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'A real opportunity for our Club to pay homage to the Aboriginal culture and people'

Indigenous athletes have played a significant role in turning the Sydney Roosters into the proud Club it is today.

From Aboriginal rugby league pioneers such as Arthur Beetson and Ron Saddler to modern Indigenous stars like Blake Ferguson, Connor Watson and Latrell Mitchell, they have contributed immensely on and off the field for the Roosters.

Although there are currently no Indigenous players in the Roosters NRL squad, Head of Performance Travis Touma said the legacy of Arthur Beetson continues to have its mark on the Club – almost 50 years since he first pulled on the jersey for the Club in 1971.

“I don’t think people fathom how big an impact he has had on our Club,” Touma, who is currently the only Indigenous person in a senior coaching or training role across the NRL, said.

“As a player, as a coach, as a recruitment officer, his hand is still over this team now with Mitchell Aubusson and Jake Friend.

“They were possibly his last two guys he recruited and brought into the Club. One of them is our captain and the other is our club captain and about to play 300 games.

“If you talk about DNA and leaving a footprint on the jersey, Arthur Beetson is all over our jersey,” he added.

Arthur Beetson chaired off the SCG by teammates after the 1975 grand final win
Arthur Beetson chaired off the SCG by teammates after the 1975 grand final win

Beetson is regarded as one of the best forwards to ever play the game. He captained the Roosters to back-to-back premierships in 1974 and 1975, and was the first Aboriginal athlete to captain an Australian team in any sport when he led Australia against France in 1973. He was also the Queensland captain in the inaugural State of Origin in 1980.

He is proudly recognised on a mural in the eastern suburb of Waverley, being chaired by fellow Roosters greats. The image is inspired by the iconic image of Beetson being chaired off the SCG by teammates after the 1975 grand final win.

Beetson however was not the first Indigenous player to pull on the Roosters jersey.

Before Beetson there was Ron Saddler, who played 118 games for the Roosters in 1963-64 and 1966-71. Saddler was a great centre and was the first Indigenous player to captain New South Wales in 1967.

In 1967, winger Bruce Stewart joined the Club and scored 10 tries for the season. His son Corey would keep the red, white and blue in the family by becoming a second-generation Rooster - playing four games in 1990.

Another Indigenous family to play for the Roosters were Brett and Scott Gale, who were at the Club together for one season in 1984.

John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson also joined the Club in 1984, and the winger played two seasons at the Roosters during his decorated rugby league career.

Ferguson was named on the bench of the Indigenous Team of the Century in 2008.

Before going to the Bulldogs, Rod Silva played seven years for the Club from 1988 to 1994, and was the Club’s leading try scorer in 1990 and 1994.

In 1995, Andrew Walker joined the Roosters from St George. The five-eighth played 103 games and scored 46 tries in five seasons for the club before switching codes to play for the ACT Brumbies. During his time with the Roosters, Walker represented Australia against Papua New Guinea in 1996.

Roosters player Andrew Walker against the Bulldogs in 1995
Roosters player Andrew Walker against the Bulldogs in 1995

Matt Sing was another great Indigenous winger to play for the Club. He played 135 games and scored 72 tries in six seasons with the Roosters (1996 to 2001). During his 275-game NRL career, Sing represented Queensland and Australia.

Sydney Roosters player Matt Sing fends Sea Eagles player in Round 10, 1998
Sydney Roosters player Matt Sing fends Sea Eagles player in Round 10, 1998

The influence of Indigenous players on the Club continued to grow in the 21st century.

In 2002, centre pairing Shannon Hegarty and Justin Hodges were part of the Roosters’ first title since the 1975 premiership, and helped the Roosters reach the 2003 and 2004 grand finals.

Jamie Soward, Amos Roberts and Michael Lett all made their Roosters debut in 2005, but the most Indigenous players to make their Roosters debut in a season is four – when Latrell Mitchell, Connor Watson, Chris Smith and Grant Garvey made their Club debut in 2016.

Blake Furguson celebrates with Latrell Mitchell at Cbus Super Stadium in Round 1, 2017
Blake Furguson celebrates with Latrell Mitchell at Cbus Super Stadium in Round 1, 2017

Blake Ferguson joined the Roosters in 2015 and played a big role in the Club’s 2018 premiership campaign.

