• Eric Robinson and Stephen Ridgeway holding a photograph of themselves in the 1970s (Stuart Miller)
The Redfern All Blacks is one of the oldest rugby league clubs with an impressive history.
By
Sophie Verass

1 Oct 2016 - 9:09 AM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2017 - 11:12 AM

Winning the Knockout and hosting the tournament the following year is not foreign for the Redfern All Blacks. They've won more Knockouts than any other side to date, having taken the glory 11 times and twice in the women's round, with a habit of doing so back-to-back.

But the prize is always worn like a badge of honour for those blazoned in black and white, particularly for the long serving former players (now executive representatives), who have memories that date back to the old Redfern Oval; the rivalry with La Perouse; the Clifton Hotel in Waterloo and some big side-burns. Old fullas, who admit to having cried both in times of the All Blacks' victory and losing out to rival clubs. 

They remember playing in the junior leagues in the 1960s, when tackles were unforgiving and could be made above the neck. In 1971, a new era of Aboriginal rugby league was born and the Old Boys played in the very first 'Koori' Knockout consisting of just six sides (compared to the 50-odd played today). Despite referring to their South-Central Sydney opponents as 'La Per-lose', that year saw Redfern defeated by La Perouse on their Knockout debut

It wasn't until the following year, and the year after, that the Redfern All Blacks became somewhat of the Knockout 'King Pins'; with top players, the largest number of supporters and a legacy of being the oldest club in the tournament. 

Stephen Ridgeway, Lyall Munro Jnr, Eric 'the legend' Robinson, Wally Hamilton and Turei 'Tuesdae Murray' Naera all spent young adulthood on the infamous 'Block' in Redfern at a time when racist attitudes and policy in Australia was relentless. They played league during the radicalism of the counter-culture movement, persevering through government minding, police patrol and social exclusion. As such, their resilience created opportunities for their communities. 

“The Knockout is a time for us [Aboriginal people] to express our particular skills in the world of rugby league - a world that shunned us for many many years," Lyall Munro told NITV.

"We couldn’t play their [white Australian's] game on their grounds, so we played it on our grounds. And from our grounds came those who ended up playing for their respective A-grade sides. A lot of us went to play for the NRL, the NSW State of Origin and a lot of us went on to play for Australia.

" ... the Knockout represents - to us - all that embodies our Aboriginality"

"So we’re one of the founding members of the Knockout way back in ’71, but we’re also one of the founding aspirations of contemporary Aboriginal society and we do that through rugby league and we do that through the Knockout. And the Knockout represents - to us - all that embodies our Aboriginality." 

A particularly memorable Knockout for the old boys is the 1978 tournament in Kempsey. Registered to play, but arrived with not nearly enough players, the Redfern All Blacks found themselves in northern NSW without a full team.

"We weren't gonna go," Stephen Ridgeway told NITV "But this guy at the Raglan Hotel in Alexandria paid our entry as the club's sponsor. So one day, to my surprise, they put me in the back of this ute - like one of them old shagin’ wagons - and we ended up in Kempsey. First thing we did was go swimming in the river."

After finally managing to scrounge 13 players (mostly made up of Kempsey locals and some Sydney late-comers) with playing in the competition looking promising, the All Blacks fell on hard luck again. Their Winger was taken out moments before the starting whistle, as the police had a warrant for him. When they got on the field at last, with their motley crew of a team, they somehow successfully united and ended up winning the Knockout that year. The prize money was $600. 

Before the Knockout began, in 1969, Redfern's rugby team had already made legacy for itself and the team were invited to play in New Zealand against the local Maori team. This is where Turei 'Tuesdae Murray' Naera, who ended up playing for the All Blacks for three years, first met Ridgeway and Wally Hamilton.

The black power movement was on the rise and with such a turbulent time looming over them, the All Blacks were escorted by government 'minders' during the trip. They were strictly told 'not to divulge in any politics', which Mr Ridgeway reflects on as being made sure to "act white". 

The All Blacks left a significant impression on the Kiwis, defeating the Maori team in a number of games and even had the NZ 'white team' called in to try to beat Sydney's Aboriginal rugby greats. 

