Andrew Fifita is hoping Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon will again perform a shake a leg dance to honour the veteran prop’s 200th match for the club during this weekend’s Indigenous Round.
Culture has been a significant focus at the Sharks under Fitzgibbon and players have taken part in daily events to celebrate Indigenous Round ahead of Saturday night’s clash with Sydney Roosters, while the club has adopted the traditional Dharawal name for Cronulla of Kurranulla.
Among the activities the Sharks players have been involved in are:
· The NRL squad visiting Kurnell to hear an Aboriginal perspective from local Elder, Aunty Deanna Schreiber, about first contact in 1770 between the Endeavour and the Gweagal people;
· Will Kennedy helping to unveil a plaque at Sharks at Kareela declaring the club’s commitment to reconciliation and Royce Hunt visited Sydney;
· Jesse Ramien and Ryan Rivett addressing Indigenous students in the Clontarf Academy at Endeavour Sports High about the importance of education and healthy lifestyle choices, and;
· Royce Hunt joining School to Work students on a visit to the Chau Chak Wing Museum at Sydney University where the three surviving Kamay Spears of 40 taken by Cook more than 250 years ago are now on display after being returned from England on loan.
“This round means so much for me and my family,” Fifita said. “I want people to see who we are, and I want them to know we are still here and we are still fighting to this day to be acknowledged in the Australian constitution as the oldest Indigenous people in the world.”
The Sharks have seven Indigenous players in their top 30 squad, but the round is also significant to their team-mates.
Hunt, who heard from the museum’s Indigenous heritage curator Marika Duczynski about how Aboriginal people had tracked the Endeavour up the east coast from Point Hicks and were prepared for their arrival, grew up in Kalgoorlie and is of Maori heritage.
“It is a big round for Aboriginal people to express and showcase what I guess they haven’t been able to in the past, but it is also big for the rest of us boys from New Zealand and all the other islands and countries to represent them and our cultures as well,” Hunt said.
“Where I grew up, I would say about 80 per cent of the population was Aboriginal and some of my best friends were Aboriginal. I still keep in touch with them to this day, so this round is massive to me.
“All the boys love this round. I think there is a new level of respect for each other, we are all happy and we all love each other.”
The Sharks had the greatest representation of players in the All Stars match, with Fifita, Kennedy, Ramien, Nicho Hynes and Braydon Trindall in the Indigenous team and Hunt and Briton Nikora representing their Maori heritage.
The match followed a cultural day Fitzgibbon organised for his squad at PointsBet Stadium during the pre-season that the players credit with bringing them closer together on and off the field.
"We bought in a few spears, boomerangs, didgeridoos and I got to speak in native tongue to our group," Fifita said. "We had Fitzy doing the shake a leg, I wish we had filmed it. I want to try to get him out there again.
"What he has done to bring our culture into our football, I think you can see with the see it with the other groups expressing their love [for Indigenous culture].
"I never realised how much it would mean to play 200 games for the Sharks and what better way to do it than in Indigenous Round so I am quite honoured and proud to lead the boys out."
After being sent off in the round nine defeat of the Warriors, Kennedy is also excited about playing in Indigenous Round following his two match ban - although the Sharks are disappointed for Ramien, who received a three match suspension.
“This round is a special round for me, so it means a lot to be able to play and wear this jersey," said Kennedy, whose father, former Balmain star William "Bubba" Kennedy, is still playing in his mid-50s and will also line-up on the weekend for Molong.
“It is perfect timing for me but unfortunately Jesse just misses out. Jesse loves this round so he is devastated, but I am lucky enough to be back this week.
"We have got a fair few Indigenous boys at the Sharks so this round is special to us and it is also great that the other players in our team feel like they are representing us and want to learn more about Indigenous history and culture."
Sharks spend morning on Gweagal Land
Fitzgibbon, who is in his first year as NRL head coach after a long apprenticeship at the Roosters, said he realised through conversations with the Sharks players how important culture was to them.
“The players have helped me a lot with it, particularly Andrew. He has really helped my awareness around it and I have realised what it means to the players," said Fitzgibbon, who will pit wits with his mentor Trent Robinson for the first time on Saturday.
“It was a great education piece for us to find out more about each other and my knowledge after the input of the players into that day has grown.
“The players made the experience a great one and they are all so excited about Indigenous Round this week so it makes sense to acknowledge it the way we have."
While there were some concerns about the size of the Sharks' representation in the All Stars match compared to rival clubs, Fitzgibbon could see the benefits.
“You can see with the All Stars game that it means so much to the players," Fitzgibbon said. "Royce was a member of the Maori All Stars team and I think it is great that he acknowledges the significance of the opponent’s heritage as well.
"The players grow from the experience and any sort of representative football, I think, helps them become better. There is also a risk involved, but I think the positive benefits outweigh that risk."
Hunt is a case in point and after battling injuries for the past two seasons, including a dislocated knee cap, the prop is now a regular member of the Sharks squad under Fitzgibbon.
“That was my first All Stars match, and it was pretty cool to stand in front of the war cry and do a haka back," Hunt said. "It was an amazing feeling and an amazing atmosphere.
"Fitzy has been big for me and he has shed some light on the importance of culture. I don’t think I have been on a team that has done that before.
“Learning about it is exciting and we love telling people our stories about our cultures and our ancestors and where they are from. The boys get excited when we tell them, and I think culture brings the team together more."