'I'm not just representing myself': Staggs proud of Indigenous roots

Rugby league was Kotoni Staggs' saviour.

Growing up in Wellington in western NSW he didn't know it as such; to Staggs it was simply what he did for fun.

Like many regional communities there can be a vast scale of disparity in what kids do for fun and in the Indigenous community around Wellington, drugs and alcohol influence the lives of too many.

When Staggs runs out for the Broncos against the Warriors on Saturday evening in Auckland he will be wearing the club's Indigenous Round jersey that carries the totem of the Wiradjuri people of the NSW Central West.

Designed by artist Elaine Chambers-Hegarty with input from Broncos players Jack Bird and James Roberts, the totems of all Broncos Indigenous players – both male and female – are represented, making it a jersey that Staggs will wear with an even greater sense of pride.

"It's a special one for me. My heritage is special to me," Staggs said.

"That jersey is going to mean a lot to me."

Given his elevation to NRL star at just 19 years of age last year, Staggs is conscious of the status he now carries within his community.

He will return home next weekend to support a community golf day at Wellington as a way of encouraging youngsters to make better choices - and maybe even win a nearest-the-pin prize in the process.

Those who play for the local Wellington Cowboys are idolised just as much as the NRL's biggest names, the club playing a significant role in recent years in addressing the ice epidemic that infiltrated the quiet country town.

It's why when Staggs pulls on his jersey on Saturday and sees the goanna emblazoned on its front he will be reminded that he is playing for more than two premiership points.

"I'm not just representing myself, I'm representing my family as well," he said.

"On my Mum's side is Wiradjuri, I'm from Wiradjuri land down in New South Wales and our totem is the goanna. I'm a big believer in culture and especially my Indigenous background.

"I come from a small Indigenous community and to be able to wear that jersey on the weekend is going to mean something special to me, just the same as the Indigenous All Stars against NZ Maori.

"There's not a day goes by that someone doesn't ring me from home and I have a yarn with them.

"I'm heading home next Friday actually for a golf day and a barbecue for the community as well.”

It’s been just over 12 months since Staggs was selected to make his first grade debut under Wayne Bennett, his rapid rise continuing under Anthony Seibold.

Considered a bench utility option when the season began, he has displaced James Roberts and become the side’s No.1 centre in the wake of the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jack Bird.

While he is gaining confidence with each NRL appearance – Saturday will be his 19th in the top grade – he says with Roberts waiting in the wings he has to continue to elevate his game.

"I've got to go out and compete every week. That position is mine now and it's only up to me to let it go,” the 20-year-old said.

"I’ve just got to keep fighting. The coach pulled me in and told me that I was playing and he left James out but James is a quality player and he'll be there soon.

"I've still got to come to training and put in the hard yards and try to keep my position for the rest of the year.”