A $50,000 fine for breaches of the NRL’s biosecurity protocols by Bulldogs players is helping to fund an emergency food initiative in one of the Sydney communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
Canterbury CEO Aaron Warburton said a significant portion of the fine, imposed after five players attended a Bondi-hotel at the beginning of the current outbreak in June, had been committed to supporting Community Cares Kitchen, fronted by former Bulldogs great Hazem El Masri.
“When we announced the fines we said that the money would go towards initiatives rolled out by the Bulldogs in the community and within two weeks we saw this initiative,” Warburton said of the program, which last week delivered 800 meals prepared by chefs from Canterbury Leagues Club to needy families in the area.
The NRL last weekend launched a vaccination campaign with star players encouraging people to get the jab but it’s only one example of how the game is supporting communities in Sydney’s west and western NSW where the outbreak is most severe.
Canterbury and South Sydney have been heavily involved, with the Bulldogs helping NSW Health to deliver messaging to their huge multi-cultural fan base and the Rabbitohs utilising their strong Indigenous links.
Let's tackle this together
“Everything we do in each of our three pillars of multi-culturalism, arts and culture and participation is to drive a sense of community and we are rolling out initiatives like the Community Cares Kitchen,” Warburton said.
"We have got more than 380,000 residents in the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA and it is one of the hardest hit by the current outbreak and is consistently in the top couple for new cases every day.
"That is why we want to communicate messages of support and how to remain safe and get through this as a community, knowing that so many people are hurting and suffering."
The Rabbitohs run daily fitness sessions, health and wellbeing workshops and mentoring programs for high school students through Souths Cares, while vaccination messages featuring Damien Cook has been shared with councils in western NSW, the Central Coast and Sunshine Coast, as well in Sydney.
Souths winger Alex Johnston, who is the NRL’s leading tryscorer, offered encouragement to the Indigenous communities in western NSW, after the region recorded its highest number of COVID-19 cases on Monday.
“I know it is hard but bunker down, stick together and if you are finding it tough contact someone,” Johnston said.
“Make sure you are not alone and you are keeping in contact with loved ones. It is not going to last forever so keep your head high and let’s get through this together.
“I know my family at home are locked down, including my grand dad, and I don’t think they have been vaccinated yet. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them and I am sure everyone is in a similar situation so do everything you can to protect your family.
“Stay home, stay safe and if you get the opportunity to get vaccinated do it.”
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Widders steps up
Eels NRLW coach Dean Widders, who is the NRL's Indigenous pathways manager, received his second COVID jab on the weekend and urged members of the Indigenous community to take steps to protect their families and elders.
“In Aboriginal communities we have a lot of people who are vulnerable to any sort of health risk so I think that is why it is important for us to really pay attention to what the health advice is and make sure we are following that,” Widders said.
“Some of our Indigenous people are influenced by uninformed comments on social media and since I had the jab a lot of people I know who were scared have been asking me questions about it.
“I tell them to do their research, get as much information as they can and listen to the health experts, but I have had no pain or side effects.”
Widders said he was concerned about the virus spreading within communities due to contact among large families.
“When things are bad, Indigenous people usually want to be around your family and support your family but for us it is quite dangerous so you have got to find different ways of support and we have got to ride it out.
“It is a personal thing for me because my nan is in Armidale and she is sick so one of the reasons I go back there is to see her but I wouldn’t want to go back and take the virus there."
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A chance to just have a yarn
Former Rabbitohs fullback Rhys Wesser mentors about 70 Indigenous Year 10-12 students in South-West Sydney as part of his role with Souths Cares and he has been advising them to use other methods to connect with extended family when they can’t have personal contact.
“For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, family is a big thing,” Wesser said.
“To not have that face-to-face contact with your aunty or your uncle or your cousins can be quite difficult because you feel quite isolated but we encourage our mob to pick up the phone, message or use technology out there to stay connected.”
Wesser and fellow ex-Rabbitoh Yileen Gordon use Zoom to run fitness sessions each morning and daily workshops that focus on E-safety, mental health or feature weekly guest speakers covering a range of issues such as domestic violence and addiction.
Since going online their reach has expanded and last week there were more than 1100 participants, including students from Dubbo, where the Rabbitohs played earlier this season and which now has more than 200 COVID cases.
“It is difficult for adults so just imagine kids who have to study online or do their homework online, it can become quite tedious to be able to submit different work,” Wesser said.
“Some of them have got to share a computer with four or five siblings so it is quite difficult.
“A lot of the kids just want to have a yarn and talk about something different that schoolwork. Rugby league is a great vehicle for that and they like to ask questions about where I am from, how many first-grade games did I play, who was the hardest player to tackle and stuff like that.”
'Stay strong, stick together'
Canterbury players Jayden Okunbor, Nick Cotric and Ray Faitala-Mariner have recorded a series of videos for the club's social media accounts to support messaging by NSW Health.
The Bulldogs also have the words “Thank You HealthCare Workers” embroidered on the sleeve of the club’s jersey.
Canterbury captain Josh Jackson and rookie Bailey Biondi-Odo thanked fans for their support on Monday and urged them to continue following the tough COVID lockdown regulations in place in Sydney's 12 LGAs of concern.
"It's been a really hard year again not being able to get out in the community and see all of our supporters and our members,” Jackson said.
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“I understand that it's tough there and you're doing it tough, but try and stay positive and we'll get out of it together.”
Biondi-Odo said: "Just stay strong, stick together and just be positive and we'll get through this together.”
Warburton said that the club saw an opportunity to pay tribute to NSW’s 46,000 healthcare workers after recently losing one of their sponsors.
“Before we were a hotspot area we decided to get on the front foot, and we turned a terrible situation with our sleeve partner going into administration into an opportunity to thank the health care workers, which has gone down very well,” Warburton said.
Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes wrote to Warburton to tell him the acknowledgement by the Bulldogs had been greatly appreciated by workers employed within hospitals, aged care facilities and ambulance paramedics.
"The sleeve promotion goes a long way to support the day-to-day challenges our members have faced over the past 15 months," Hayes said.
Getting the message out there
The NRL is also using the State of Mind and In League In Harmony programs to support communities in lockdown, while a leadership forum was recently conducted by Cronulla's 2016 premiership captain Paul Gallen.
Former Canberra skipper Alan Tongue has also been involved and is set to conduct a Q & A session with current NRL and NRLW players.
“The State of Mind program has been delivered online as well and a really big focus for us has been a lot of regional towns,” NRL GM community programs Steve Meredith said.
“We have got a much bigger reach. We have been able to deliver that program to our junior clubs, and also to some of our senior players across the community.
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“Some of the issues we face in the community at the moment are the disengagement of young people and some of the anti-social behaviour so In League In Harmony is so important for us from a point of view of promoting values of community cohesion.”
The League Stars Inspire program promotes resilience, support and gratitude to primary school students.
“We have tried to keep it relevant with the mental health challenges,” Meredith said.
“Schools are in lockdown, teachers are looking for innovative ways to engage our kids and the NRL has got players who are able to provide some inspiration.
“We have all had to pivot in so many ways, but it doesn’t mean our community programs stop. We are still finding ways to deliver messages from players.
“We talk to the adults because they have been impacted but for the young kids, mum and dad may be without work so there is that ripple effect. To hear some of their heroes talk about resilience, support and gratitude hopefully brings a bit of encouragement to them.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.