Indigenous All Stars v NRL All Stars
Skilled Park
Saturday 7.10pm (Qld Time)

The Indigenous All Stars ‘bushwhacked’ their NRL counterparts in the inaugural staging of this game last year, scoring three minutes from time to secure their historic victory – but building on that breakthrough 16-12 win could prove tough before a sell-out crowd on the Gold Coast on Saturday night.

Injuries have robbed both sides of some strike-power, although the ‘home’ Indigenous outfit is worst affected, losing inspirational captain and game figurehead, Titan Preston Campbell, as well as new Rabbitohs centre Greg Inglis and Broncos destroyer Sam Thaiday, while the NRL team lost Wests Tigers’ English powerhouse Gareth Ellis early in their preparations.

A host of other talent, including Souths’ Sam Burgess, Rooster Todd Carney and Raider Terry Campese, were also unavailable due to injury.

As a mark of respect to Campbell and acknowledgement of his service to the Indigenous cause, organisers have presented him with the no.1 jersey for the game, despite his non-playing status.

There’s no doubt the NRL side has the edge in experience and talent – they will field 10 internationals in their starting line-up – most of them current – and boast eight club captains in their squad. This compares to seven internationals – many past performers or with just a handful of Tests – in the Indigenous squad of 20, plus just the two club captains.

The innovation: Last year this game featured a novel ‘double try’ chance, whereby teams could if they wished forfeit the attempt at a conversion to instead go for a ‘double try’ off a bonus one-tackle play. The Indigenous side had a crack, but with no joy.

That innovation has been scrapped for this year’s game; in its place, attacking sides will get the opportunity to restart their tackle counts should their players regather any kick within their own half (not necessarily by the kicker). The only stipulations are that the kick travels five metres forward, the ball advances beyond the previous ruck, and that the ball is kicked and regathered before the halfway line.

It’s the kind of ad-lib play that’s sure to be embraced by the Indigenous side at some stage, with Scott prince, Ben Barba and Jamie Soward the most likely to try it out. Benji Marshall may look to attempt it for the NRL side, too.

Watch out Indigenous All Stars: The NRL All Stars have a glut of creativity and force that will be almost impossible to resist. They will field the NRL’s two most devastating open-play runners in fullback Josh Dugan and back-up centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who topped the 2010 competition for tackle-breaks with 192 and 170 respectively. Plus, starting centre Michael Jennings scored 16 tries, busted 150 tackles and averaged more than 100 metres a game.

On the flanks they boast the two top try-scorers Akuila Uate (21) and Brett Morris (20). Uate was also the ‘gun’ line-breaker with 29, with Morris third with 23.

And their halves combination sees arguably the player of the back-end of the 2010 season, Benji Marshall, link with arguably the game’s best ever player, Darren Lockyer, to send out relentless waves of attack. Marshall co-topped the comp for line-break assists (with Indigenous captain Johnathan Thurston) and was fourth for try assists, tallying 23 in each category.

In the forwards they have the game’s best ruck organiser in Cameron Smith and the game’s leading metre-eater in Sharks enforcer Paul Gallen (176 metres).

Watch out NRL All Stars: The brilliance and unpredictability of some of the Indigenous players will be hard to coach against.

In particular, halfback and captain Thurston and five-eighth Scott Prince will be called on to conjure all their magic if they are remain competitive, and they’ll be looking to rev up dynamic if occasionally enigmatic performers Matt Bowen, Ben Barba, Jharal Yow Yeh and Jamal Idris to deliver their best. Prince was ranked second for try assists with 25; many of those came from kicks from close to the opposition try line and if he can synchronise with his speedy outside runners that’s sure to be a feature here.

Thurston (16 try assists, 23 line-break assists) won the Preston Campbell Medal in last year’s game and the occasion of representing his people again will see him dominate Indigenous plays.

Where it will be won: You know the old saying – a champion team will always beat a team of champions. That’s why focus, attitude and the ability to form crucial combinations from the outset will be so important to both teams.

While seemingly overpowered on paper, you just can’t write off the Indigenous side – last year’s result showed just how far passion and pride will take this squad of select talent.

Tactics-wise field position, building pressure and minimising mistakes will be the order of the day – especially in a game so early in the season with plenty of ‘ring rust’ needing to be cleaned out of the system.

The plays to watch… Johnathan Thurston taking on the line with his trademark ‘show-and-go’; Jamal Idris charging onto inside balls inside the opposition 10 metres; Ben Barba swooping on Scott Prince’s well-weighted kicks; Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and George Rose looking to bend the NRL defensive line early; Josh Dugan and Brett Morris making inroads on kick-returns; Benji Marshall drifting wider on occasion in attack and bamboozling the Indigenous right-side defence; Darren Lockyer and Cameron Smith changing the point of the attack and sending plenty of traffic down the short blind; Feleti Mateo showcasing wonderful offloads late in either half when the defence gets tired.

The History: Played 1; Indigenous All Stars 1, NRL All Stars 0. Last year the Indigenous All Stars got up 16-12 in a cliff-hanger.

Conclusion: In our preview last year we predicted “a high-scoring, thrill-a-minute rollercoaster of fun”. While the 28 total points scored fell short of that prophecy it was certainly high on the thrill factor.

Fitness could hold a key on the evening – the weather forecast for the Gold Coast for the days leading up to kick-off and also the night of the game are for temperatures nudging over 30 degrees, with occasional showers. That spells humid conditions, so both coaches will need to be spot-on with their interchanges.

The NRL All Stars should win – but with a sell-out crowd that will largely be in the corner of the Indigenous team, plus the wave of emotion surrounding the key themes of reconciliation, recognition and Indigenous pride, the ‘home’ side is certainly capable of repeating last year’s upset. And be assured they’ll be psyched for kick-off after another stirring delivery of their war cry.

Last year Wendell Sailor played a corner post like a didgeridoo after scoring early in the game. The impromptu celebration had the crowd in rapture – what have they got in store this year?

One thing that’s unlikely is a blowout win by either side. We’ll tip the NRL All Stars by six points.

Teams & jersey numbers:
Indigenous All Stars
– 20. Matt Bowen, 2. Nathan Merritt, 3. Willie Tonga, 4. Beau Champion, 5, Jharal Yow Yeh, 6. Scott Prince, 7. Johnathan Thurston (c), 8. Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, 9. Travis Waddell, 10. George Rose, 11. Cory Paterson, 12. Jamal Idris, 13. Greg Bird, 14. Ben Barba, 15. Jamie Soward, 16. Carl Webb, 17. Joel Moon, 18. Joel Thompson, 19. Ryan James, 21 Anthony Mitchell. Coach – Laurie Daley.

NRL All Stars – 1. Josh Dugan, 2. Akuila Uate, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Jamie Lyon, 5. Brett Morris, 6. Darren Lockyer (c), 7. Benji Marshall, 8. Ben Hannant, 9. Cameron Smith, 10. Matthew Scott, 11. Nathan Hindmarsh, 12. Liam Fulton, 13. Paul Gallen, 14, Dave Taylor, 15. Ashley Harrison, 16. Feleti Mateo, 17. Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 18. Michael Ennis, 19. Petero Civoniceva, 20. Kurt Gidley. Coach – Wayne Bennett.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne, Ben Cummins, Gavin Badger, Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 6.30pm (Queensland time), 7.30pm (NSW).

* Statistics: NRL Stats.