My name is Jamie Soward and I am a proud Wiradjuri man.
My dearly departed father was Aboriginal and being selected to come off the bench in the inaugural All Stars game in 2010 was one of the most humbling and exciting days of my rugby league career.
My mother and family were so proud that I was going to get the chance to not only play with some of the greatest indigenous players in our game but also the most passionate leaders we have as a people.
After not knowing much about my indigenous heritage I was keen to learn about the stories of the other players and I soon realised I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know and learn more about our past.
Those sessions were filled with conversations of where the boys were from and their tribes, totems and how they grew up.
Looking around seeing Preston Campbell, Johnathan Thurston and Wendell Sailor tell their tales, I could go on for hours. The support staff was brimming with indigenous legends. My favourite star as a kid growing up was there - Cliff Lyons. I was in awe.
Smoking ceremony kicks off Indigenous preps
I had been paired with JT for the week, my modern-day hero, the greatest player in the game. How lucky was that! I wasn't going to miss this opportunity to not only learn about the game from JT but also find out as much as possible about him as a person.
When I was hanging out with the boys, going into communities and seeing all the proud indigenous people lining up for hours just to see us, I didn't realise at the time just how much this game meant to the mob.
This was history in the making. The true significance of this match didn't sink in with a lot of us who played in that first game until much later.
We had our own team.
Every person we spoke to was just so happy that we, the indigenous people, could represent our people in our favourite game.
Greats of the game like Arthur Beetson, Cliffy and so many others had paved the way and, more recently, Presto, JT and Scott Prince had done so much work for this game to become a reality.
Without their work on the playing field and in the communities, none of us would have been granted the chance to represent our people. Guys like Joel Thompson, Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr have followed in their footsteps, doing amazing work.
Sid Domic, who wasn't just a very good player for Brisbane and Penrith but is also a talented artist, had hand-painted my headgear, telling a story of my family and where I had grown up in Wagga Wagga. My totem “goanna” was on there and it's a piece from my playing days that to this day still holds pride of place at my house.
In the lead-up to the game it started to dawn on me that this was never going to be forgotten by all the “mob” who had wanted this for so long.
Gagai's special welcome into Maori camp
During the warm-up I remember looking around seeing Presto, JT and Scott Prince, just absolute legends to the indigenous part of our game and thinking “this is awesome these guys are legends”.
We scored first and big Dell played the didgeridoo - the crowd went wild.
We were trailing late in the game but JT made an amazing play to get me the ball. I took off and scored and got up and didn’t know what to do. Do I “shake a leg”, do I “pump my chest”? I was pumped.
I did a celebration - I had no idea what it was but we won and that feeling is one I'll never forget. The collective embrace we felt from every fan we hugged and high-fived was just unreal.
The revamp of the Harvey Norman All-Stars this year with the Indigenous v New Zealand Maori is great.
I love this concept and this is the perfect way to start our season every year.
You only need to talk to the players to know that regardless of how much they know about their family's heritage or if they're only part Aboriginal or Maori, the chance to go out and represent your family wearing those amazing jerseys is an experience they'll treasure forever.