Uncle Stephen Ridgeway carries his old photos with him everywhere. They compliment his wealth of memory, where he often shares compelling and engaging stories of his childhood in the Kinchela Boys Home; living in the hub of Redfern during the black power movement; and being one of the longest surviving players of the Redfern All Blacks. 

One of his most momentous times with the All Blacks was his wedding day in 1969. Not because the reception was themed with club merchandise or that he'd gotten wind of a win while performing the bridal waltz, but because just after leaving the doors of the local church on Raglan Street, Ridgeway took off his tuxedo and changed into his rugby gear and played the last half of a match while his new bride Dianne, sat in the grandstand in her bridal gown and veil.

"She was pissed off," Ridgeway laughs. "In them days, we had to back ourselves [financially] and there was a lot of money to be won for a game and because we were down at half time, Kenny Brindle got hold of me and tried to get me to play."

"She was sitting up there in the stand in all her wedding stuff and white and everyone was looking at her and takin' photos. I reckon more people were watching her than the game."

"She was sitting up there in the stand in all her wedding stuff and white, and everyone was looking at her and takin' photos. I reckon more people were watching her than the game!"

Luckily with the skills of Ridgeway, a great player, the All Blacks received their prize money and there was more champagne than originally expected at the couple's reception, which was held at a pub in Waterloo. Stephen and Dianne were married for 42 years until Dianne's passing. 

  

Another memorial year for the All Blacks was in 1992, as the fresh talent of NRL legends, Gorden Tallis, Anthony "Choc" Mundine and Wes Patten were on side. They were up against the Moree Boomerangs at the Knockout in Sydney, a tough team who also had some big name A-grade players like Paul Roberts. It had been 12 years since the last All Blacks victory, and finally after due time, Redfern took the glory again. 

"To me, that was one of our most significant games in contemporary Knockout terms," Mr Munro told NITV "It signalled our come back from the 1970s."

The All Blacks have contributed more to the sporting community than just supplying A-grade players for premiership teams. The prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sport Awards (which Cathy Freeman received plenty of) came from an inaugural All Blacks gala event in the 1980s.

In '83, the All Blacks hosted a night of "Aboriginal stars of South Juniors" in preparation to raise money for the Knockout. 30 Australian Aboriginal champions came together and were honoured at the local RSL. The event was such a success that former All Blacks president, Charlie Perkins came to the committee the following year and asked whether he could use the concept and format for something national. The Sport Awards ended up running for nine years and was broadcast on national television annually. 

 

One of the more amusing anecdotes comes after Ridgeway's retirement at the 1986 Knockout held in Newcastle. 

"I was watching the Blacks in the stands with the Taree and Moree mob, and I was chattin' with them and what not," Ridgeway recalls. "And I went for a break to one of those Portaloos. While I was in there, havin' to 'Kangaroo' it because they were so full, a fight broke out between the Taree and Moree blokes. 

"I got caught in the middle of it while I was inside this Portaloo. I was thrown around. It tipped over and I rolled down this hill covered in probably all the sh*t from NSW," Ridgeway laughs. "Now every time I go to the Knockout, people say, 'Oh Uncle Steve, you watch out for them Portaloos this year'."

What originally began as a "get together" and a "barbeque" has now become the biggest contemporary corroboree in the world, as well as somewhat of an enterprise. According to the Old Boys, who still meet up to support the All Blacks and celebrate Aboriginal rugby league every year, the Knockout has changed significantly.

In the late 80s and early 90s, scouts from premier clubs began attending, looking to poach promising players. Manly is said to be one of the first, but it wasn't long until other NRL clubs began looking to the Knockout as an untapped resource for Australia's rugby talent. 

The Old Boys come from different nations; Gomeroi, Wiradjuri, Biripi, Bundjalung and even Maori, and are an example of how the Redfern All Blacks have the most diverse representation in the state of NSW. Unlike other clubs, the Redfern All Blacks' players come from different parts of the country and as such, Mr Munroe is adamant that it represents all the different clans and tribes in NSW. 

Every Knockout claimed by the All Blacks, has been backed up by the following year; '72 and '73, '78 and '79, '92 and '93 and winning four years in a row in 2003 - 2006. With the title taken last year, dedicated supporters are anticipating that history will repeat itself. 

 

Like the content? Follow the author @sophieverass

Professional Photography by Stuart Miller ©

Old photos supplied by Steven Ridgeway  ©

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