He bravely played the final 30 minutes of the grand final with a broken fibula to help secure the 21-6 win against Melbourne.

Latrell Mitchell was a fan favourite during his time at the Club, and made a huge contribution to the Club’s first back-to-back Premierships (2018-19) since 1974-75.

“We are still seeing what Fergo can do – that was the best no try I’ve ever seen the other week for Parramatta. But we got to see that from Fergo for four years,” Touma said.

“In the gym he was probably the strongest, most powerful guy – he was inspiring guys to push themselves physically to prepare for games.

Latrell Mitchell celebrates post Try in 2017 at Allianz Stadium
Latrell Mitchell celebrates post Try in 2017 at Allianz Stadium

“Latrell for one reason or another has had the most cultural impact. He is quite passionate about himself and where is from. He’s a proud Biripi man from Taree and every opportunity he had he would go home. We had conversations that he drew confidence, power and strength on and off the field from being at home, being in the country and around his mob.

“He was able to harness that and when he got back here, the rugby league world was able to see he is a phenomenal athlete.”

During his time at the Roosters, Mitchell grew into a leader among Indigenous athletes. This was symbolised when he made the tough choice to sacrifice the opportunity to be a part of the 2019 World Club Challenge in England to play in the Indigenous All Stars game and lead the war cry.

“I remember getting goose bumps when he popped up out of the circle,” Touma said.

“I think that was a really big moment for him. It was his coming of age of becoming a leader of Indigenous athletes, not only in rugby league but in Australian sport.”

With 23 Indigenous players among the Under-16, Under-18 and Jersey Flegg (Under-20) squads, there is excitement brewing about the Club’s future Indigenous stars.

They are represented on the Club’s Indigenous Round jersey, with the jersey designed by artist and Warudjuri woman Kylie Cassidy incorporating their totems.

Touma said the NRL squad are looking forward to wearing the Indigenous Round jersey for this Saturday’s game against Gold Coast.

This weekend’s NRL games celebrate the enormous contribution Indigenous people have made to rugby league.

“I was having a chat to the boys about the artwork on the jersey the boys are playing in this weekend, and in a funny way it is more important for us to be wearing this jersey because we don’t have an Aboriginal player playing in it,” Touma said.

“Sometimes it is easy to play for a person in a game as opposed to playing for what the game actually is. It is real opportunity for our Club to pay homage to the Aboriginal culture and people, and pay respect to the Aboriginal guys and their families who have donned the jersey and are a part of our history.”

SYDNEY ROOSTERS INDIGENOUS FIRST GRADE HONOUR ROLL

Player Roosters # Debut
Ron Saddler #529 1963
Bruce Stewart #574 1967
Arthur Beetson #615 1971
Peter Flanders #626 1972
Terry Stevens #635 1973
Kevin Stevens #637 1973
Eric Ferguson #645 1974
Greg Townsend #660 1975
David Grant #678 1977
Terry Fahey #720 1981
Ricky Walford #727 1982
Ron Gibbs #746 1983
John Ferguson #762 1984
Brett Gale #763 1984
Scott Gale #764 1984
Wilfred Williams #783 1984
Craig Salvatori #804 1986
Rod Silva #842 1988
Corey Stewart #870 1990
Richie Allan #923 1994
Andrew Walker #931 1995
Nathan Blacklock #944 1995
John Simon #949 1996
Matt Sing #950 1996
Dale Shearer #962 1997
Damien Mostyn #967 1997
Shannon Hegarty #983 1999
Dean Widders #996 2000
Justin Hodges #1009 2002
George Rose #1039 2004
Amos Roberts #1046 2005
Jamie Soward #1049 2005
Michael Lett #1051 2005
John Doyle #1064 2006
Ben Jones #1085 2008
Justin Carney #1114 2011
Anthony Mitchell #1121 2011
Blake Ferguson #1146 2015
Latrell Mitchell #1153 2016
Connor Watson #1160 2016
Chris Smith #1163 2016
Grant Garvey #1164 2016
Reece Robinson #1175 2018
Josh Curran #1186 2019

Source: David Middleton, League Information Services. Please contact the Sydney Roosters for contributions to the Honour Roll.