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Round 23 of the 2013 NRL Telstra Premiership is dedicated to closing the gap in Indigenous Health Inequality, and there is no better way to do that than celebrate the unmatched contribution that Indigenous Australia has provided to the game of rugby league across the world.
Without a doubt, the highlight of this round of football is the Friday night clash between the Sea Eagles and the Rabbitohs at Bluetongue Stadium, of which the focus will heavily be on whether Greg Inglis will make his return from injury. Inglis, arguably the highest profile Indigenous player in rugby league since Arthur Beetson, has been one of the standout players in the NRL this year and his development as a player is one all young footy players can aspire to.
He began as a wiry 18 year old at the Melbourne Storm, having already dominated the Queensland Cup for Norths as a teenager. From the moment he stepped onto the field in Round 6, 2005, he looked at home in the NRL. He scored five tries in his debut season, spending time between wing, fullback and the bench, including one in their 24-18 qualifying final victory over the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium.
Two seasons later he had a Clive Churchill Medal playing at five-eighth, a positional switch forced because Melbourne wanted him touching the ball as much as possible. Oh, and there was a bloke by the name of Billy Slater playing fullback too. A Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year award followed in 2008, before moving back to centre in 2009, winning the Golden Boot award.
Along the way he debuted for Queensland after just 22 NRL games, for Australia after just 33 NRL games, both at the age of 19, and had won a premiership by the age of 20. While his move to five-eighth wasn’t successful in the long term, it transformed him into a more damaging (if that thought is possible) ball runner, skills that were transferred to South Sydney in 2011.
At the Rabbitohs, Inglis joined a club with a long and rich history of not only Indigenous players, but with an ingrained respect for the Indigenous culture. Alongside him were players like Nathan Merritt and Rhys Wesser, both of whom had extremely different pathways to the top than the boy from Bowraville.
While his first year was plagued by injury and fitness concerns, as silly as it sounds 2012 was the breakout year for Inglis. At the Storm, Inglis was surrounded with the class and skill of Slater, Cronk and Smith. At the Rabbitohs, Inglis was THE man, and his move to fullback early last year finally gave him the chance to show this off.
They say that great players become legends when they hit beyond their peak, yet find a new way to dominate the game. In recent years, Fittler, Johns, Lockyer have all done this, and while it might not be reaching that time just yet, it’s not long before Inglis has to make this step. As we celebrate the Indigenous contribution to rugby league this week and highlight the serious social and health issues which Indigenous Australians deal with, it will be players like Inglis, Merritt, Nathan Peats and big George Rose who we look to for those moments of brilliance. For Inglis, it may well be the making of a legend, and it couldn't come at a more appropriate time.
Jim Beam Smooth Move of the Week
With the game on the line, it is the class players that stand up. That was never more true than Saturday night for the Newcastle Knights, as Dane Gagai snatched a try in the final two minutes to secure a memorable win in Danny Buderus’s club record 250th match. Darius Boyd, despite having a relatively quiet game, set them on their way chasing through a Jarrod Mullen chip to push the Knights down field, before Mullen’s cross-field kick was snatched out of Siosia Feki’s hands by Gagai to win the game.