New Zealand Maori side to face Indigenous All Stars in 2019
An All-Star New Zealand Māori team will square off against the Australian Indigenous All Stars in a mens and womens double-header in Melbourne next February to open the 2019 NRL season.
The NRL has revamped the Harvey Norman All Stars concept after a one-year break following last year's World Cup, replacing the World All Stars with a New Zealand Māori side to add some passion, culture and tribalism to the event which started in 2010.
The match, which will be played at AAMI Park on Friday, February 15, will pin the likes of Newcastle superstar Kalyn Ponga up against Greg Inglis and for the first time will also include a women's match with the same teams.
South Sydney centre Dane Gagai is one of four players eligible for both teams (along with Reimis Smith, Javid Bowen and Josh Hoffman) and will have to pledge his allegiance to one of the teams in the coming months before the January voting window.
One of the criticisms of the original All Stars concept was the lack of motivation for the World All Stars in comparison to the Indigenous side, with a large number of players withdrawing from the match.
There was also a lack of interest from fans in supporting the WorldAll Stars, but there will be no such concerns with a Māori team, especially when you consider the number of Kiwis living in Melbourne.
The NRL had every intention of reviving the Indigenous All Stars, and they used this year's hiatus to research and survey fans and players about the match in order to improve the spectacle and ensure more people feel connected to the match.
The least supported concept was the original World All Stars team, with the New Zealand Māori side earning greater support than a Pacific All Stars team combining players from Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
There were some cultural sensitivities around a potential combined Pacific team which also contributed to the decision to appoint a NZ Māori team.
The pre-game Māori haka and Indigenous war cry will be a feature of the event.
Some of the biggest names eligible for the New Zealand Māori team include Ponga, Gagai, Jordan Rapana, Corey Norman, Valentine Holmes, Issac Luke, Jordan McLean and James Tamou.
Gagai, Tamou and McLean are the three players who have represented Australia at Test level eligible for the New Zealand Māori team.
The Indigenous side is blessed with a wealth of riches in the backline, with fans to choose from the likes of Inglis, Gagai, Josh Addo-Carr, James Roberts, Latrell Mitchell, Will Chambers, Blake Ferguson, Alex Johnston, Tyrone Peachey and Jack Wighton.
It could also be a farewell game for the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Sam Thaiday, who will both retire at the end of this season.
It's expected Laurie Daley will continue as coach of the Indigenous side but it is undecided who will take control of the inaugural Māori team.
It will be the first time the All Stars game will be played in Melbourne having previously been hosted in Brisbane, Newcastle and the Gold Coast.
The NRL has a one-year deal with the Victorian government to stage the event as part of a commitment to the region to build the sport, however with new stadiums in Townsville and western Sydney to open in the next 12 months, the match could move to another state in 2020.
A two-week voting window will open to fans in January, while tickets for the match go on sale to members today and general public on Tuesday.
Potential Indigenous All Stars team
1. Greg Inglis, 2. Josh Addo-Carr, 3. Latrell Mitchell, 4. James Roberts, 5. Dane Gagai, 6. Cody Walker, 7. Johnathan Thurston/Ash Taylor, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Nathan Peats, 10. Ryan James, 11. Joel Thompson, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Jack Bird. Reserves: 14. Tyrone Peachey, 15. Sam Thaiday, 16. Adam Elliott, 17. David Fifita.
Other big names eligible: Will Chambers, Jack Wighton, Blake Ferguson, Alex Johnston, Bevan French, Connor Watson, Aiden Sezer, Corey Thompson
Potential New Zealand Māori team
1. Kalyn Ponga, 2. Jordan Rapana, 3. Dylan Walker, 4. Dean Whare, 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 6. Corey Norman, 7. Benji Marshall, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Issac Luke, 10. Jordan McLean, 11. Tohu Harris, 12. Corey Harawira-Naera, 13. Elijah Taylor. Reserves: 14. Kodi Nikorima, 15. James Tamou, 16. Joseph Tapine, 17. Russell Packer.
Other big names eligible: Adam Blair, James Fisher-Harris, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Jordan Kahu, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Kevin Proctor