Wayne Bennett and Laurie Daley joined forces in Newcastle today to promise 16 talented young Indigenous players the most memorable two weeks of their lives when they take centre stage at the 2014 Festival of Indigenous Rugby League.
Daley today announced the lucky 16 of the country's best "non-elite" Indigenous players, who will be joined by four current and/or former NRL players in the First Nations Goannas to take on Bennett's Knights in a trial match at Newcastle's Hunter Stadium on February 8.
Taking the place of the traditional All Stars match in 2014, the trial game will mark the culmination of a week-long celebration that will also feature the NRL Indigenous Players Cultural Camp, community and school visits, a community festival; matches between the NSW and QLD Indigenous women's teams and NSW and QLD U16 boys teams; and the annual Murri v Koori Interstate Challenge.
The First Nations Goannas were chosen from the immensely popular NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout and the QLD Murri Carnival and include Raiders' Holden Cup Team of the Year selection Brenko Lee, who played in both the Koori and National Youth Cup competitions this year.
The team was selected by Preston Campbell and David Peachey, with input from Daley, with eight players coming from NSW and eight from Queensland.
The youngest player selected in the squad is 18-year-old Lee, with 30-year-old Matthew Pittman the oldest. The team will also be joined by four past and/or present NRL players, who have yet to be named.
Daley and Bennett, both staunch supporters of the All Stars concept which will return in 2015, reinforced the decision to "rest" the NRL All Stars v Indigenous All Stars match in 2014 following the World Cup, which Australia won on Sunday.
Daley said: "Significantly, the Festival in Newcastle means the All Stars concept will continue to recognise the relationship and importance of the Indigenous community to the success of Rugby League.
"This event provides a really special opportunity for 16 young men to show their skills against an NRL squad and hopefully open the door to a start in the NRL in the near future."
The week prior to the camp and trial match - January 27-31), Daley's First Nation Goannas will be hosted by Sydney-based NRL clubs, providing them the chance to experience an elite NRL playing environment with access to coaching, nutrition and training advice.
Daley will name the additional four NRL players to join the Goannas in January.
Bennett said: "This trial provides a great opportunity for young Indigenous players to compete against NRL players while also ensuring the momentum of this special celebration is continued.
"It is a privilege for Newcastle to host The Festival of Indigenous Rugby League.
"This game will form an important part of our pre-season as we get ready for season 2014."
First Nations Goannas representative Roy Smith, from the Redfern All Blacks, who attended today's launch at Hunter Stadium, said he was overwhelmed at his selection.
"I am really proud to be part of this team … it's a massive honour," Smith said. "I am really grateful and I am really looking forward to the experience.
"More than anything I am really proud to be playing with the other Indigenous boys and representing my mob.
"For us in Redfern, we all out love our footy. There are a lot of young kids playing junior footy here who look up to us like we are - NRL) First Graders so this will give the youngsters some confidence and something to aspire to."
ARL Indigenous Council Chair, the Hon. Linda Burney MP, said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community are equally as excited and committed about the Festival in Newcastle as the All Stars event.
"Like All Stars, the Festival is an opportunity to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture through sport and the arts," Miss Burney said.
"It reinforces the Game's commitment to growing Indigenous Rugby League and to showcasing the talent that exists among Indigenous communities.
"At its heart All Stars is a stunning example of how Rugby League can be a vehicle for reconciliation. The Festival can continue that legacy."
Festival Activities confirmed to date:
Monday, Feb 3 - NRL Indigenous Players Camp starts; First Nations Goannas arrive into camp
Tuesday, Feb 4 - First Nations Goannas training; team photo; personal development workshop
Wednesday, Feb 5 - Community and school visits
Thursday, Feb 6 - Training and workshops for the First Nations Goannas and Indigenous Women's teams
Friday, Feb 7 - Community Festival; Murris v Koori Interstate Challenge - 7pm)
Saturday, Feb 8 - Hunter Stadium
3pm - - Gates Open
3.15pm (QLD) Indigenous Women v NSW Indigenous Women
4.50pm (QLD) Indigenous U16 v NSW Indigenous U16
7.00pm - Newcastle Knights v First Nations Goannas
Tickets for February 8 trial at Hunter Stadium will go on sale mid-January.
Team List: First Nations Goannas*:
Joshua Benjamin - Ngalpun (QLD)
Malcolm Congoo - Argun Warriors (QLD)
Davin Crampton - Mindaribba (NSW)
Adrian Davis - Yowies (NSW)
Phil Dennis - Dingoes (QLD)
Rex Johnson - Dingoes (QLD)
Brenko Lee - Yowies (NSW)
James Livock - Ngalpun (QLD)
Bobby Nona - Yowies (NSW)
Kareel Phillips - Redfern All Blacks (NSW)
Matthew Pittman - Narwan OBC (NSW)
Reggie Saunders - Dingoes (QLD)
Roy Smith - Redfern All Blacks (NSW)
Noel Underwood - Yarrabah (QLD)
Kieran Vale - Dhungutti (NSW)
Javarn White - Dingoes (QLD)
*Four current and/or past NRL players are yet to be added to the squad.