My daughter and I dropped by Leichhardt Oval on the Monday of the Labour Day long weekend to check out the Rugby League Grand Final. This wasn’t your everyday Grand Final, of course. For most of the footy-loving world, the season ended either on Saturday at “the G” when the Aussie Rules men wound down their competition or on Sunday at the ANZ stadium where the League boys pulled the pin on their season. Nup. This was a Grand Final day of a very different sort. This was a special and unique Grand Final day!
I’m not sure how much the pro sports administrators charge for entry, for two people, to their Grand Finals but I’m confident that the wallet would suffer considerably more than the $5.00 I was charged at the box office at Leichardt. Like I said this day is different.
I had asked the lady in the ticket booth at Leichhardt, “How much for two?”
She looked at me and said, “Well… you get in for free, but she (pointing at my seventeen-year-old daughter) costs $5.00.”
“How come,” I said, not being used to being let in to anything for free. They even charge you to get into a farmer’s market, these days, in the town where I come from.
“You’re an elder,” she replied. “Elders are free!”
After putting on our wrist bands, my daughter and I were ushered to the security check point where two young, friendly, security guards spent some minutes carefully examining my photographic equipment… not because they feared my camera bag might be concealing a weapon or an illicit substance but because they just happened to like the camera and its massive zoom lens. Both had ideas of a future in the media and wanted to pick my brains about opportunities in the industry for young, ambitious, people. Security people are usually polite, but rarely friendly and never chatty. These were not your average security people. Even security had an excited, celebratory, vibe to it at this event.
Like I said, this was not your ordinary sports Grand Final. This was a special sports carnival. This was the final day of the Koori Knockout Rugby League festival!
The forty-seven-year old festival of indigenous Rugby League now runs for the four days of the October long week-end, culminating in the Monday when only two teams remain in the knockout format draw in under 12, under 15, under 17, women’s and men’s divisions. This year the festival was hosted by the 2016 men’s and women’s champion teams… both from the Redfern All Blacks club. The five competitions commenced on the Friday with fifty-six men’s teams, twenty-four women’s teams and dozens of junior teams hopeful of victory at the Monday Grand Finals.
My daughter and I were excited. The Koori Knockout is an event where many of the cream of professional Rugby League get the chance to play side by side with ordinary folk from their communities. Players like Andrew Fafita, Bevan French, Will Smith, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Connor Watson combine with former greats like Anthony Mundine and George Rose to team up with their indigenous brothers and sisters from places like Walgett, Griffith, Newcastle, the A.C.T. and dozens of other communities. Salem (my daughter) was buzzing over the prospect of seeing some of the future greats of women’s Rugby League demonstrating their sublime skills as well.
We walked into the ground just as the under 17 boys were finishing their match. Despite the high standard of footy on the field we were soon distracted by the tiny toddler footballers preparing themselves for their half-time demonstration games in an area next to the main grand stand. In twenty years, some of these tiny boys and girls may have contracts with professional sports teams and be showing off their skills in front of even larger audiences than they will experience today.
The under seventeen boys were followed by the women’s grand final. While some of the players in the women’s competition have been playing for years, women’s rugby league is on a fast growth path and some of the athletes are relatively new to the game. Despite the lack of experience of many players the skill, toughness, durability and power demonstrated in the women’s Grand Final was extraordinary. The Redfern All Blacks just managed to pip the mighty Dunghutti Jindas in the final moments of the game, 12 – 8.
The men’s grand final was just as entertaining. While the first half was a real arm wrestle, the strong Newcastle Yowies were starting to assert their authority over the courageous Griffith Three Ways team just before half time. Despite enterprising play early in the second half from Griffith, that gave their supporters some hope of a come-back, the powerful Yowies drew away as the second half progressed for a 22 – 8 final score.
In the under 12s final held earlier in the day, the La Perouse Panthers dominated the Newcastle All Blacks while former NRL great, Owen Craigie’s under 15’s Yowies, pulled themselves over the line in their game against Combined Countries. In the under 17s game, the boys showed off their talent and proved why they might be the next big thing in the NRL with the Illawarra Titans winning against Queanbeyan Canberra United.
Past Rabbitohs, Knights and Tigers star and NITV “Over the Black Dot” presenter, Owen Craigie, is a huge fan of the Koori Knockout! He explained in his article at the NITV web page that the Knockout is one of the largest indigenous cultural festivals in the world… an opportunity for 30,000 people from the aboriginal community to showcase their culture and athletic talent.
“It gives our community a chance for a better lifestyle,” wrote Craigie. “People get together and build relationships, catch up with your mob, play sport and it’s a time of celebration. It’s not a time of mourning of the past anymore!”
As an example of a young aboriginal player show-casing their talent, Craigie described the experience of Josh Addo-Carr, the Melbourne Storm superstar, who only two years ago had been delighting the crowds at the Knockout. He wasn’t available for the Koori Knockout this year because he was too busy scoring tries in the NRL grand final, at the ANZ Stadium, just down the road, thus helping the Storm to the 2017 premiership.
Craigie explained the benefits of playing at the Knockout for young indigenous athletes in his article. “You don’t need to go to a trial game at a club really because they will all be watching you (at the Koori Knockout). If you turn it on and entertain the crowd and play some great footy you’ve just created an opportunity to enhance your lifestyle to either go into a private school, finish off school, or go into a club and live a healthy lifestyle and get paid to play the game you love.”
