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Indigenous All Stars v NRL All Stars
Skilled Park
Saturday 7pm (Qld time)

Among the most anticipated fixtures on the rugby league calendar, the third instalment of the annual Indigenous All Stars game kicks off this weekend to herald the impending arrival of the 2012 NRL season.

The concept first floated by former Gold Coast star and proud Aboriginal Preston Campbell back in 2009 has struck a chord with rugby league fans by allowing them to vote their favourite players into each side, and this year’s clash promises to be the most intriguing yet.

Needless to say, attack will be the name of the game at Skilled Park this Saturday night with the Indigenous side in particular boasting a star-studded backline that wouldn’t look out of place representing the green and gold. Among those named in the side in 2012 are Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba and South Sydney’s Nathan Merritt – who finished equal first on last year’s NRL try-scoring list with 23 apiece – plus Test centres Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges and Australian and Queensland winger Jharal Yow Yeh. They also boast high-profile Parramatta signing Chris Sandow in the No.7 jersey, representing the Indigenous All Stars for the first time, alongside Johnathan Thurston in the halves.

The NRL side is equally impressive, with Kiwi captain Benji Marshall and Melbourne’s Cooper Cronk leading a backline that also features Canberra fullback Josh Dugan, Penrith’s Michael Jennings and Manu ‘The Beast’ Vatuvei. They will be ably supported by a devastating forward pack that includes fearsome ball-runners Anthony Watmough, Frank Pritchard, Adam Blair, Paul Gallen and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

Now in its third year with one win apiece following the NRL side’s 28-12 success in 2011 (the Indigenous side won 16-12 in 2010), this year’s fixture takes on even greater significance following the announcement that they will be competing for the new Arthur Beetson Trophy. Beetson, who passed away on December 1 after suffering a heart attack, was the first Indigenous Australian to captain his country in any sport, is rated among the game’s finest ever forwards and was arguably the man most responsible for sparking the huge success of State of Origin football following his passionate display for Queensland in the first game back in 1980.

Despite a handful of players pulling out through injury over the past two weeks, both sides will fancy their chances of scoring a historic win this weekend as the NRL continues to celebrate the invaluable contribution of Indigenous Australians to rugby league.

The NRL All Stars have been hardest hit, losing Cameron Smith, Ben Hornby and Tony Williams; Aaron Payne, Nathan Fien and Watmough are their replacements. The Indigenous side will line up as originally named.

Rules changes: This year’s All Stars game will see a raft of new rules and interpretations trialled for the first time in what shapes as a fascinating subplot. They are:

•    The ‘Power Play’;
•    Tackle count restarted for infringements in the play-the-ball; and
•    20/50 kicks.

The Power Play, designed to encourage attack, is by far the most ambitious of the new rules. A Power Play can be used at any stoppage of play and when taken by the side in possession will see the defending side forced to drop two players from the field of play for a period of five minutes or until a try is scored. Only one side can use their power play at any one time – and the defending side will nominate which two players they banish to the sideline. Each team has one Power Play available per half (a total of two each during the game).

The other notable rule to be trialled will see the match officials signal six again (starting on the zero tackle) rather than stopping play when a differential penalty is called against the defending team in the tackle. This means that if a player holds down for too long, or pulls the leg of the man playing the ball, play will simply continue with the tackle count returning to zero. The basic premise here is to reduce stoppages, while tired defenders won’t be able to regroup by deliberately giving away a penalty. (This rule does not apply to foul play, dropped ball situations or when the attacking team infringes.)

The 20/50 rule is simply a new take on the 40/20 rule – allowing kickers to earn the scrum feed from deeper within their own territory (Organisers originally planned a 20/40 rule but this was tweaked after experimentation at training).  In what is an exciting innovation for this year’s game, match officials will be able to explain the new rules to the crowd over Skilled Park’s PA system while the game is in progress.

Watch out NRL All Stars: This year’s Indigenous side boasts one of the most lethal backlines ever assembled and they won’t hesitate to take advantage of the fact that fitness will be severely tested in the first game of the year. With Matt Bowen, Scott Prince and Joel Thompson also in the squad on the bench, the Indigenous backline alone scored a whopping 111 tries and 837 points during the 2011 NRL season. Ironically, Ben Barba and Nathan Meritt finished equal first on the top try-scorers’ list with 23 apiece – three more than Newcastle’s Akuila Uate in third. Expect to see the Indigenous side spread the ball wide at every opportunity.

