Matthew Sonter, an Indigenous Advisor to the Brumbies, has played a crucial role in the success of the Brumbies Indigenous Pathways Program while also taking care of player welfare. The program's inception stemmed from a fortuitous encounter between Sonter, a former Australian Rugby Sevens athlete, and Brumbies hero Andy Muirhead, who was deeply involved in schoolboy rugby at the time. Sonter and Muirhead, both First Nations players, formed a friendship based on mentorship, respect, and solidarity.
Throughout the years, Sonter and Muirhead would reflect on their respective seasons, discussing their triumphs and challenges. It was during one of these conversations that they realized First Nations players, despite their careers being separated by fifteen years, were facing similar obstacles to success. Motivated to bridge this gap for others, Sonter and Muirhead initiated discussions with Craig Leseburg, the Deputy CEO and General Manager of the Brumbies.
"We started talking about, what is it? Why were we able to succeed in the system and what made us different from the thousands of other players that are actually better than us," Sonter said.
The trio delved into the factors that contributed to their own achievements within the system, ultimately pinpointing the significance of external circumstances. They discovered that a supportive environment, access to basic needs such as accommodation and proper nutrition, played a pivotal role in their success. Sonter highlighted the inequality that many Aboriginal kids faced in terms of opportunities.
"The game has been fantastic to me and to Andy, and the thing that was highlighted, was that so many Aboriginal kids weren't getting these opportunities. It hasn't been an equal playing field."
Leseburg, a prominent figure in Canberra rugby for two decades, wholeheartedly supported the concept of the Brumbies Indigenous Pathways Program. Sonter, in turn, ensured that the program prioritized the well-being of the athletes upon their arrival. The program currently provides athletes with a $10,000 grant and invites them to a 6-week training camp with the Brumbies. Throughout this period, athletes have access to the team's facilities, trainers, and their accommodation is covered.
In the event that the athletes decide to stay in Canberra, the Brumbies assist them with their transition and relocation needs. Furthermore, the program incorporates mentorship and cultural guidance from respected First Nations elders like Jo Fleck and Wayne Merrit, who regularly attend games and camps with the athletes.
Although the recruitment process is about to commence through expressions of interest, Sonter also relies on the koori grapevine. While he primarily focuses on player wellness rather than talent scouting, Sonter recalled an instance where he identified the potential in Tareq Parter, a member of the Indigenous Pathway Program/Brumbies Academy, when he was just fifteen years old. Sonter recognized Tareq's talent as both an athlete and an Aboriginal man who could serve as a role model.
At twenty years old, Tareq, who aspires to become a teacher, was chosen by Sonter as an ideal candidate for the George Gregan Scholarship. This scholarship covers tuition fees at the University of Canberra, enabling young and talented rugby players to pursue their sporting dreams while securing a future.
"My goal and the goal of the pathways program is to bring players in and to give them exposure to the great club, but to also have them walking away with not just rugby experiences, but have them walking away with experience and skills that make them young leaders," he said.
Sonter emphasized that his goal, and the goal of the pathways program, is not only to expose players to the great club but also to equip them with experiences and skills that mold them into young leaders. He expressed that Tareq's success in Super Rugby is not the primary focus; rather, he aspires to see Tareq become a qualified teacher. Sonter believes that Tareq has left a positive impact on everyone at the club and wants him to be recognized as a good person.
"Whether Tareq makes it in super rugby or not is irrelevant to me, but I would love to see it happen and if he keeps working hard, he will. But my main goal is that at the end of this time, is that he is a qualified teacher. He's made everyone a winner at this club, everyone here loves him. We want everyone to know who Tareq is, to know that he's a good person."
The Indigenous Pathways Program aims to expand its reach by creating opportunities for First Nations players to develop careers within the club, whether it be in coaching, business development, or graphic design. Sonter envisions a future where more Indigenous individuals are employed by the Brumbies, not solely in identified roles but across all positions. He acknowledges the challenges of entering professional sport but highlights the club's commitment to providing a role for everyone.
Sonter firmly believes that in the next few years, one of the program's participants will assume his role. This vision exemplifies the program's overarching goal of fostering a new generation of Indigenous leaders within the club.
"I have no doubt that in the next couple of years, that one of these players will actually take my role," he said.
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Photo Courtesy National Indigenous Times
Courtesy National Indigenous Times