League Immortal Mal Meninga was always among the first players chosen for any team that he was available for.
Sometimes too, it has now been revealed, he was also among the first picked for teams he wasn’t available for.
While it is often said there are no secrets in rugby league, the recently revealed story of how Big Mal almost became a legend of the Indigenous game was one that somehow managed to sneak through the cracks of public knowledge.
Meninga, of course, is not Indigenous.
The record-breaking captain and coach of Queensland and Australia is very proudly of South Sea Island descent, his ancestors coming to Australia from Tanna, in the Vanuatu island group to work on Queensland cane farms.
Meninga’s ancestry has been widely acknowledged and celebrated in recent years through the television program Who Do You Think You Are? that charts people’s lineage.
But the Immortal’s family roots were not as widely known back in 2008, when a panel of league historians and legends of the game got together to choose the Indigenous Team of the Century – as part of rugby league’s 100th birthday celebrations that year.
While the great Arthur Beetson was deservedly the first name chosen in the No.10 jersey, Meninga was not too far behind – pencilled in at No.3.
Commemorative jerseys were created to be presented to each of the players, or their families, chosen as being among the best 17 Indigenous players to have played the game.
All well and good, except – as mentioned previously – Meninga did not qualify because he is not Indigenous.
Thankfully, before the team was made public, the selection panel contacted every player chosen, or their family, to make sure they were comfortable being a part of the celebration.
For the first time in his life, Meninga had to rule himself out when the representative selectors called.
But the jersey commissioned to honour Meninga’s “selection” still exists.
The selection panel, appreciative of Big Mal setting the record straight, adjusted the team accordingly – ruling Meninga out, and promoting a young, promising centre from the team’s No.14 jersey into the starting No.3.
That youngster was Greg Inglis.
The story is a rugby league gem, and just another chapter in the enduring and wonderful relationship between Meninga and Inglis – who would work together so many times in future years to enjoy success with the Maroons and Kangaroos.
The story has come to light as rugby league once again prepares for its cultural celebration, with the return of the All-Stars match between the Australian Indigenous team and the New Zealand Maori at the Gold Coast’s Cbus Super Stadium on February 22.
As part of the celebrations around the game, the concept’s creator and spiritual leader Preston Campbell is organising a charity breakfast the day before the game – Friday 21 February – with Meninga and Inglis joined by Broncos legend Steve Renouf as guest speakers.
The breakfast will be hosted by Fox League star Yvonne Sampson, with players from the current Indigenous All-Stars squad also in attendance as guests.
Tickets for the Preston Campbell Foundation’s Icons of Change breakfast – celebrating 10 years of the NRL All-Stars – at the Sofitel Broadbeach are still available now at $130 for a single seat, or $1250 for a table of 10.
For all enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 07 5656 5650.
All proceeds from the event will support the Preston Campbell Foundation.
As part of the fundraising efforts for the Preston Campbell Foundation, which does amazing work for Indigenous youth on the Gold Coast and in the greater community, there is a charity auction being run by Lloyd’s featuring signed jerseys, memorabilia and even a cricket bat autographed by Sir Don Bradman.
Also up for auction are three famous jerseys from the Indigenous Team of the Century, selected way back in 2008 and personally autographed by the men chosen to wear them: Beetson’s No.10, Inglis’ original No.14, and Meninga’s No.3.