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Why the Wallaroos refused to swap their First Nations jerseys

By Daniel Gallan
WHANGAREI, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 22: Michaela Leonard of Australia and team mates celebrate the try of Iliseva Batibasaga of Australia during the Pool A Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Australia and Wales at Northland Events Centre on October 22, 2022, in Whangarei, New Zealand.

Last week, after Australia’s 13-7 win over Wales that took them to the World Cup quarterfinals, Lori Cramer and Grace Kemp refused to swap their shirts with their vanquished opponents. They weren’t the only ones. Not a single member of the Wallaroos was willing to exchange their green and gold jersey for a red one.

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“I was happy to swap my shorts, though,” says Cramer, the fullback whose eight points from the tee proved the difference on the day. “I had so many Welsh girls ask if we could swap jerseys. But there was no way I was letting mine go. Not this one.”

For the third time this year, but for the first time ever at a World Cup, the Wallaroos wore a specially designed strip inspired by the art and culture of First Nations people. Conceptualised by the Noongar artist, Seantelle Walsh, the intricate pattern depicts the “connection between women and their spirit,” according to a Rugby Australia release, “as well as the connection with the Dreamtime and overcoming barriers.”

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The Dreamtime, also referred to as The Dreaming, is the foundation block of all indigenous religion and folklore in Australia, passed down through word of mouth for thousands of years. Some sources place the origins of this oral tradition as far back as 65,000 years.

But these sacred messages were almost lost to the winds. European colonists and their descendants came perilously close to desiccating the heritage of Indigenous Australians.

Kemp’s grandmother was part of what became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’, children who were taken from their homes and forced to live on government and church settlements between 1905 and 1967. In some places such sites continued into the 1970s. Here they were denied the right to speak in their native tongue and were completely severed from the culture of their parents. The lingering trauma is still felt today.

“I represent everything in my heritage, a hundred percent, including the painful parts,” says Kemp, who is part of the Wiradjuri mob from central New South Wales. “It’s important that we recognise that pain. Those memories are important.”

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Cramer, who is from the Iman mob which hails from the Upper Dawson River region in Queensland, interjects, momentarily breaking from the lighthearted tone she carries throughout our interview:

“Even today, most Australians aren’t aware of our history. Even those of us who are directly connected with First Nations heritage, we have a lot to learn. Being able to share our culture, which is the oldest culture in the world, on a global platform is something that is very special for us. We take that responsibility very seriously.”

Sport is unrivalled in its ability to thrust forgotten narratives and difficult conversations into homes that wouldn’t otherwise have them. For both Cramer and Kemp, rugby has served as both a platform to showcase their talents and as a shining light, illuminating parts of their own identity that have been shrouded by darkness.

When Kemp was 16 she joined the Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Team which provides a stepping stone for countless First Nations people. Established in 1992 by Lloyd McDermott, the first Aboriginal Wallaby who boycotted the 1962 tour to apartheid South Africa, the organisation marries rugby skills with cultural education.

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“I learn more about my traditions and culture every day,” Kemp explains. “Lloydies [as the programme is affectionately known] has supported me throughout my journey. They go to different territories, to remote places and connect with kids. It’s a great thing.”

Cramer came late to the sport. Her athletic talents were first cultivated on the soccer field but she’d eventually take up the oval ball with a team affiliated with the Papua New Guinea community in Brisbane. Now a teacher at Matraville Sports High in east Sydney, she has served as a guest coach for the Lloyd McDermott team.

“Rugby has brought me closer to my cultural roots,” Cramer says. “Me and my dad, we didn’t really have that strong connection until recently. It was cut off. It was through rugby and the different opportunities that it offered that helped us find our way back to his mob.”

But the weight of history can be debilitating. Athletes representing marginalised communities have to shoulder additional hardships on the field. It’s challenging enough facing up to a Black Ferns counterattack or packing down against a Red Roses maul without the extra baggage. Grace, though, takes a different view.

“I actually find it empowering,” she says of the dual role she has as a Wallaroo rugby player and a First Nations ambassador. “I feel more powerful, especially when I put on that special jersey, when I represent my culture and everyone from Australia.

“If I do feel pressure, I’m able to use it because it feels like I have more behind me. And that pressure that I do feel, that’s nothing compared to what other people have been through and sacrificed to keep our culture alive. I feel like I play better when I wear that jersey.”

For the first time since 2019, when they beat Japan in two consecutive home games, the Wallaroos have won back-to-back Tests. Their six point victory over Wales was preceded by a tense 14-12 triumph over Scotland. They’re up to sixth in the world rankings and are filled with a confidence that belies their semi-pro status.

But they face the most daunting prospect in world rugby as they’ll meet England in the last eight of the competition. The Wallaroos will need all the help and good fortune they can get to upset the tournament favourites.

“I hope we get to wear the jersey again,” Cramer says, excitedly. “Why not? It’s amazing and I’m with Grace, we play better when we wear it. We were able to beat a very good Wales team and I think most people outside of the camp didn’t think we would.

“We like being the underdogs in Australia. During the last World Cup I was on the couch and now I’m here, representing my country. It just shows you that anything is possible, and isn’t that the point of being a human? To be the best version of yourself and believe in yourself. If I can inspire a young girl in Australia to pick up a footy and have a go then I’ve done my job. We’re up for this. We can’t wait to get stuck into the best team in the world.”

Whatever jersey they wear on the weekend, the Wallaroos will carry more than just a ball into contact. They’ll hold firm to a heritage that came close to extinction but now lives on, in no small part, through them.

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