Phil Ingram is the current heart of the 100-year-old Wiradjuri Erambie All Blacks rugby league team.
He’s been its dedicated coach, president, organizer and a player for the past 18 years.
“Playing for Erambie just means the world to me – there’s this unbelievable strength I’ve got from putting on that jumper and representing the old fellas in my father, and my family,” he told NITV’s The Point programme.
The team – which notches up 100 years this year – will be making its presence felt at the on the NSW South Coast this weekend.
“The smell of the Knockout’s in the air – we are ready to rock and roll,” he said.
Flash and Famous
It’s hard to put into words quite how much the team means to the tiny community of Erambie, a former mission on Wiradjuri Country on the outskirts of Cowra in the NSW Central West.
“I’m a direct descendant from the original team. Both of my great grandfathers played for that team,” Phil Ingram said.
“It just means the world that I’m able to keep the team alive.”
Wiradjuri author Dr Lawrence Bamblett grew up on Erambie Mission and has researched the history of the team, known as “32 acres” after the original size of the mission.
The original team, formed in 1922, was widely known as the Famous Erambie All Blacks.
They played on the same ground the team currently trains on – a former Wiradjuri camping ground from which people were forced to move to the mission.
“At the time they had a separate entrance for Aboriginal people,” Dr Bamblett said.
“There were arguments around that, and once they realized they could be paid to play they started to demand part of the gate (takings) because thousands of people were coming to watch them.
They became a little bit like the Harlem Globetrotters, they used to travel around to the towns in the area.
Wiradjuri author Dr Lawrence Bamblett
In fact, the All Blacks were so popular, they were originally known as the “Famous Erambie All Blacks”, he said.
Dr Bamblett said rugby league first came to Cowra in 1920, and the team was formed two years later and started to challenge the local teams like the Cowra Pioneers.
For many, the chance to play for the Wiradjuri Erambie All Blacks rugby league team was a chance to escape the oppressive parts of mission life – if only temporarily.
“Erambie was only a small community, so almost all the men in the community were playing,” he said, sitting in a grandstand at a Cowra oval.
Football on the mission was about connection and family relationships.
“Everybody went. In the community it was something that they did together,” Dr Bamblett said.
“And when they played competitively in places like where we are now, it was about competition.
“It was about showing people that they’re as good as anybody.”
Erambie Mission, known as 32 acres for its size, has produced an enduring legend of the Knockout – possibly Australia’s earliest Aboriginal rugby league team.
For many, football was also an escape – albeit temporarily – from the oppressive parts of mission life, Dr Bamblett said.
He said life got harder at the mission when a manager was appointed in 1924.
“It became like a prison,” he said.
“They referred to people as inmates and the managers were wardens and tried to control every aspect of people’s lives.”
The community needed permission to leave the mission, to marry, and even invite someone to their home, he said.
“People resented that intrusion on their lives, that the government tried to have and treat them like inmates in their own country,” he said.
The Ingram family, with father Steve pictured centre, have been stalwarts of the Wiradjuri Erambie All Blacks in recent years.
Ready to ‘carve up’
These days the team comes together for the annual Koori Knockout – although it is hopeful of returning to the local competition one day.
The jumpers contain the names of the very first team, Phil Ingram explained.
“It’s just to show the young fellas who are coming in that these men have come before us,” he said.
“They’ve led the way – you’re part of a bigger picture and this is what you’re doing it for.”
There are plenty who are eager to pull on the jersey for the first time this year.
Bobby Jeffries is 19 and playing in his first Knockout.
“Hopefully the nerves don’t get the better of me – I’ll just go down there and play some footy and have fun,” he said.
Kaden Williams, 18, is looking forward to playing in his first Koori Knockout for the Wiradjuri Erambie All Blacks this weekend.
It will also be the first for Kaden Williams, aged 18.
“I’ll be proud to wear 32 Acres on my chest,” he said.
“The nerves will kick in, that’s just normal. But I’m just going to go out, do my best and just carve up for my town.”
Filled with pride
William Ingram will be playing in his 21st consecutive carnival.
He’s keen to pass the legacy on to the next generation of kids eagerly waiting to strap their boots up and wear the 32 Acres jersey.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” William Ingram said.
William Ingram has played for the Wiradjuri Erambie All Blacks rugby league team in every single Koori Knockout since 2002.
“Directly, we can trace our lineage back to this team.
“It fills me with a lot of pride because if you know where you come from, no matter where you’ve been, you’re always going to find that sense of belonging when you play in teams like this.
“And it just gives you a little bit more incentive to put a bit more out on the field, put your best foot forward and really show what you can do when you get on that stage.”
Tune in for a special Koori Knockout edition of The Point at 7.30pm Tuesday, or later on SBS and SBS On Demand.