Rugby league helped provide a lifeline for Newcastle Knights premiership player and New South Wales State of Origin representative Timana Tahu.
- Tahu works with the NRL’s School to Work program
- The program helps Indigenous high school students make the transition from school to work or tertiary education
- Tahu says he wants his work to highlight the importance of education
“It changed my life dramatically,” Tahu said.
“I grew up in Aboriginal hostels, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”
Tahu spent much of his childhood living in hostels in Dubbo and Newcastle. Football was his way to a brighter future.
“One day, I got a free invitation to trial at the Newcastle Knights and in two years I was playing first grade,” Tahu said.
The Barkindji man from the Wilcannia area in north-western New South Wales went on to do extraordinary things in his football career, which spanned from 1999 to 2016 and covered both rugby codes.
He won an NRL premiership with the Knights in 2001 and also played for Parramatta and Penrith, while he represented New South Wales and Australia across several seasons.
Tahu played for the Waratahs and Wallabies when he switched codes in 2008, before later appearing for the Denver Stampede in a United States rugby union competition.
Now he is giving back, creating opportunities for the next generation of Indigenous youth.
Tahu is the business development officer for the NRL’s School to Work program, which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students make the transition from school to work or tertiary education.
“Our Indigenous kids, they are not all athletes,” Tahu said.
“A lot of them are academic. We’ve got a 50-50 split of boys and girls wanting to do better in their life.”
Research shows the longer Indigenous youth are out of school or do not find employment, the higher the probability of them becoming long-term unemployed.
Tahu wants every First Nations child to have equal opportunities to study and work.
“What I learnt playing in the NRL is how important education is,” he said.
“I’ve done my business education diploma, cert (certificate) three and four in fitness, plus a strength and conditioning licence.
“I wasn’t just playing but educating myself.”
The School to Work program has been running since 2012 and aims to give young Indigenous people the opportunity to achieve their goals.
One of those youngsters is Bailey Scholes from Kempsey.
“I am a Dunghutti man, I really hope to get my HSC (higher school certificate),” Scholes said.
“That’s what I want to do, finish school, and I took School to Work as a good opportunity to work on my confidence and leadership skills.”
Scholes has done just that, as he is thriving in the program.
Out of his own initiative, the 17-year-old has orchestrated a traditional dance for the NRL’s Indigenous Round, which began last night and stretches across the weekend.
The dance will be performed by Scholes and other Indigenous students in front of a home crowd at the Knights-Sea Eagles match in Newcastle on Sunday.
The year 11 student is still deciding on what career path to take, but feels he can now take on anything.
“At the moment, I don’t know what I am going to do but I’ve got heaps of things in my head,” Scholes said.
Scholes had another dream fulfilled this week when he met his NRL idols, Indigenous stars Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker.
“They are very good role models to me and set a good example in the community,” he said.
“I follow the Knights and the Rabbitohs. Obviously GI (Greg Inglis) and Latrell Mitchell are my favourites, but there’s younger ones too like [the Wests Tigers’] Daine Laurie. I look up to them boys.”
More than 2,500 participants have come through the School to Work program with huge success rates — 92 per cent finish year 12 and 95 per cent of students placed in employment stay employed on a long-term basis.
Another 1,000 students will graduate from the program by 2023.
Importance of Indigenous culture
For other participants, the School to Work program is about self-discovery.
“To me, it’s very important because I have had this missing gap – like, I am Indigenous, what does that mean? This has filled a massive blank for me,” said 16-year-old Mackenzie Bonnie, who lives in Shellharbour in New South Wales’ Illawarra region.
Building her self-identity has given Bonnie a sense of pride and meaning to her life.
“Everybody here is just like me,” she said.
“Talking to all these different people has been great and hearing about their heritage and their connection to culture and country, it’s something that sets you aside but brings you together as well.”
The NRL wants its Indigenous Round to celebrate culture and history, but it is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the disparities that still exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
For Tahu — who took a stand against racism during the 2010 State of Origin series when he walked out on the Blues camp following a racist remark made by then-assistant coach Andrew Johns regarding Greg Inglis — the list of challenges faced by Indigenous people is long.
“Health, life expectancy, the justice system and education — there is a big gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” Tahu said.
But that has not stopped Tahu and others trying to close the gap on and off the field.
“We still have got a long way to go but we are showcasing this and bringing it to light and try and move forward in a positive way,” he said.