IN DEPTH | Kaley Payne
Wednesday 22 June 2016
It was a first in National Rugby League (NRL) history. On Easter Monday, players from opposing teams – the victorious Wests Tigers and the defeated Parramatta Eels – huddled together for prayer just after the final whistle blew.
It may have been the first time it’s happened, but for Wests Tigers forward Josh Aloiai, who debuted this year, it felt natural.
“We’re playing for a bigger purpose … We know the real reason we’re here is for Jesus, so the first thing we do when the final whistle blows is to give thanks.”
Since Easter Monday, there’s been an explosion of public prayer after matches across the NRL. Players grab other players and pray together in the middle of the field. Tim Mannah, who captains the Parramatta Eels, says he’s a huge fan of the post-game prayers.
“It sends a pretty strong message that we’re not shy about our faith and also that, in the end, regardless of what team we’re playing for and what result we get, we’re all brothers in Christ, with the same passion in life. We’re driven by the same thing.”
That “thing” is Jesus. And there’s a growing cohort of players across the NRL praying and reading the Bible together to glorify him on and off the field.
A weekly prayer meeting on Thursday nights is attended regularly by about 20 players from around Sydney’s NRL clubs, including players from the Sydney Roosters, Cronulla Sharks, West Tigers and Parramatta Eels. Jarryd Hayne too, who left the NRL at the peak of his career, drops in when he’s in town.
Mannah says he believes Christian players in the NRL have been “breaking stereotypes” over the last few years which, in turn, has made younger players more comfortable to be open about their beliefs.
“We’re really trying to encourage guys in the league to talk about their faith and not be quiet about it.”
Mannah feels he has always been able to be open about his faith, following in the footsteps of players like Jason Stevens, who retired from the Cronulla Sharks in 2005 after an illustrious football career.
“Stevens broke the ice and was a Christian who was pretty vocal before anyone else was willing to speak about it,” says Mannah. And while he says there has probably always been Christians in the NRL, “now we’re more united and willing to speak about faith publicly.”
Kevin Naiqama debuted in the NRL in 2010 and cemented a spot as a regular first-grader at the end of 2015. He says Christian footy players like Tim Mannah and Jarryd Haynes have been crucial for him in the development of his own faith.
“Seeing Tim’s Christian walk has always encouraged me. I wanted to be like that. He always had joy, even when he’s injured. And he’s a really humble person,” said Naiqama.
The Wests Tigers also brought in a chaplain for the first time this season. Brenden Brown, a Hillsong pastor from Sydney’s inner west, took up the inaugural position and is learning on the job what it means to walk with the players in the ups and downs of the footy season.
“Athletes are normal, everyday people. But they are in the spotlight and everybody wants something from them: the sponsors, the fans, the club,” Brown tells Eternity. “But as the chaplain, I don’t want anything from them. I’m not there to ask them a favour or take anything. I’m only there to support them.”
A group of Wests Tigers players, including Naiqama and Josh Aloiai, have started a WhatsApp group (an instant messaging service) to share encouragements, scriptures and prayers with other team members. “It’s just a bunch of guys hanging out online,” says Brown.
“Some guys have their great weeks and some have down weeks through injury or something else, so it’s just building another support network to build them up.”
Across Sydney in the Parramatta Eels camp, chaplain George Dansey is an old hand at supporting his players. He’s been at the club for five years, and is well known across NRL, assisting in building groups of Christian players who get together, regardless of the jersey they wear, to pray and read the Bible. He says he has seen a big change in the confidence of players to talk about their faith in the league, and believes it’s helped break down stereotypes of Christians as “soft”.
“It’s a new normal to be a Christian player,” he says.
“There has been a misconception of Christians being soft … or maybe not playing as hard as the others. But Jesus was as ruthless as anybody, in terms of driving what he was for and what he wasn’t for. If you’re called to play football, you’re called to give 100 per cent. Jesus has given them the talent to be the best they can be, and they’ll be that.”
Mannah says getting his relationship “right with God” off the field has always had positive implications for his performance on the field.
“It’s not just in sport, either. I think when your life’s not with God, regardless of what field you work in, getting it right always makes life better. I don’t think it means that things work out perfectly: it doesn’t mean you don’t get injured, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a tough day. It just means you have a better perspective on it and your response is a lot clearer.”
It’s mid season in the NRL and the end of game prayers are still happening and have become a regular feature for some players.
“These guys put their bodies on the line every week,” says Brown.
“But the thing that I’ve loved is that they don’t pray to win. They play to win, but they pray to trust that God will protect them and that Jesus would somehow be seen in their lives.”