To mark the NRL’s Indigenous Round, Commentary Box Sports’ Flashback Friday is celebrating the deeds of a selection of Indigenous stars from yesteryear, including Larry Corowa, Steve Ella, ‘Chicka’ Ferguson, Cliff Lyons, Ewan McGrady, Joe Kilroy and Preston Campbell.
‘The Black Flash’ joined Balmain from Queanbeyan in 1978 and was an immediate wing sensation, topping the premiership with 24 tries to win selection on that year’s Kangaroo Tour before playing two Tests on home soil against Great Britain the following season. Corowa’s electrifying speed and instincts netted him 64 tries in 98 games for the Tigers from ’78-83, while he made a shock two-game comeback for Wally Lewis’ Gold Coast Seagulls in 1991.
A cousin of Rugby Union’s famed Ella brothers, ‘The Zip Zip Man’ was versatile, fast, elusive and brilliantly skilled, starring in Parramatta’s crack backline of the 1980s. The three-time Dally M Centre of the Year played four Tests for Australia, seven Origins for NSW and scored 92 tries in 157 games for the Eels from 1979-88.
Brilliant winger Ferguson was finally lured to the Sydney premiership by Newtown in 1981 as a 26-year-old. After a star turn in Wigan’s victory in the fabled ’85 Wembley final, Ferguson – then with Easts – made his NSW and Australian debuts just shy of his 31st birthday. ‘Chicka’ joined Canberra the following season and topped the competition’s tryscoring in 1988, before making his last Origin appearance in ’89. Unlucky not to play more Test football, Ferguson scored a career-defining try to send the ’89 Grand Final into extra-time, and retired with another premiership medal in 1990 at the age of 36. He scored 106 tries in 201 first-grade games and remains the Blues’ oldest Origin player.
A cult hero of the Brisbane club scene throughout the 1980s, Kilroy started out as a hooker for Norths but developed into a scintillating fullback/winger for the Devils and Brothers. ‘Smokin’ Joe’ was a foundation Bronco and made a belated Origin debut for Queensland in ’88.
Ball-playing genius Lyons played one season with Norths in 1985 before being snapped up by Manly. Eventually moving from lock to five-eighth, Lyons became a Sea Eagles legend in a club record 309 games. He starred in the 1987 and ’96 premiership triumphs, won Dally M Medals in 1990 and ’94, and was an Ashes hero on the ’90 Kangaroo Tour.
Naturally gifted half/fullback McGrady, painfully shy, was finally coaxed to leave Moree by Canterbury. He was an instant sensation, scoring 13 tries in 16 games in 1990 before winning the Rothmans Medal the following season. ‘Panda’ crossed 14 times in 23 games and created many more opportunities for his teammates, frequently unleashing his searing pace off the mark and breathtaking ball skills. But the Indigenous playmaker’s effortless brilliance deserted him in subsequent seasons, gradually fading out of the Bulldogs’ first grade picture and failing to reignite his career with Wests.
One of the most courageous small men of the NRL era, Indigenous utility back Preston Campbell was just 167cm tall and weighed around the 70kg mark during his remarkable 267-game first grade career. The three-time Country Origin rep was a Dally M Medal-winning halfback at Cronulla in 2001, won a grand final as a five-eighth with Penrith, before playing predominantly at fullback in five seasons for the Gold Coast Titans.
The destructive Dalby product was enigmatic but unstoppable on his day, playing 12 Origins for Queensland from 2001-08 and a solitary Test for Australia in ’08. Webb played 187 NRL games for the Broncos, Cowboys and Eels, but the firebrand was denied a Grand Final appearance for the Cowboys in 2005 thanks to a striking suspension.