League focuses interest in both hemispheres

Greg Wood greets the Aboriginal tourists who paid their own way to make a historic trip to Britain
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The Independent Online
It was surely an illusion, but the eyes of the stern Victorian gentlemen whose photographs decorate the Huddersfield hotel where they founded the Rugby League seemed to widen slightly as Gwarnayarrahewaitairie (translation: "a little blue Joey Kangaroo from down beside a spring in the dream time") went through a 10-minute turn of music and dance. As David Liddiard later pointed out: "Who'd have thought 101 years ago that there would be an Aboriginal guy prancing about in the George Hotel?"

But if the loincloth and body paint were a little unusual in a venue more used to polyester-suited sales reps, then so too was the event the performer was there to publicise. The first British tour by a wholly Aborginal rugby league side will open tomorrow afternoon at the Ryedale Stadium in York. Six matches will follow, including two Tests against the best amateur players in Great Britain.

The arrival of the Kooris is a significant achievement, not just for the National Aboriginal Sports Corporation of which Liddiard, once a half- back with Oldham and Hull, is chief executive, but also for the players themselves, each of whom raised A$3,200 (about pounds 1,600) to guarantee their place. "One guy was living on a mission with 150 people," Liddiard said, "and they were so proud that he'd been picked for an Aboriginal team that they had the money in two weeks."

Nor is money the only difficulty for promising Aboriginal sportsmen. "The financial side can be a big stumbling block," Darryl Wright, the tour manager, said, "but there's also a little bit of racism.

"It's always been a problem in Australia. It's amazing how often it's prevented Aboriginals reaching the top in their chosen sport. But now people are starting to realise, particularly in rugby league, that Aboriginal people can't be ignored. We make up one per cent of the population of our country, but maybe 15 per cent of the players at the top level."

The reasons are simple. "Aboriginals are good runners, very powerful and skilful with their hands," Wright said. "People are going to enjoy their type of football. Rugby league has gone in the wind lately with all the fighting that's been going on. We want to uplift that and show we've still got something to offer."

That "fighting", between Rupert Murdoch and the Australian Rugby League, is in sharp contrast to the wholesome ethos of the Koori tour. It was not lost on Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse MP, president of the British Amateur Rugby League Association, whose welcoming speech yesterday did not extend much goodwill towards one of the tourists' compatriots.

"We must not let greed and commercialism destroy our great game of rugby league," Sir Geoffrey said. "What really gets under my nose about the professional game and the way it's controlled by Murdoch is that I come from a mining constituency, where there are a lot of elderly gentlemen suffering from chest diseases. They've been life-long rugby league supporters, but it's been taken away from them because they can't afford Sky TV. There's more to sport, and more to life, than money."

The notion of professionalism is so closely associated with rugby league that it may be a surprise to some that it is played at amateur level at all. In fact, tens of thousands of people turn out each winter weekend to play for and support teams like Walney Central, Ellenborough Rangers and Moldgreen, and in one detail at least they owe grateful thanks to Rupert Murdoch. Now that the Super League has switched to the summer, the amateurs have the field to themselves, and the Aboriginal tourists should be among the first to feel the benefit.

The average age of their party is just 20, and the crowds for their games will inevitably include talent scouts from professional sides. A similar tour by a Maori team in 1983 pinpointed such future stars such Dean Bell and Hugh McGahan, now coach and manager respectively at Leeds, and Liddiard believes that any number of his squad could add to the list of great Aboriginal players which includes Mal Meninga, Dale Shearer and Cliff Lyons. "This gives us the opportunity to put these guys out in the open, on the market," he said. "Then they can do the rest themselves."

Whether they would wish to do it in Britain, however, is another matter. "Aboriginal families are very close," Wright said, "so I don't know if they'd want to come and live on the other side of the world. For some of them this was the first time they'd left their families, the first time they'd been on a plane. When we were taking off, the youngest guy was really scared. You could see it in his eyes. It took a lot of guts."

That courage, mixed with their natural athleticism and talent, will make the tourists formidable opponents, even for a full Test side, and like the Maoris before them, they must expect to return home unbeaten. Gwarnayarrahewaitairie, who will be blowing on his didgeridoo before each match, has a repertoire of dances which includes the emu and the kangaroo. The victory jig might be a useful addition.

1996 AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL TOUR: 29 Sept: York President's XIII (Ryedale Stadium, 3.0); 3 Oct: Hull and East Riding (Hull, 7.30); 6 Oct: Yorkshire (Batley, 2.30); 10 Oct: Cumbria (Barrow, 7.30). 13 Oct: Barla Great Britain (Workington, 2.30). 16 Oct: Lancashire (Leigh, 7.30). 20 Oct: Barla Great Britain (Salford, 2.30).