FOR the thousands of indigenous fans who travelled from across the country to watch their heroes in action, it was everything they could have wanted; for the casual rugby league fan it probably didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Either way, Saturday night’s historic clash between the Indigenous and NRL All Stars has left plenty of ‘water cooler’ talking points ahead of the 2010 season.
In a clash that pitted the best Aboriginal talent in rugby league against the best of the rest, it was the Indigenous side that prevailed 16-12 in front of a capacity crowd nudging 27,000 at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast.
And while the football might not have been of the highest order – which is to be expected in the very first game of the year, but also because of the unlimited interchange rule that saw fresh legs limit the opportunities for individual brilliance – there is no doubting that it was a resounding success and will almost certainly become a regular fixture on the rugby league calendar.
The biggest question mark, though, revolves around scheduling.
NRL coaches – aware of the importance of such an event – are reluctant to criticise the concept but rest assured all of them would have been watching Saturday’s game desperately hoping their stars emerged unscathed.
Unfortunately the prayers of Brisbane coach Ivan Henjak and Newcastle’s Rick Stone went unanswered as first Darren Lockyer and then Kurt Gidley were taken from the field with injury.
Plenty of players have gone down injured in pre-season trials before, but they remain an evil necessity while the All Stars game could feasibly be slotted in somewhere between the NRL grand final and future Four Nations/World Cup tournaments.
Broached on the topic in the lead-up to the All Stars clash, Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy admitted to NRL.com that the timing of the fixture was far from ideal for a side that had only just welcomed its Test stars back to training and already have a trip to England for the World Club Challenge to contend with.
“To be playing in a game that will be fairly intense with only three or four weeks training under their belt isn’t ideal,” he said.
“But we’re not in control of when they put the game on so that’s just the way it is.”
Despite this, the players involved did more than enough to deflect any suggestion that this would be nothing more than a glorified exhibition match.
From the moment English international Sam Burgess was penalised in the first set of the game for making contact with kicker Scott Prince, it was clear that he wasn’t there to make friends.
Michael Jennings felt it too when he copped a huge hit late in the game, while Indigenous hooker Travis Waddell was left unconscious after collecting a stray knee while trying to tackle Luke Bailey.
What the game lacked in points it certainly made up for in passion.
And although a lack of fine tuning so early in the season made tries hard to come by, both sides created plenty of opportunities.
The Indigenous side led 10-0 at the break courtesy of tries to Wendell Sailor and Ben Jones – Sailor’s second-minute opener coming with one of the great try celebrations as he ripped out the corner post and played it like a didgeridoo with team-mates joining in for a makeshift corroboree. (Incidentally, thanks for the memories Dell…)
The second half saw an NRL fightback.
First Josh Morris pounced on a Cameron Smith grubber to score out wide, Benji Marshall closed the gap to two when he was the recipient of a fortuitous deflection and Michael Jennings showed his speed to give the NRL All Stars the lead for the first time with a quarter of the game remaining.
But having tried and failed on all three occasions to score a ‘bonus try’ rather than going for goal – the one major rule change trialled in this game – they eventually paid the price for their initiative when Johnathan Thurston collected a loose ball and sent Jamie Soward away for what proved to be the winning try
Both sides scored three tries but the Indigenous All Stars twice took the conversion, successfully, instead of the bonus try option, to win the game.
It seems that the All Stars initiative is a great one – but we reckon the bonus try idea should be shelved; with goal-kickers averaging 80-per-cent-plus strike-rates we can’t see it being a serious option in the NRL – unless conversions are reduced to a one-point value.
Before the game, late withdrawal Jamal Idris was awarded the George Green Medal as the Indigenous Rising Star for 2009.
Who Was Hot:
Thurston was named the inaugural Preston Campbell Medal winner. True, he was creative and scheming (57 touches, three offloads) and lifted the side to victory with a special offload to fleet-footed Soward.
But there were any number of other deserving winners, including NRL All Stars forward Sam Burgess. The UK import threw himself into every one of his 24 tackles (including three monster Big Hits), offloaded four times and broke six tackles – and no doubt left an enormous smile on the face of South Sydney coach John Lang.
His NRL All Stars team-mate Israel Folau tallied a massive 217 metres from 15 runs, including two line-breaks, while Panthers speedster Michael Jennings ran for 150 metres, with 15 tackle breaks, five offloads, three scything line-breaks and a dazzling try.
Cronulla winger Blake Ferguson made the most of his opportunity, making a bust and scampering for four tackle-breaks and a line-break. Neat stuff.
Campbell himself could also have laid claim. As usual, the man that first came up with the concept of an Indigenous All Stars game put his body on the line against far bigger men and looked dangerous whenever he touched the football.
Who Was Not:
It wasn’t a happy game for the playmakers in general, who have only just returned from a well-deserved holiday and are yet to find their timing. Although the match was played at a frenetic pace, the last pass invariably went wayward just when it looked like a try was coming.
In all, the game saw 41 errors, with a heavy tally of 25 contributing to the NRL All Stars’ downfall.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed:
What about the pre-game war dance, where Aboriginal dancers advanced at the NRL side with their spears, stopping just a dozen or so centimetres from the players’ chests? How emotive was that?
Meanwhile, the ‘bonus try’ trial proved to be somewhat of a flop, with neither side coming close to adding an extra four points despite trying to do so four times between them. Still, it provided for some moments of hilarity.
Most of the time players seemed confused, often tempted to kick before realising the concept didn’t allow them too – and Nate Myles forgetting altogether as he ambitiously kicked through early in the second half.
In the end what seemed like a great idea didn’t work out as everyone had hoped… but that’s what these games are for.
Kurt Gidley (Knights) – leg, scans this week; Darren Lockyer (Broncos) – bicep, possibly only short-term.
The All Stars game represented the top-level refereeing debut of former Roosters fullback Luke Phillips. A member of the Roosters’ 2002 premiership side, Phillips impressed in a game played at lightning speed while the referees in general enjoyed a relatively easy night out without the pressure of a competition fixture.
NRL.com Best & Fairest:
3 points – Sam Burgess: He may be new to the NRL but Souths recruit Sam Burgess stood out in a losing side, rattling the Indigenous outfit with a series of big hits and setting up his side’s third try with a brilliant offload.
2 points – Preston Campbell: Always dangerous, he ran for a team-high 122 metres, was superb in defence and proved an inspiration to his people on one of the most important nights of his career.
1 point – Johnathan Thurston: The official man of the match was heavily involved in attack and played a key hand in two of his side’s three tries.
Indigenous All Stars 16 (W Sailor, B Jones, J Soward tries; J Thurston 2 goals) def NRL All Stars 12 (J Morris, B Marshall, M Jennings tries) at Skilled Park. Crowd: 26,687.