• 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 17 Feb 2017 - 4:18 PM

Winning the Knockout and hosting the carnival 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, and have a habit of doing so back-to-back.

But the prize is still 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 came and they played in the first 'Koori' Knockout consisting of just six sides. Although unfortunately for Redfern, they were defeated by their South-Central Sydney opponents in the semi finals, despite referring to them as 'La Per-lose'.

It wasn't until the next year, and the year after, that the Redfern All Black became somewhat of the Knockout 'King Pins'; with top players, the largest number of supporters and the legacy of 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' 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, and as such 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 Australians] 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 managing to rake up 13 players, mostly made up of locals from the area and some late comers, the All Blacks fell on hard luck again. Their Winger was taken out moments before the game, as the police had a warrant for him. When they finally got on the field with their motley crew of a team, they successfully united and ended up winning the Knockout that year. The prize money was $600. 

Before the Knockout, in 1969, Redfern's rugby team had already made legacy for itself and were invited to New Zealand to play 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.

During the trip, the All Blacks were escorted by government 'minders'. The black power movement was on the rise and as such a turbulent time loomed over them, they were strictly told 'not to divulge in any politics'. Mr Ridgeway thinks of it 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 'white team' called in to try to beat them. 

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

One of most momentous times of his 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, he 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 vale.

"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 Ridgeway's reception at a pub in Waterloo. Stephen and Dianne were married for 42 years until Dianne's passing. 

  

1992 became a memorial year for Redfern, as the fresh talent of NRL legends, Gordon Tallis, Anthony "Choc" Mundine and Wes Patton 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 again, Redfern took the glory. 

"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 to premiership teams. The prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sport awards which Cathy Freeman took home plenty, 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 idea and format for something national, which ended up being held for nine years around the country, broadcast on national television. 

 

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. 

"And 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. "Every time I'd goto the Knockout afterwards, people would 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 and somewhat of an enterprise. According to the old boys, who still meet up to support the All Blacks and 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. 

The old boys come from different nations, Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri, Biripi, Bundjalung and even Maori, 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, represent 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. 

Mr Munro says with determination, “We won it last year and now it’s time to repeat history and do it back-to-back again." 

 

Photography by Stuart Miller 


Catch the action from last week, the men’s and women’s Indigenous All Stars, Redfern All Blacks vs. the Cherbourg Hornets and the U16’s Interstate Challenge. Only on NITV (CH34) this Sunday at 2pm! 

Related
The Merritts of keeping footy in the family
With three generations of footy in the family, it’s little wonder that Redfern All Blacks and former Rabbitohs player Nathan Merritt went on to become a rugby league star. In the lead up to what may be his last Knockout, NITV takes a look at his career and the legacy this legendary family has left on the footy field.
Your guide to NITV's long weekend of rugby league
Looking forward to kicking off October with a long weekend of rugby league? NITV has you covered, screening the best of the Murri Carnival and the NSW Annual Aboriginal Rugby League 'Koori' Knockout.
Koori Knockout: Who started it and why?
"The Knockout was never simply about football, it was about family, it was about community."