Indigenous 15s success proves NRL are onto a winner

Former NSW forward Tom Learoyd-Lahrs has applauded the NRL's decision to add an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Invitational Team to the under 15s National Championships after the side stunned onlookers to win the title last week.

The occasion marked the first time an Indigenous team competed in the Australian Schoolboys tournament with the NRL eager to include participation in all major junior elite championships in the near future.

Players from across the country, most of whom met each other just hours before their first training session, combined over the six-day tournament in Redcliffe, culminating in a 20-14 win over Victoria in the final.

"It was an unreal week, a great concept and I wasn't sure how it was going to work when they told me over the phone but as it all unfolded we were all surprised at how well it went," Learoyd-Lahrs told NRL.com.

The Indigenous under 15s side enjoyed a special week at the National Championships.
The Indigenous under 15s side enjoyed a special week at the National Championships.

"Victoria have had a lot of success in that Pool B competition for a long time so for our boys to beat them it's quite a big achievement.

"Overall it's good for the competition because you want competitive games and boys to be able to test themselves on a bigger stage.

"They had four or five days together and were able to achieve a great standard. They got to play alongside other players who were also on the cusp of state sides and work really hard."

That was the most important thing for us, to have these young men walk away as better people

Dean Widders

Learoyd-Lahrs coached the victorious invitational team, alongside Indigenous Pathways Manager Dean Widders, with a strong emphasis on learning key messages off the paddock about culture and heritage.

Now 33, Learoyd-Lahrs retired from the NRL in 2015 after a tough run with injuries. He has returned home to Tamworth and is working with local kids in the community.

"You have some tough times in footy, a very up and down experience, but one thing you can't take away is the bond and experiences with your mates, that goes right up until you retire," Learoyd-Lahrs said.

"Some of these kids are in similar positions. I'm not a big advocate of social media but they're now able to stay in touch and talk about their experience with players they just met and who knows, we could see them on the NRL stage together one day."

Tom Learoyd-Lahrs played four Tests for Australia in 2010.
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs played four Tests for Australia in 2010.

ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce spoke at the championships dinner, while Andrew Ryan, Alan Tongue and Luke Williamson presented to all players about career choices.

Widders is a prominent figure in the ongoing development of young Indigenous players and believes the squad took more away from their off-field educational activities than their overall performances.

"That was the most important thing for us, to have these young men walk away as better people," Widders said.

Players gather for the official dinner at the Under 15s Championships.
Players gather for the official dinner at the Under 15s Championships.

"It was inspiring, everyone appreciated us in the competition. The cultural aspect, introducing Aboriginal culture and sending key messages about inclusiveness and respect to the carnival was really valuable.

"The opportunity for our boys to learn more about our culture, and even do a dance before the final, was a real highlight."