The Koori Knockout is bigger than Christmas and far more than just a rugby league carnival.
This year the Newcastle All Blacks are hosting the 49th NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, with a 20,000 strong crowd. Over the four day carnival, a record number of 165 men, women and junior teams from all corners of NSW will compete in front of a mostly Aboriginal community of spectators.
It is the largest Indigenous sporting event in the country, some say the world!
What is the Knockout?
The NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout began in Sydney in 1971 and is widely described as a ‘modern day Corroboree’ with teams and supporters from Ballina to Bega along the coast, and west to Bourke. The event involves incredible organisation and has been run by the community since its inception.
The football carnival is the chance to gather and reunite with family and community, to barrack for your hometown and mob, to relive past glories and remember those who have passed on. Fiercely contested, world-class Rugby League is on display and victory a lifetime highlight.
The Knockout: who started it and why?
The Knockout was born from a unique set of social, political and economic circumstances. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a new wave of Aboriginal migration to south Sydney, in part because of the continuing push from government for ‘chain relocation’ to achieve assimilation, occurred. Many Aboriginal families moved from missions and reserves to towns and cities, with the promise of housing and family security.
In south Sydney, job opportunities were abundant and there was also growing political organisation for self-determination and justice fermenting - propelled by land loss in the bush, police violence in the city, and international anti-racism and anti-colonial movements.
The Knockout was initiated by six men: Bob Smith, Bob Morgan, Bill Kennedy, Danny Rose, Victor Wright and the late George Jackson. They were connected by kinship and the shared experience of relocating to the city.
Bob Morgan, Danny Rose and Bill Kennedy hail from the north-western New South Wales town of Walgett. Bob Smith and Victor Wright were from Kempsey, on the state’s north coast. The late George Jackson was based in Sydney, but he had Gomeroi connections.
Following a meeting at the Clifton Hotel, a well-known gathering place for Koori's in Redfern in the 1960s, the Koorie United committee proposed holding a state-wide Knockout competition. There had been many town-based Knockout football (and basketball) competitions, but the instigators of the Knockout had added objectives.
"Our concept at the time was to also have a game, where people who had difficulty breaking into the big time, would be on show. They could put their skills on show and the talent scouts would come and check them out" said Bob Morgan.
The Knockout was intended to provide a stage for the many and talented Aboriginal footballers playing at the time who, for reasons of racism and lack of country-based recruitment, were overlooked by the talent scouts. Although there were some notable exceptions like Bruce ‘La Pa’ Stewart playing on the wing for Easts, Aboriginal footballers experienced difficulty breaking into the ‘big time’.
Former Redfern All Blacks (RAB) player and community leader, the late Sol Bellear shared with me in 2010, that "unless you were absolutely four times better than the white rugby league players you didn’t get a look in… in the country areas, they were just phenomenal players and still couldn’t get a look in".
While the football was a big part of the Knockout, there were other imperatives that sustained the gatherings, as Bob Morgan recalled, "the Knockout was never simply about football, it was about family, it was about community, it was getting people to come together and enjoy and celebrate things, rather than win the competition football."
Founding member of the Knockout, Bob Smith, echoed a similar sentiment. "It’s almost got the same sort of feel about it, like when you go to funerals. It’s not the same but it’s still an opportunity for people to meet ... an opportunity for people to meet and renew friendships".
The important social side of the Knockout is evident in the descriptions of the Koorie United balls.
Sol Bellear reminisced, "We only played on [the] two days in the beginning and we had the ball on the Saturday night.
"We didn’t have that many balls here then, but [for] the Knockout Ball we all got dressed up, we hired a suit and a bow tie, everything .. . the women in their ballroom gowns ... geez it used to be a good function. Everyone would make a big deal of it, go out and get dressed, women [would] get their hair done up and Black Lace would be playing..."
And of the women in attendance at the social events, Dan Rose wistfully recalled, ‘"the women, the black women were so beautiful, they were like movie stars".
The lure of black women with their movie star looks, fashion and style trumped a return to the shearing sheds with fathers and uncles according to Dan Rose, "We went to those balls at Grace Bros, and it was magnificent".
