The squads for the NRL All-Stars clash next month will be announced shortly, however, New Zealand Māori Rugby League chairperson John Devonshire concedes the extension of New Zealand’s border closure is disappointing for players and supporters on this side of the Tasman.
It had been hoped that New Zealanders could have had quarantine-free travel with Australia by the middle of January, however, the arrival and spread of Omicron in Australia in December saw that pushed back to the end of February. Like the 2021 edition of the All-Stars clash in Townsville, it means both the men's and women's teams and administrators will all be Australian based.
While it’s disappointing, Devonshire says when one door shuts, another one is opened.
“Some of those wāhine Māori in Australia who haven’t had a close connection with their whakapapa, or their taha Māori, will now get that and opportunity and experience so that’s still got to be a good thing as well.”
In the corresponding clashes last year, the Māori Ferns, without the likes of Harata Butler and Krystal Rota and coach Rusty Matua, defeated the Indigenous All Stars 24-0, while the men’s side battled out a 10-10 draw. This year's All-Stars weekend at CommBank Stadium in Paramatta will be the first time the concept will be played in Sydney.
Parramatta is considered a melting pot of cultures, with the Burramattagal people having a history dating back 60,000 years. Māori also have a history with the area dating back at least 200 years. Devonshire says it’s sad then that Covid-19 will mean the celebration of the two cultures in the week leading up to the game won’t be going ahead as they have in the past.
“Some of the community events and promotions have been canned. The game will go ahead, but All-Stars was always about more than just the game.”
Selection Headaches Ahead
NRL clubs have been under pressure during the offseason with a number of squads being affected by outbreaks of Covid-19 over the summer. Devonshire says that has also proven challenging to both David Kidwell and Ben Gardiner, Men’s and Women’s coaches respectively, pulling their squads together.
“It is frustrating. The players are contracted to their clubs, their clubs are a little bit reluctant because of the injury factor, a week away from camp.
“But also the opportunity for surgery in the off-season and coming back. For example, Jesse Bromwich, who we’ve lost this year, he’s been with the last three.”
Canberra Raiders CEO Don Furner is one administrator who appears to be of that mind, telling Australian media this week he was wary of sending rostered players to the All-Stars game.
"Most coaches don't like them going anyway because you could lose them to injury, now you could lose them from camp for a week as a close contact or with the virus.
"It's about minimising the risk, they've got strict protocols for it that are even stricter than our protocols," he said.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have indicated they won't stand in the way of their players who are selected this year. Tohu Harris, Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita were not released to play for the Māori All-Stars but Josh Curran and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown were allowed to play for the Indigenous team. Harris is recovering from surgery, and Taunoa-Brown is now at the Cowboys.
Warriors assistant coach Stacey Jones says they're monitoring their players and those that are fit and healthy will play on February 12.
“I know there are players at the moment thinking about playing and thinking about getting themselves right for the Warriors' first [game].
“From a club’s point of view, they don’t want to hold anyone back from representing their culture, if they’re fit and healthy," Jones says.
Devonshire says most clubs are understanding of the balancing act between the significance of the All-Stars and the NRL season.
“If a player is not 100% we don’t expect them to come into the camp. They’ve got a long season ahead of them, but the players are keen as mustard and reach out to connect with their culture."
Suspensions have also hampered Kidwell’s side, with Melbourne Storm star and 2021 Dally M hooker of the year Brandon Smith, and young Warriors fullback Reece Walsh, both ruled out because of off-field incidents at the end of last season.
Māori All-Stars talent looks good well into the future
Walsh, who is also eligible for the Indigenous All-Stars, is one of a number of exciting prospects for future Māori All-Stars sides.
“How rich is this? We have Reece Walsh who is a fullback, or we might have to have a bloke named Kalyn Ponga play fullback. And then another player amongst our squad is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. We're talking quality players here, says Devonshire.
"We want those young fellahs. There's a couple at the Broncos. Xavier Willison, who is injured, TC Robati. There’s a lot of young talent around the NRL that is coming, and they can use this as a stepping stone. Don’t forget it's a World Cup year as well,” he says.
David Kidwell and Ben Gardiner are expected to have their squads finalised as soon as they prepare for the fourth NRL All-Stars clash between the two indigenous cultures.