NSW set to rival Queensland for Indigenous representation

Just eight years after the introduction of the NRL All Stars match, NSW is set to surpass Queensland as the team with the greatest representation of Indigenous players in State of Origin.

While the Origin teams aren't named for another three weeks, there are more players of Indigenous heritage under genuine consideration for Blues selection than in any previous series, with the possibility of a three-quarter line-up featuring Blake Ferguson, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Josh Addo-Carr.

Wade Graham is expected to be selected if fit, while Tyrone Peachey is in strong contention for a utility role, and Jack Bird and Nathan Peats are incumbent members of a Blues team which last year fielded more Indigenous players than the Maroons for the first time.

Graham and Bird have been touted as possible options to partner James Maloney in the halves, while Cody Walker is another contender for the five-eighth role.

Had Andrew Fifita not pledged his allegiance to Tonga over NSW, his form would warrant selection, while Ryan James has been mentioned in discussions.

With Johnathan Thurston retiring from representative football and Sam Thaiday being dropped after the opening game of last year's series, Queensland's Indigenous representation this season may be limited to Greg Inglis, Will Chambersand Dane Gagai.

It is a significant turn-around since Bowraville-born Inglis opted to play for the Maroons, partly because of a perception that NSW was reluctant to select Indigenous players, and Timana Tahu walked out of a 2010 Blues camp in protest at comments about Inglis by assistant coach Andrew Johns.

NSW has a history of disillusioned Indigenous players, with Anthony Mundine, Nathan Blacklock and David Peachey having questioned selection decisions in the past but there can be no complaints now after the Blues last year had five players of Aboriginal heritage in all three matches.

The increased number of Indigenous players chosen in a NSW jersey in recent years has coincided with the introduction of the NRL All Stars concept in 2010 and many of the players now in contention have been given their first taste of representative football in the annual clash.

Laurie Daley's dual role as coach of the Indigenous All Stars and NSW from 2013 to 2017 also enabled him to develop relationships with many of those who wore the Blues jersey under his charge.  

Emerging leaders such as Graham, Gagai and Ash Taylor have become aware of their standing while in camp with the Indigenous All Stars, which was the brainchild of Preston Campbell after witnessing the impact of the Dreamtime team during the 2008 World Cup.

Of all the achievements that the NRL has to be proud of, none would surpass the positive influence rugby league has in Aboriginal communities and events such as the All Stars game and this weekend's Indigenous round have ensured the support of the entire game.

NRL players show off their clubs' Indigenous Round jerseys.
NRL players show off their clubs' Indigenous Round jerseys. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

All 16 clubs are on track to have their own Reconciliation Action Plan by the end of the season, including the New Zealand Warriors, who are the first international organisation to do so. 

On the field, 12 per cent of NRL players are Indigenous, while at grassroots level that figure rises to 17 per cent – a far greater representation than the 2.8 per cent of Australians with Aboriginal heritage, according to the last Census in 2016.

Indigenous players are also strongly represented in the women's game, with eight of the 40 contracted players having Aboriginal heritage.

In addition, eight members of the NSW Country women's squad named to play in next month's National Championships are Indigenous and the City team is expected to boast similar representation.

The NRL has not had to deal with an incident of racial abuse against an Indigenous player in a match since 2005 when Parramatta forward Dean Widders made an on-field allegation against Bryan Fletcher, who was stripped of the South Sydney captaincy.

The universal condemnation of the spectators who racially abused Inglis at Penrith earlier this season and the swift response of the Panthers and the NRL to identify and ban them was a positive contrast to the way former AFL star Adam Goodes was treated after a similar incident in 2013.