Speaking more widely about the Knockout and sport generally provided Sol Bellear with a vital sense of purpose. Of the Knockout he explained, "... you make new friends and friends you keep for life ... people that you could never have had the opportunity to meet. You travel around the bush and you meet this one that you played against.
"It was just one great big happy family."
Early years of the Knockout
The first Knockout was at Camdenville Oval in 1971 with seven teams: RAB, Kempsey, La Perouse, Walgett, Moree, a combined Mt Druitt/South Coast side and Koorie United. Bob Smith hand-drew A4 cardboard signs and sticky taped them to poles around Redfern.
The entry fee was $5.00 and the winner ‘took all’ of the $35 prize money.
Koorie United hosted the carnival for the first several years which was won by Sydney based teams La Perouse United (1971), RAB (1972–1973) and Koorie United (1974). Many of these players were selected to tour New Zealand as the first Indigenous All Stars team, winning seven out of nine matches.
In 1975, Kempsey All Blacks became the first non-Sydney side to win the Knockout.
This, along with the passing of Victor Wright Senior, a long-time supporter of Aboriginal Football and the Knockout, prompted the decision that the next Knockout to be hosted by the winning team in Kempsey.
The highly prized original trophy, donated by the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs was inscribed NSW Koorie Sports Committee Annual Football Knockout ‘Perpetual Trophy’, joined by the Victor Wright Senior Memorial Shield perpetual trophy.
From its beginnings in Sydney, the Knockout has been hosted in the rural towns of Dubbo, Armidale, Bourke, Walgett, Bathurst and Moree and in the coastal communities of Lismore, Kempsey, Maitland, Nambucca Heads, Tweed Heads and Central Coast.
Now, 49 years later, a record number of teams have nominated. The $1500 entry fee for the men (and women) will see the winners take home in excess of $60,000 in prize money as well as second, third and fourth-place prizes. The Women’s Knockout is now a permanent and growing fixture with selections to representative sides based on their showing at the Knockout.
Aboriginal people and Rugby League
All of the passion and success of the Knockout is the continuation of a long history of Aboriginal participation in Rugby League.
As early as the 1930s, there were several all-Aboriginal Rugby League sides playing in NSW city and country competitions and in one-off games. These include (but not limited to) the RAB and La Perouse Blacks/Warriors in the Souths Juniors competition, the Erambie All Blacks from Cowra, the Dubbo Waratahs, the Moree Boomerangs, a team from Bellbrook Mission in the Kempsey Valley and the Forster Hawkes from Sunrise Station (later known as Purfleet Mission) – who won the Manning Valley – Great Lakes Premierships in the 1930s; and many one-off tournaments.
Even before this, there were exceptional Aboriginal players who played for majority-white teams.
The first record we have of an Aboriginal man playing football is Gundungurra man, Walter ‘Jacky’ Brooks.
Born at Little Bay, circa 1902 he later lived at ‘The Gully’ with his family, Jacky was known as an outstanding and popular rugby league player in the amateur and representative ranks for Katoomba, NSW.
From 1923, he played with the ‘Federals’ and later the Blue Mountains District ‘Blues’ until at least 1936.
Jacky’s performance attracted glowing commentary: playing for the Katoomba Federals in 1923, the local paper reported that Jacky ‘deserves special mention’, that there was ‘no better sport or more gentlemanly player [who] has donned the Blue Mountains league Guernsey'.
According to Jacky's grandson Jay Brooks, the colours Jacky wore "just so happen to be red, yellow and black".
In 1924, one reporter was so inspired by Jacky’s performance that he recited the poet Tennyson to explain how Jacky ‘electrified the crowd’; later that year he was recognised as the club’s ‘most proficient player’ and inscribed on the inaugural Federals’ shield.
The Knockout has been an enormously successful and significant event that is passionately embraced by the NSW Aboriginal community. It’s a vehicle for the continuation and renewal of cultural traditions, where stars are made and long lasting love happens.
The Knockout will be played over the long weekend at the Central Coast Regional Sporting and Recreational Complex from 4-7 October, 2019.
Professor Heidi Norman, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney is from the Gomeroi nation of north western NSW and is an award winning researcher and teacher of Australian Aboriginal political history. Heidi draws on the cognate disciplines of anthropology, political-economy, cultural studies and political theory.