Bennett gives blessing to change
He's been at the helm of the NRL All Stars since the concept's inception in 2010 and a key driver in its continued success but Wayne Bennett has given his blessing to changes to the format if it ensured the All Stars' long term future.
Much debate this week has centred on who should play against the Indigenous All Stars, where it should be played and where it should be placed on the calendar as the two teams prepare for the fifth incarnation on Friday night on the Gold Coast with two wins apiece.
Suggestions of playing the game next year in North Queensland and against either a Maori or Pacific nation All Stars team have all been thrown into the mix with Bennett reaffirming his belief as to the importance of providing a showcase for the Indigenous people.
Bennett has coached the NRL All Stars in each of the four meetings to date but said he would have no objection to a Maori or Pacific nation team being given the chance to face the game's best Indigenous talent.
"No that wouldn't worry me, what worries me is that they don't have an opportunity to display who they are and what's important to them. That would worry me," Bennett said on the eve of the game.
"That may be a better concept, I don't know, but right now we're the opposition and we're all happy to be here.
"We play with these guys, I coach these guys, I played with them as a young man and a lot of them are our best friends so if that helps their people then that's what it's about.
"By their passion [the Indigenous All Stars] are showing there's a place for it and they want it. If the Indigenous people stopped supporting it then we might have a problem. Up until then, as long as they support it and they give their best, it's not a problem for me to get a group of All Stars together and come here and provide the entertainment and the opposition they need to showcase themselves and their nation as they see it, being Indigenous."
Although most attention will focus on what happens on the field on Friday night, the week of All Stars activities has been a way to shine light on cultural issues, inspire Indigenous and Maori youth to become leaders in their communities and for players to gain a greater sense of self that will enhance their personal development.
In the Closing The Gap report tabled in Federal Parliament on Wednesday it was noted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that little progress had been made in the way of employment and education while there has been a marginal increase in the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians.
Mr Abbott called the seventh Closing The Gap report "profoundly disappointing" which to Bennett reinforced rugby league's need to persist with the All Stars concept and its commitment to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.
"Going forward I believe there's a place for it," Bennett said. "We owe it to the Indigenous community as well, it's called giving something back.
"The Prime Minister came out [on Wednesday] talking about their programs and they've committed an awful lot of money to improve the lifestyle of Indigenous Australians all over Australia and if rugby league can't do its little bit then I think we're all going to be poorer for it.
"You see a lot of kids here and you know the influence and what it means to them. Hopefully some of them will go away and will be doctors and solicitors over a period of time and their whole standard of living will rise and that's in part what we do it for.
"It would certainly be very selfish and small-minded of us because someone's talking about crowd figures that we decided we're not going to do this anymore."
But if the Indigenous All Stars are expecting Bennett's goodwill to extend to the footy field, they need to brace for an onslaught from one of the scariest forward packs ever assembled.
"Size versus skill and speed, something like that," said the master coach.
"They're not going to go through us hopefully, so they'll have to go around us.
"That's why I picked the biggest, meanest guys I could. We're not going to be spreading the ball wide.
"They've got a wonderful backline and I'm really pleased with our backline but there are some big guys in our forwards and they're very mobile and skilful."