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Steve Menzies, Cliff Lyons, Cooper Cronk and participants in the Bennelong Cup.

Rugby league greats, corporate business people and NRL School to Work students mixed on Friday as part of the fourth annual Bennelong Cup.

This was much more than a touch football tournament.

Started in 2018 by Bennelong Energy Services directors Gaven Sheehan and Cliff Lyons, the day provided networking opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school leavers.

Overall, 24 young Indigenous leaders, including NRL School to Work graduates, have earned apprenticeships or traineeships after connecting with event sponsors such as leading facilities and project management companies BGIS, CBRE and Cushman Wakefield.

That includes eight roles "offered this year in the fields of carpentry, plumbing, electrical, project management and administration," according to Sheehan, who believes "sport has proven to be an excellent catalyst for bringing employers and future employees together in a non-confrontational social context."

Former Maroons, Panthers and Rabbitohs player Rhys Wesser at the Bennelong Cup.
Former Maroons, Panthers and Rabbitohs player Rhys Wesser at the Bennelong Cup. ©Supplied

This year, the Bennelong Cup also gave School to Work and Souths Cares program students the chance to play with and against NRL legends like Lyons, Cooper Cronk, Bryan Fletcher, Steve Menzies, Rod Silva, Jeff Hardy, Josh Stewart and more at Randwick Army Barracks.

A luncheon for 240 people was held at Souths Juniors after the touch football action to celebrate student achievements and present a group of apprentices and trainees with Bennelong scholarships to help cover their equipment and education costs.

"From year one in 2018 to today, I think we've grown from 60 to 180 [touch football] competitors," Sheehan said.

"The kids get more opportunities when there are more companies involved. From day one, we had two companies – now we've got 15, 16 sponsors. It takes me five months to put this together.

Cliff Lyons and Bennelong Cup participants.
Cliff Lyons and Bennelong Cup participants. ©NRL Photos

"It's like Christmas. One day and it's all over! But it's really rewarding to see all the companies getting involved.

"The students love it because they've got an opportunity to get a job out of it. We've got the Defence [Force] careers tent – you can't get that everywhere for these kids."

Manly icon Lyons said there were a host of employment areas.

"You can go into computer work or you can be a builder or an electrician. Lots of different opportunities and different pathways there, which the kids can sort out themselves," Lyons said.

The Bennelong Cup is a perfect partner for the NRL School to Work program. More than 2500 students have completed their HSC at a 96 percent success rate since the Federal Government-funded initiative began in 2012, with School to Work mentors then supporting graduates to secure further education or gainful employment.

"[The Bennelong Cup] is a huge part of providing that opportunity, introducing them to a variety of employers," the NRL's general manager of Indigenous strategy Mark deWeerd said.

NRL School to Work has opened that door and shown us what opportunities are out there

Brad Robbins, managing director of BGIS

"It's great that businesses see the benefit of employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

"To have them here, to have their support, and for them to want School to Work to be a part of it is a huge benefit for us. It makes our job a bit easier when we're trying to find those job opportunities."

Cronk, who retired after winning the 2019 grand final with the Roosters, enjoyed being involved and noted the bigger picture.

"We probably get carried away in the importance of the scoreboard [in the NRL], and you don't actually realise the impact that rugby league can have," the champion halfback said.

"One, as a recreational sport, and two, as a vehicle for change for people to move in different directions.

"I got a phone call from Cliffy. Growing up I watched footage of Cliffy and Steve Menzies and took pieces from that. [Lyons] is arguably one of the best ball-players to ever play the game, so I was never saying no to Cliffy [about participating]."

Menzies said it was "cool" for the students to have access to some of the players they grew up watching.

An Indigenous performance at  Bennelong Cup luncheon.
An Indigenous performance at Bennelong Cup luncheon. ©Supplied

"It's great seeing kids out there playing sport and corporates too. The sun's out and they're doing a bit of exercise," he said.

Brad Robbins, the managing director of BGIS, said hiring Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander young people had been beneficial.

"We can give them gainful, long-term employment, so it's not just short-term employment, it's long-term as well. Internships, apprenticeships, traineeships," Robbins said.

"NRL School to Work has opened that door and shown us what opportunities are out there. We're always looking for talent [and it's] another pool of talent we can work with and develop."

Nineteen-year-old Angel King Petrou, a business and projects support trainee at BGIS who was awarded a Bennelong scholarship, came through the School to Work program.

"School to Work definitely gave me a lot of opportunities by helping me apply [for positions]," she said.

"There are a lot of job roles with BGIS too, so there’s a lot of opportunities there for kids my age."

Robert Najdanovic, a School to Work graduate who nows works as a BGIS trainee in construction maintenance, is looking forward to furthering his career with the company.

AFL legend Adam Goodes at the Bennelong Cup luncheon.
AFL legend Adam Goodes at the Bennelong Cup luncheon. ©Supplied

"It's an awesome environment," he said.

Meanwhile, current School to Work students Kaia Senior and Kage Dwyer are already planning for life after high school with the assistance of their "big sister" program mentor Tayla Kafoa.

"She helps me find university pathways for next year [to] get into the university that I want to get into and the course that I want to get into, even if I don't get the ATAR that I want," Senior said.

Dwyer added: "I've been speaking to the Australian Defence Force up in the [Bennelong Cup] tent. I just want to find a trade in there, doing plumbing. It's a good trade, I like it, you get some labour work doing it. I want to keep doing it and set me up for the future."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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