared a long, lush rugby paddock—a welcome change from the short-cut gridiron fields of Toronto and New York.

Huge efforts from rookie Corbin Walters (Ourimbah, NSW) and rampaging No. 8 Leonard Snowball (Babinda, QLD)—who has been likened to the NRL’s Greg Inglis—kept the hosts honest. Unfortunately, the Australians couldn’t put a full 80-minutes together and suffered their second loss of the tour.

The first loss was only two days earlier in Montreal against an experienced Quebec outfit, five hours drive away.

The game started in torrential rain but that didn’t drench the game as much as the controversy surrounding the Quebec match officials and administrators.

“We weren’t happy with the standard of the administration in organising that game and the post-match reporting of that game,” Morris told the NIT.

“It’s not the [Quebec] player’s fault. The players played their hearts out. They can only do so much with the administration they have. It felt like whatever happened, we weren’t going to get away with a win in that game.”

The referee allegedly had an earpiece with a Quebec official on the sideline talking to him during the game.

“I thought that was very strange,” Morris said.

Quebec Province raced to a 19-0 lead in the first 20-minutes. The Australian boys turned it around from there, only allowing one more try through their defense.

Unfortunately for Australia the damage had been done. Strong running from forward Liam Bilston (Canberra, ACT) and speed out of the breakdown from scrumhalf Ethan Wikaira (Noosa, QLD) couldn’t break the Quebec line to close the gap and Quebec claimed a 26-15 victory.

“The administration side of things really let that game down and we’re going to have to have a serious think about ever going back there again,” Morris said.

The squad had a tough start to the trip. A mechanical fault with a plane in Australia forced them to miss all flight connections from Sydney to New York, resulting in a 55-hour transit.

If it was tough to recover from such a long stint, it didn’t show on the scoreboard. The players rallied and recorded a dominant victory in upstate New York a couple of days later, demolishing Westpoint Military Company 72-19.

The team travelled north to Portland, Maine and the IAIR nearly put 70-points on the board again, taking home a 69-19 victory over Portland.

The losses to Quebec and Ontario followed, but it was a cultural immersion that lifted the players’ spirits after the latter clash.

“Today we went out to Mohawk, the Five Nations tribal area, which has five different Indigenous roots in Canada,” Morris said.

“We got a really good cultural insight into what they’re doing there and what they’re about.”

The team played lacrosse, which is a Native American game, and watched traditional songs and dancing. The Chief of the tribe spoke and Morris says the issues he addressed reflected the issues faced by Indigenous Australians, both politically and socially.

The first IAIR tour was in 2015 and it took much of the intervening years for the organisers to prepare this program.

The purpose of the trip is to build camaraderie and Morris says there’s good spirit, and good banter amongst the team.

The tour will head to Denver, Colorado next—the home of Rugby in the USA. The sport’s national governing body is based in the city, but they weren’t interested in supporting the tour three years ago.

“We thought if we took the tour to the home of Rugby they [Rugby USA] can’t ignore us. And as a result, the CEO of Rugby USA is going to come down and watch the game,” Morris said.

The IAIR will play against a Native American team in Denver and are expecting one of the biggest crowds of the trip.

“This leg of the trip is the highlight for us. It’s the most important game culturally,” Morris said.

“We will play for a Shield, which we hold after our last trip.”

Last time they met, the IAIR won 40 to 15. That was November 2015 and it snowed for the duration of the game. They’re visiting much earlier this year and temperatures of around 30 degrees are forecast which should favour the Australians.

The IAIR are confident they can win but Morris said the Native American team play with plenty of passion and could be tough to beat.

The tour is due to end in a little more than a week with a game in Long Beach California, which is the only stop on the 2018 tour that remains from the first year.

Follow the side’s progress on Facebook by liking their page, ‘The Indigenous Australian Invitational Rugby Team’.

You can watch the Qubec match which was livestream courtesy of McGill Athletics. https://portal.stretchinternet.com/mcgill/portal.htm?eventId=474590&streamType=video

Games so far:

September 19 – IAIR def. Westpoint Military Company 72-19

September 21 – IAIR def. Portland Maine 69-19

September 22 – IAIR def. by Quebec 26-12

September 24 – IAIR def. by Ontario 50-21

By Keiran Deck 

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