• Mal Meninga: then and now (Supplied )Source: Supplied
Champion Rugby League player, captain and coach Mal Meninga is something of a legend in Australian sport, but behind his sunny disposition and idyllic childhood photos, lies a darker family history that endured racial vilification and indentured labour.
Genevieve Dwyer

28 Sep 2016 - 3:53 PM  UPDATED 7 Oct 2016 - 12:04 PM

"I remember Mum and Dad telling us once when we were kids that we were pretty good sport-wise and should have made the representative sides," Mal Meninga says in an upcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are on SBS. 

"But the authorities felt that we were too dark to be billeted out." 

While Mal experienced his share of discrimination throughout his childhood in 1960s Australia, this signals just the tip of the iceberg in a family history of hardship that the Meninga family endured for generations before the footy legend came along. 

Mal, the eldest of four children, was born in 1960 to Norman Meninga and Leona Elliott.  

"He was my idol," says Mal of dad Norm, who also played and coached for years. "Just the way he played the game was hard, tough uncompromising but fair - so obviously he gave me all the genes!"

In spite of his dad's obvious talent on the field, his charm and dashing good looks, his interracial marriage to Leona was looked down upon as it was considered taboo at the time -  and their children sometimes copped the brunt of this racial vilification. 

Mal reflects back on his childhood along with his brother Geoff, who reminds him of an incident growing up.

"The Aboriginal education officer used to come and see us at school," says Geoff. "We used to think, 'what?' because we knew we weren't Aboriginal."

Mal's family history originated in the South Sea Islands. While he'd been told that his ancestors had first arrived in Australia from the island Tanna in Vanuata, he'd never been there himself and there was a mystery surrounding which ancestor originally came out first or, how they actually got here.

"None of the elders used to talk about it too much," Mal explains.

"My generation, we'd kept asking questions but kept being told 'don't worry about the past, worry about the future - this is the Australian way."

Now, in the new episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Mal probes his ancestry further in a journey that takes him to Queensland cane fields, a Christian Mission and questions the legitimacy of practices such as indentured labour and the White Australia Policy. 

Watch Mal and other stars Julia Morris, Peter Garrett, Delta Goodrem, Rachel Griffiths, Jane Turner, Shane Jacobson and John Newcombe feature in Season Eight of Who Do You Think You Are?Tuesdays at 7.30pm (AEST) on SBS.

Watch Mal's episode below: 

BONUS: Watch the first seven seasons of Who Do You Think You Are? in full - streaming now at SBS On Demand.  

Discover your story with a 14 day free trial at Ancestry.

The darkest, dirtiest celeb family secrets unearthed by Who Do You Think You Are?
Retracing the celebrities who uncovered some serious skeletons in their family's closets.
Revisit the best moments of Who Do You Think You Are? Australia
A new one hour special of Who Do You Think You Are? Australia showcases some of the most memorable moments of seasons 1-7.
Mal Meninga - Who Do You Think You Are? Season 8
Mal Meninga goes on a deeply personal quest to discover if his family's cultural history has roots in one of Australia's darker chapters of forced immigration.