Watch out Indigenous All Stars: Most sides boast one, perhaps two, genuine game-breakers in their forward pack. The NRL All Stars have at least six. So while it is the little men who will look to run amok for the Indigenous All Stars, the NRL side will see opportunities up front, with their imposing pack featuring everyone from tough nuts Paul Gallen, Anthony Watmough and Adam Blair to the devastation of Dave Taylor, Frank Pritchard and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. They key will be dominating in the tackle and creating second-phase play, the latter of which certainly shouldn’t prove to be a problem: the NRL All Stars pack combined for 276 offloads in 2011 including 48 from Gallen, 42 from Taylor and 31 from Pritchard. Throw in Vatuvei’s 34 for the Warriors and the Indigenous side can expect a physical battle on their hands.

The history: Played 2; Indigenous All Stars 1, NRL All Stars 1. It’s one win apiece after the Indigenous side triumphed in the inaugural clash back in 2010, 16-12, thanks to tries from Wendell Sailor, Ben Jones and Jamie Soward before the NRL All Stars hit back with a dominant 28-12 win last year.

Conclusion: Picking a winner in these games is always a 50/50 proposition, but of course the final result isn’t as important as the success of the concept as a whole. That said, both sides have stated this week that there is plenty to play for with the Arthur Beetson Trophy on offer as well as the chance to shake off the cobwebs of a lengthy off-season.

More than ever, this year’s clash looks set to thrill the 27,000-strong crowd with the new rules clearly aimed at opening up the game and both sides boasting the very best the NRL has to offer. On this front, the Indigenous side looks to hold a slight edge in the point-scoring department but it will be up to their forwards to contain their NRL counterparts and ultimately provide try-scoring opportunities.

Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein, Jason Robinson, Phil Haines & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm AEDT; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.15pm AEDT.

* Statistics: NRL Stats

Indigenous All Stars Team
Ben Barba (Bulldogs; Goreng Goreng)
Jharal Yow Yeh (Broncos; Margany)
Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs; Dunghutti)
Justin Hodges (Broncos; Indigenous tribes of the Cairns region)
Nathan Merritt (Rabbitohs; Wiradjuri)
Johnathan Thurston – captain (Cowboys; Gungarri)
Chris Sandow (Eels; Bigambul/ Gubbi Gubbi)
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (Raiders; Indigenous tribes of Tweed area)
Travis Waddell (Raiders; Torres Strait: Badulaig)
George Rose (Sea Eagles; Kamilaroi)
Sam Thaiday (Broncos; Torres Strait: Iama (Yam Island)
Jamal Idris (Titans; Worimi)
Greg Bird (Titans; Kamilaroi)
Andrew Fifita (Sharks; Wiradjuri)
Cory Paterson (Cowboys; Indigenous tribes of the Blue Mountains region)
Matthew Bowen (Cowboys; Binthi and Dhaarrba)
Scott Prince (Titans; Kalkadoon)
Anthony Mitchell (Roosters; Waka Waka)
Joel Thompson (Raiders; Wiradjuri)
Nathan Peats (Rabbitohs; Biripi nation)
Coach: Laurie Daley (Wiradjuri)

NRL All Stars Team
Josh Dugan (Raiders)
Jason Nightingale (Dragons)
Jack Reed (Broncos)
Michael Jennings (Panthers)
Manu Vatuvei (Warriors)
Benji Marshall – Captain (Wests Tigers)
Cooper Cronk (Storm)
Kade Snowden (Knights)
Aaron Payne (Cowboys)
Luke Bailey (Titans)
Nathan Hindmarsh (Eels)
David Taylor (Rabbitohs)
Paul Gallen (Sharks)
Adam Blair (Wests Tigers)
Frank Pritchard (Bulldogs)
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Roosters)
Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles)
Brent Tate (Cowboys)
Luke Lewis (Panthers)
Nathan Fien (Dragons)
Coach: Wayne Bennett

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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