Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Rio Tinto Indigenous Rugby League Team Dreamtime Dinner


Thank you for your warm welcome and it is great to be with you for the countdown to the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.

I need to make it clear from the outset that coming from Melbourne I’m no league expert.

I have to confess I don’t know the difference between a five eighth and a ‘falcon’.

And around grand final time, when the Melbourne Storm were in hot water for ‘chicken wings’, ‘chokers’ and ‘grapple tackles’ they could have been talking recipes or fishing for all I knew.

Having said that, I actually do have a claim to fame when it comes to top level Rugby League.

My cousin, Lee Pomfret, was a diminutive back for St George, Canterbury and Illawarra in the 70s and 80s.

And I recall when Lee was with the Steelers he was on the wrong end of an infamous cheap shot that smashed his nose and both sides of his cheekbone at Wollongong in 1982.

Lee was one of three Steelers felled by Wests player Bob Cooper in the wild brawl. One suffered a broken jaw and the other concussion.

It resulted in Cooper being outed for 15 months, but the suspension was only for the broken jaw incident. If the other two had been taken into account, he probably would have got more time than Carl Williams.

The 2008 Rugby League World Cup is a fitting celebration to cap rugby league’s centenary year in Australia.

Over the last one hundred years, this game has sewn itself in the fabric of the nation’s sporting culture.

The code’s heroes have inspired millions of children to dream and embedded a passion that is carried for a lifetime.

We’d all agree that sport is a huge positive in kids’ lives.

As well as the obvious health benefits, it builds team spirit, confidence, responsibility and discipline.

Although we know that not every young player can be a candidate for the NRL’s answer to the Brownlow, the Dally M Medal – every young player benefits so much from being on the field.

One of the most impressive features of your 100th birthday is the way you are honouring the Indigenous heritage of both your sport and this country.

A chap by the name of George Green is thought to be the first Indigenous rugby league player, strapping on the boots for Eastern Suburbs way back in 1909.

Fast-forward to 2008 and Indigenous players are among rugby league’s biggest superstars.

Like Greg Inglis, from my hometown team the Melbourne Storm, who will be crucial to the Australian Kangaroos retaining the World Cup.

Having a game between the Rio Tinto Indigenous Dreamtime Team and New Zealand Maori as part of Sunday’s opening ceremony is inspirational.

For both teams, I am sure it is an enormous honour to represent your people on the international stage and to take part in this special Welcome to Country match.

In particular, I congratulate Preston Campbell on being named Dreamtime captain – an exciting player and fantastic role model.

Spending a lot of my time in the ACT, I am aware of how important Indigenous players are to rugby league in the capital.

Former Canberra Raiders skipper Mal Meninga is a legend of the sport.

One of his fellow grand final heroes, ‘Chicka’ Ferguson, was a crowd favourite who got better with age – although no-one seemed to know how old he really was.

Apparently the mantle of ageless warrior is being challenged this year by Papua New Guinea captain Stanley Gene – he says he is 34, but past teammates claim he is 45.

I’m told they love rugby league in PNG so much, their enthusiasm makes AFL supporters in Melbourne look pedestrian. Now that is some infatuation!

In the NRL, 11 per cent of players have Indigenous heritage, an impressive percentage when you consider around three per cent of our total population are Indigenous.

You’ve established the Indigenous Players’ Reference Group, which includes the highly respected Dean Widders, Jonathon Thurston, Matt Bowen, Preston Campbell and Greg Inglis, to provide a voice for Indigenous players in the NRL.

The Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council builds pathways for Indigenous players to participate and progress from the grassroots level.

And the NRL Reconciliation Action Plan, launched earlier this year is a first in Australian sport and a further reflection of your commitment to Indigenous Australians, especially children.

I congratulate you on your achievements and congratulate everyone involved in the Welcome to Country game.

I look forward to kick-off.