COINCIDENCE rather than design was behind the plan that's resulted in the Parramatta Eels starting Monday's NRL match against the Wests Tigers with eight players of Polynesian descent and four Aborigines.
Unaware he would be creating some sort of social history when he named his side last week, Eels coach Brad Arthur's explanation was simple: they're the players best-equipped to halt the rampaging Wests Tigers.
The Eels finished the last two seasons with the wooden spoon, but their start to 2014 has seen the likes of Fuifui Moimoi, William Hopoate, Manu Ma'u (Tongan), Jarryd Hayne and Semi Radradra (Fijian) and Joseph Paulo (Samoan) combine with Willie Tonga, Chris Sandow and Nathan Peats (Indigenous) to click into an exciting and uncompromising unit.
However, it's undeniable they also represent the changing face of rugby league, a sport once dominated by players of Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal stock before players whose families had migrated to Australia during the post-war years, the Italians, Lebanese, Maltese, Greeks and Poles, were lured to the sport.
Arthur was more interested in the fact that after years of toil and struggle, the Eels are showing skill and steel. "It's not about race and colour, I don't see that," he told Fairfax Media. "What'd interest people is we have a competitive team. I've never thought of it. We don't pick players based on colour. I really don't know what you want me to say? We've had that same team since round one, nothing has really changed."
But the team's make-up has been noticed. Sydney Roosters forward Jared Waerea-Hargreaves admitted he couldn't help but observe the new-look Eels as they sprung a shock last-round victory over the defending premiers.
"Awesome, cool" Waerea-Hargreaves, who has Maori blood, said of Arthur's team. "I always look around to see how many 'cuzzies' and 'bros' are in the opposing team. I believe what Parramatta are doing is showing Polynesian and people from multicultural races that anyone can do it; it gives kids a belief when they see how many are playing for the Parramatta Eels, the Sydney Roosters ... half of the NRL competition has multicultural blood."
The change in the "face" of Parramatta's roster was definitely noted two years ago when then-coach Stephen Kearney, a Maori, had to contend with a spiteful whispering campaign about his recruitment policy. He had added indigenous stars Chris Sandow and Willie Tonga, Ben Roberts, who was of Samoan descent, and Hopoate (who would not be available until 2014 because of his religious obligations) to a roster that was already second only to the New Zealand Warriors in terms of its Polynesian population.
Joseph Paulo is one of the Eels' emerging stars. He's Auckland-born of Samoan heritage and last year he represented the USA Tomahawks in the World Cup. He took no offence when it was suggested Parramatta could pass as the NRL's answer to the All Blacks because of the aggression and skill the Polynesians and Aborigines brought to match day.
"I guess you are aware of it," he said of the team's look. "You're seeing more and more Islanders in not just our team, but the competition. I guess it's because of our body shape. Maybe the club didn't realise there were so many Islanders but it has worked. There's a lot of culture about it. Obviously the Islander culture is about family and [at Parramatta] we're a band of brothers. We enjoy each other's company all the time."
Tim Mannah, whose family's background is Lebanese, was the only non-Polynesian or Aborigine in the Eels' starting line-up on Monday. He said he was proud the Eels represented the multicultural melting pot that is western Sydney.
"Parramatta's supporters are the same as any league fan, as long as you're doing your job as a player it doesn't matter if you're black, white or yellow, your culture or ethnicity doesn't matter," he said. "The great thing about sport is people don't pigeon-hole you by your culture or your beliefs as long as you're doing your job. I've been involved with sport for a while and never sensed or heard a hint of racism. It's cool; because regardless of where you are from you get embraced. And if you love rugby league you have something in common with the person next to you, even if they come from a totally different culture."