Māori All Stars play out thriller with Indigenous rivals as NRL season boots into gear

A thrilling 10-10 draw in the NRL All Star game at Townsville last night has kicked off the league season in style.

Esan Marsters of the Māori All Stars runs the ball during the NRL All Stars game between the Indigenous and the Māori Men's at Queensland Country Bank Stadium on February 20, 2021 in Townsville, Australia. Source: Getty

A late Latrell Mitchell penalty secured the draw for the Indigenous All Stars in a tight clash with the Māori All Stars.

The Indigenous team spent most of Saturday night's game in Townsville playing from behind as the Māori pushed out to a 10-2 lead.

In his first match since August, South Sydney star Mitchell led a spirited fightback.

The fullback provided the assist for their only try with a deft kick for Alex Johnston to score then nailed the sideline conversion to make it 10-8 in the 64th minute, setting up an grandstand finish as the Indigenous side threatened to overrun their rivals.

With his team clinging desperately to their lead in the final two minutes, Māori forward James Fisher-Harris was penalised for tackling the dummy half without the ball right on his goal line and Mitchell levelled the scores from in front.

The 20,206-strong crowd roared the Indigenous side into one more attack but the sound of the hooter ended the match, with no golden point extra time available in the pre-season match.

Fisher-Harris was the recipient of Preston Campbell medal for best on field despite his late transgression while both teams will share the Arthur-Beetson trophy in light of the draw.

After three memorable clashes between these two teams in the past three years, the record now stands at one win apiece and one draw.

Earlier the calming presence and organisation of veteran Benji Marshall looked to have the Māori on track to back up last year's win.

The Māori had the lion's share of possession in the first half at 61 per cent but couldn't capitalise as errors totalled 17 for both sides in wet and slippery conditions.

Māori centre Joseph Manu went close to scoring when he extended his arm from a tackle in the final play of the first half, but lost control.

A point of contention was Zane Musgrove's sin-binning in the 36th minute for a shoulder charge on Tyrell Fuimaono. He may well miss NRL round 1 for West Tigers once done with the judiciary.

The try deadlock was finally broken in the 49th minute by a sweet cutout pass from Marshall to a rampaging Jordan Riki who crashed over next to the posts with Patrick Herbert adding the extras.

In the 53rd minute Manu intercepted a long pass from Jamal Fogarty and set off for the tryline 70 metres away.

Manu passed to his captain as he didn't quite have the legs and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scored the Māori's second try in five minutes.

Leading at 10-2, the Māori team looked comfortable enough to grind out the final quarter of the game but as Mitchell returned to the field from a break, the tide turned.

Both teams shared a bit of confusion in the dying seconds of the match, as they weren't sure if golden point would come into play.

But for Māori Coach David Kidwell, the result doesn't matter so much as the importance of entertaining the crowd and looking at the wider reach the game has.

"Both teams went at each other, and when I mentioned that we're there to entertain, you know that was entertainment.

"At the end of the day, the game is there for both our cultures, so we can be leaders in our communities, we can inspire the youth, and make sure that we're being good role models.

"It would have been good to win it, but, at the end of the day, you know there's a bigger picture and I think both cultures laid it out there tonight. I'm proud of my players."

Kidwell added that New Zealanders would get behind the event if it were held here.

"It would be wonderful if we could it take back to New Zealand and showcase our culture to our Indigenous brothers," Kidwell said.

"I'm sure we'd pack it out there too so hopefully that's in the near future, and I'm sure you know our people will get behind this concept."

Meanwhile, the Māori women did what their male counterparts could not, securing a dominant 24-0 victory against the Indigenous women.

Tries from Shanice Parker and sisters Raecene and Page McGregor gave the Māori an unassailable lead in wet conditions.