After enjoying a day out at the Knockout with his daughter, Socrates took the opportunity to talk to former Manly Warringah and St George-Illawarra NRL star and NITV program “Over the Black Dot” presenter, George Rose, about what the Koori Knockout means to him.
Socrates: As a participant, what was the best part of your Koori Knockout experience this year?
George: As a player, for me, it was pretty exciting. One of my younger cousins… seventeen years ago I was helping to change his nappies… and on the weekend, I got to play alongside him. He’s a young front rower who’s got a future. For me to get the opportunity to play beside him was really cool. That was one of the great things for me… and pretty much just being out there on the field playing knockout footy which is something I grew up with.
Socrates: Mentoring less experienced community members is an important part of the week end?
George: That’s the thing with the knockout. You quite often see uncles playing with their nephews… there’s been a few fathers playing with their sons… brothers and cousins and all sorts of relatives that you grow up with play together. (As an experienced player) you get the chance to show them the ropes and then let them take over from there.
Socrates: Was there any moment that stood out for you?
George: Obviously playing alongside the young fellas was really cool. Not really narrowing down to a single moment but seeing the look on people’s faces when they got to line up against guys like Latrell Mitchell and James Roberts and Connor Watson in our team (Walgett). To see their faces when they have made a tackle on one of them. I saw a bloke in the Newcastle Yowies team who managed to take down Andrew Fafita one-on-one. You could just see (on his face) a combination of shock and excitement and terror all rolled into one. That’s an experience you only get at the Knockout. It goes the same for the NRL boys who play. They look at someone who they mightn’t think looks much chop but they are often great footballers and the pros think to themselves where the hell has this bloke been. Guys in the NRL can’t take be me down as well as this guy can?
Socrates: What are the positive outcomes for communities through their participating in the Knockout?
George: The fact that it is such a positive event. In aboriginal communities and aboriginal families quite often when you have that sort of catch up with families and friends it is usually for negative reasons. It’s usually for funerals or because someone is sick. But in this case, it’s always a positive week-end. You are there to play footy. You are there to catch up with family that you haven’t seen for a long time. It’s just a really positive feeling that comes from it. You get a bit of post-knockout depression when you finish up because it is such an exciting and enjoyable week-end. When it does finish up you wish that you could have that every week end but you wait the twelve months for it to roll around again and its really empowering for communities. I know that for our community at Walgett it’s been such a strong catalyst for positivity within the town both through keeping sport going within the town and lots of other things that branch off the back of it.
Socrates: Do you see changes coming for the Koori Knockout into the future?
George: Not really sure about where it could be headed but if you roll back the clock ten years the way that the Knockout was run was different I think. The experience that communities gain from hosting the Knockout is developing that professionalism and business acumen that you are forced to gain! You are hosting over 150 teams over a week end so you must be able to prepare the logistics for that. What communities gain out of developing this professionalism is massive. Like I said. Ten years ago, there was maybe seventy teams in total including the men’s, women’s and junior competitions so it was so different. Probably the biggest change in the next ten years will be… the juniors and women’s competitions are getting bigger and bigger every year and they could even come to the point where they become their own entity. It’s massive the appeal and everyone wants to be a part of it. It’s going to outgrow itself soon.
Socrates: The women’s competition impressed you?
George: It’s unreal! You watch the women’s game now and it’s no joke. The women are really talented. I’m coming to a point where I am curious to see if women can slip into the men’s competition. They have the skill. I have mates who coach women’s Rugby League and they say that women are very coachable… a lot more coachable than their male counterparts are.
Socrates: Did you see any potential future pros playing for Knockout teams?
George: Definitely. The way that the game is changing at a professional level is that it’s now able to support the smaller players. In the past when young indigenous players have come down to have a go in the big leagues they have often been told that they were too small and its often killed a lot of careers of great young players. But the way that the game is evolving I think that it is playing more into their hands now so that clubs are looking for those especially talented players and less focused on their size. When you watch the games of the kids in the junior ages they are often years ahead of the skills seen in the open ages. Some of the things that the kids are doing are crazy. I know that I wasn’t anywhere near that level at that age. There is so much potential for it. Even in the open ages, too, you see guys who might have missed out on the opportunity when they finished high school but now they are still very high-quality players. I know that from our team (Walgett) we had two guys who haven’t had any professional experience… they were our best players, by far, over the week end. You could see them slotting into a system so easily. They have the fitness. They have the skill. They obviously have the drive – just to be in the shape that they are in!
Socrates: What is it that makes the Koori Knockout such a unique and special event?
George: The size of the event. The fact that it has now been running successfully for 47 years. The fact that it has been passed on from community to community and gets more successful every year. Just the positive vibe that surrounds the week end… and the quality of the football. It’s football that you don’t normally see on TV – it’s an exciting brand of footy with some heavy contact and some very flashy skill!
Socrates and daughter, Salem, had a terrific day out at the Koori Knockout. While both were impressed with the atmosphere, excitement, friendliness and quality of play Salem wasn’t that over-awed that she didn’t think she could take on some of the women on show. “I reckon I am as fast as most of them,” she suggested. That’s the thing about the Koori Knockout. It makes you want to get involved yourself and show what you can do!
Thanks to George Rose from “Over the Black Dot” (NITV) for talking to me about the 2017 Koori Knockout held at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney (Friday, September 29 – Monday, October 2 – 2017). The next Knockout will be hosted by 2017 men’s champion’s, the Newcastle Yowies.