NRL's Indigenous milestone a lesson for wider community
Sunday's NRL Grand Final will feature two teams captained by an Indigenous player for the first time in a milestone that shows how good the NRL is at appreciating its Indigenous players and can provide a lesson to the wider Australian community, according to NRL welfare manager Dean Widders.
The Broncos will be skippered by Justin Hodges while for the Cowboys, Johnathan Thurston shares leadership duties with Matt Scott. It means regardless of who wins an Indigenous captain will lift the shield for the first time since Wests Tigers captain Scott Prince in 2005.
"It's another way of our game creating a first in the sporting environment in Australia," Widders told NRL.com.
"These guys can send a message to the wider community and also the Indigenous community just about confidence, self esteem, using your culture to make you stronger in a tough environment like rugby league, a professional environment.
"We've done a lot of work over the last few years in the welfare and education space to strengthen these players' connection back with their culture, making them leaders, helping them understand the environment of rugby league better and also how they can be strong in their Indigenous traditions and how they can use the positive stuff of the Aboriginal culture to help them today.
"JT's a strong person who's comfortable with where he is in life and what his background is and what he's been able to achieve and comfortable with the legacy he's going to leave behind," Widders said.
"It's a real reflection on some of the stuff we've done with these boys off the field and also how accepting the game is of Indigenous culture. The positive difference our boys can make in the game - hopefully that shows other people outside of our game these things can be achieved by working together."
Widders noted the recent Dally M medals saw Indigenous players take a virtual clean sweep of the best players with Thurston taking out best player, Ash Taylor best under-20s player and Jenni-Sue Hoepper best female player.
"These guys are really flourishing at the top level and it sends a great message to the kids," Widders said.
"I think there's a more important message where the rest of the country is seeing that rugby league must be doing something special with Indigenous people and they just continue to flourish and continue to do great things.
"Our game's doing great things off the field with our Indigenous community with School to Work and these sorts of things. It gives the rest of the country an opportunity to look and go 'something special is going on there and they seem to get it right so maybe we can learn from them.'"
Widders said the growth and maturity shown by Hodges and Thurston – along with Rabbitohs skipper Greg Inglis – since their younger days was a great lesson for other young players like James Roberts and Blake Ferguson who have had their own troubled times but are now getting back on track.
"Because of the likes of JT, Greg Inglis and even a bloke like Hodgo leading the way, these guys can see what we represent, what we can do for our people, what difference we can make for our people, what difference we can make for our country as far as understanding our people and creating those environments where our people can thrive better, it's a good thing," he said.
"We can play a big part through rugby league in trying to make that difference. It shows the special relationship the game's always held with the Indigenous community and Indigenous people.
"It's a real good point to note the effect guys like JT, Greg Inglis, Hodgo, they weren't always perfect angels when they were young but the maturity they've shown, how far they've come as leaders, the work they continue to put in, it means a guy like James Roberts can turn his career around and make a Dally M team of the year and now James is on his journey.
"Things aren't always perfect for Aboriginal people and it's not always easy but these guys have shown they can be guiding light which changes the rest of these other fellas' careers and hopefully James and Fergo now will become the same thing for other players."
Widders said while there is still room for improvement the progress made in the NRL shows the game isn't fluking it and is doing a lot of things right.
"Culturally our game's learned a lot and come a long way in the last five or six years," he said.
"The camps we run, the cultural stuff we put in clubs, the rookie camps, all these things that our welfare and education teams put in place is starting to take effect in our game and there's results coming out the other end of it which has got to make the messages and all that even more powerful."