Family the key for First Nations Goannas
Saturday night's inaugural Festival of Indigenous Rugby League might be the first of its kind, but it is nonetheless shrouded in rugby league history.
In fact, the roots of this foundational fixture go all the way back to 1973, when Eddie Vale, father of First Nations Goannas winger Kieran, was part of the first indigenous rugby league teams to tour overseas.
Kieran doesn't remember his dad talking about it too much. In fact, Kieran and his old man barely talk about the past at all.
"But I do have one piece of footage on him," says Kieran, who will take the field for the Goannas against the Newcastle Knights at Hunter Stadium after his niece runs out for the indigenous women's game between NSW and Queensland.
"He was a pretty good halfback. He took the line on, was pretty quick, and had big fuzzy hair back in the day.
"He never really talked about that tour, just that they went over by boat. But I'm proud to know that he was there and that now I'm playing in the first Goannas squad."
A lot of that pride goes on the line in Newcastle tonight. Some of it is personal, due to being a competitive rugby league player. Some of it is human, because financial security for some fringe players is not only a blessing, but a must.
But most of it is familial, particularly for someone like Kareel Phillips. The nephew of iconic Rabbitoh Nathan Merritt, but also the son of last year's Australian Local Hero of the Year.
"He got it for his work in the community, trying to get young indigenous kids out of trouble and get them back on the right track in school or back into the workforce," Phillips says of dad Shane.
"There's a program called Clean Slate Without Prejudice where we work with police to try and get the kids a better life and stuff like that.
"I'm actually one of the lead mentors at the moment and it's good working with kids and helping them out through their problems."
And believe it or not, on a daily basis, it's a tougher proposition than facing the likes of Korbin Sims, Alex McKinnon and Tyrone Roberts.
"Emotionally, it's tougher, absolutely," says Phillips, who also has a sister playing in the indigenous women's curtain-raiser.
"It drains you out a lot, but it's good to see a smile on the kids' face when they come out the other side and changed their life around.
"And that's why this week is important too. A lot of those kids, when they found out I was in this game, have been asking me what it's like.
"This game gives them more inspiration to try and do what you want, and never give up on your dream."
In other family ties surrounding the event:
• Second cousins Adrian Davis (Goannas) and Tyrone Roberts (Knights) will captain their respective sides.
• Kareel Phillips (Goannas) is the brother of Lavinia Phillips, who will play for the NSW Indigenous Womens team and the nephew of Rabbitohs winger Nathan Merritt.
• Julie and Emma Young are sisters and are joined by sister-in-law Rebecca Young in the NSW Indigenous Womens team that will play against Queensland.
• Tristan Sailor, son of retired Dragon, Wendell, will play for NSW Under 16s Indigenous team against Queensland.