Eric Robinson, Ron Merritt, Ricky Walford, Tony Merritt, Reece and Travis Robinson… Nathan Merritt’s family tree reads like who’s who of Indigenous rugby league. From their long association with the Redfern All Blacks through to the red and green of the South Sydney Rabitohs, the family has certainly left their mark on rugby league history.
Nathan Merritt began his rugby playing days early, knocking about with his cousins in Redfern.
"Yeah, me and my cousins, we were always climbing that fence at Redfern Oval when we were little," Merritt told the Daily Telegraph. "But back in those days it really was one of only two options ... footy or the PCYC."
" ... back in those days it really was one of only two options ... footy or the PCYC."
The boys continued to play rugby together, signing up for the Alexandria Rovers in the South Sydney Juniors comp.
Two of those cousins, twins Reece and Travis Robinson, went on to forge their own careers in the game with Reece playing for the Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders and Parramatta Eels before code-hoping to union and Travis taking to the field for the Penrith Panthers before being signed with the Melbourne Storm.
The family was also a regular feature at the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League 'Koori' Knockout carnival.
Nathan made his debut for the All Blacks at age fifteen alongside his dad, Tony Merritt.
"In 1998 or 1999 I was 15 years old, a young, little, skinny Indigenous kid from Redfern and playing alongside me old man was a different kind of feeling.”
"I felt like my father was going to look after me out on the field so I felt very happy,” Nathan told NITV. “Hopefully one day I'm able to do that with my son."
"I felt like my father was going to look after me out on the field so I felt very happy. Hopefully one day I'm able to do that with my son."
Nathan’s father Tony debuted for the Redfern All Blacks in 1980 after starting out as a ball boy at age 7. He played at nearly every Knockout until 2008, alongside his brothers, nephews and son.
Tony also knows the feeling of having a proud father watching from the sidelines. His dad, and Nathan’s grandfather, Ron Merritt was a life member of the All Blacks in recognition of his involvement with the club from the 1970s including as a coach and a long standing committee member.
Ron was further recognised by the Redfern side with the naming of the Cec Pattern-Ron Merritt Memorial Redfern All Blacks team who took out the Knockout trophy for four years running in the mid-2000s.
Nathan played all four Knockouts in that team, with his father Tony playing three.
“It was something special, probably the ultimate winning a knockout together,” Tony Merritt told NITV, particularly in a team that honoured his father, the late Ron Merritt.
Another special moment for the family was watching Nathan play his first game for the South Sydney Rabbitohs against the Warriors in 2002, scoring a try on debut. Growing up on 'the Block' in Redfern and playing for the South Sydney Juniors, Merritt’s start with the Rabbitohs was a dream come true.
While Nathan was signed with the Sharks for the 2004 and 2005 seasons, it was in the lower grade that he made his mark scoring a record 300 points in 2005 for the Newtown Jets.
His stunning performance got him a second chance start at South Sydney where he became a stand-out performer, playing every game in the 2006 season. Despite the Rabbitohs last place finish on the ladder that year, Merritt was also the highest try scorer for the season with 22 tries from 24 games including three tries in the final minute of three consecutive games.
Off the back of that performance, Merritt was named in the Prime Minister’s XIII team that toured Papua New Guinea at the end of the year.
Nathan continued the memorable moments with a hat-trick against the Roosters in 2009 and another against the Tigers in the 2010 Heritage Round. However, it is his iconic field goal with less than 5 seconds to go against the Tigers in 2009 that he will surely be remembered for, winning the Peter Frilingos Memorial Award for Headline Moment of the Year at the Dally M Awards.
Merritt equaled the Rabbitohs record of five tries in a game against Parramatta in 2011, which saw him again become the leader try scorer for the season. He was also awarded the Preston Campbell Medal for his Man of the Match performance in the 2012 Indigenous All Stars game.
In 2013, he played his first and only Origin game for NSW and in his first finals win against the Storm. He retired in 2014, after being dropped from the ANZAC Day match, and finished his career as the highest try-scorer in South Sydney’s history stretching back to 1908.
In a true testament to his love for Indigenous League, Merritt skipped the Rabbitohs Grand Final win and choose to play in the Koori Knockout instead.
Nathan’s impressive career at the Rabbitohs also continues the legacy started by his Nathan’s other grandfather, Eric Robinson.
Robinson was a star centre for the Souths back in the 1960’s, scoring 18 tries in 42 first grade appearances across his four year stint with the team.
When Merritt took to the field with the Rabbitohs against his cousin Reece Robinson for the Raiders, Eric was there on the sidelines supporting both his grandsons.
‘‘I’ve got Nathan here and Reece is there in Canberra . . . I don’t know I’ll just sit on my own I think,’’ Eric told the Sydney Morning Herald about the difficulty of choosing which supporters to sit with at the game.
‘‘I love Souths but Canberra’s going good, too, don’t worry about that. And I’m proud Reece is playing well.’’
As Merritt confirmed to NITV this week that "this will probably most likely be my last Knockout", he is hoping he will go out with a win.
However, with Nathan's eldest son Jalen (one of the twins pictured above) playing this weekend with the Redfern All Blacks Under-12's side the family tradition at the Knockout and maybe even in first grade rugby league looks set to continue.