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New Dogs learn old tricks: Ciraldo draws on club's multicultural roots

Andrew Ryan led a team widely regarded as the NRL’s multi-cultural pioneers to grand final glory in 2004 and 20 seasons later he is helping to re-introduce those values to the Bulldogs.

Playing alongside the likes of Hazem El Masri (Lebanese), Willie Mason (Tongan), Sonny Bill Williams (Samoan), Braith Anasta (Greek) and Nigel Vagana (Samoan), Ryan saw first-hand the value of Canterbury players embracing the cultures of their team-mates.

Having returned to Belmore in a cultural leadership role, Ryan organised a multi-cultural day at the club’s first pre-season camp under new coach Cameron Ciraldo in January at St Gregory’s College.

“That’s how we kicked off the camp,” Ryan said. “We invited all of the families in, and the staff. We had Pacific Island performances, Lebanese drummers, an Indigenous workshop with Jono Wright, who is a former player here.

“The head coach is a massive believer in everyone being united and coming together. He talks about bringing your culture through the door, and not parking it outside.

Welcome to NRL Multicultural Round 2023!

“That is something we have had a big focus on through the club with all the grades, speaking about bringing your culture into the Bulldogs culture.

“Going back to our era, that is what everyone did. We respected the place here, but everyone bought their culture - whether that be Pacific islanders or Lebanese, Indigenous or whatever your culture was.”

Wright taught the Bulldogs players the Unity Dance he helped create for the Indigenous All Stars team – but with a twist.

“I want you to bring your own culture and energy to it,” Wright told the players, who include Lebanon internationals Jacob Kiraz and Khaled Rajab, Fiji co-captain Viliame Kikau and English forwards Luke Thompson and Ryan Sutton.

Rajab and Kiraz also taught some of their team-mates the Dabkeh, a traditional Lebanese dance, while Kikau learned about drumming.

Ciraldo, who has played for and coached Italy, allowed the session to be filmed for a documentary series created by the club, The Kennel.

“That cultural piece that we did to start the camp was one of the best experiences I have had,” Ciraldo said.

“Just seeing all of the boys buy into not only their own cultures, but everyone else’s cultures, as well, and understanding where our guys come from, and who they represent and what they represent, was a really cool experience.”

'Bring your culture and your knowledge': Bulldogs pre-season camp

New Canterbury captain Matt Burton said: “There are a lot of different cultures in the team and it was pretty exciting to see all the Lebanese boys and Foxxy [Josh Addo-Carr] just bringing all of their cultures together. That is what the club is built on”.

'Say my name'

Canterbury hosted the inaugural Multi-Cultural Day in 1993 and among those in attendance was Hazem El Masri, who was inspired to play league against his mother’s wishes and become the game’s first Muslim star.

El Masri, Mason, Ryan and Williams attended the launch of the NRL’s Multi-Cultural Round at Belmore on Tuesday and spoke passionately about how the game has become more diverse since they first played together 20 years ago.

The Bulldogs were multi-cultural pioneers
The Bulldogs were multi-cultural pioneers ©NRL Photos

“When I first started playing the NRL was five percent Pasifika and Indigenous players, now it’s gone to more than 50 per cent,” said Mason, who is the Bulldogs pathways transition coach.

“Around about that time a lot of teams started to have an influx of players from different cultures.

"You had the Puletua brothers [Frank and Tony] and Joe Galuvao at Penrith and the Roosters had some guys, but we were probably the first real multi-cultural team.”

Other members of the 2004 premiership winning team included Johnathan Thurston and Willie Tonga (Indigenous), Roy Asotasi, Reni Maitua and Matt Utai (Samoan) and Tony Grimaldi (Italian).

Māori and Pasifika Pioneers: Nigel Vagana

Vagana moved to Cronulla at the end of the 2003 season but the Samoa international left an impact on the club and the NRL as he was an influential leader among the growing number of Polynesian players.

At the Bulldogs, he ensured that team-mates and coaching staff correctly pronounced his name as Vung-a-nah - and not the way most commentators did, with the exception of Ray Warren. 

After Vagana took a stand at South Sydney in 2007, Rabbitohs co-owner Russell Crowe organised for the club to produce a video in which every player pronounced their name - something most clubs are now doing.

 “Nige was a bit of a trailblazer in that sense," Ryan said. "He was always strong and knew who he was and was proud of his culture as a player. Post footy he set it off in that culture space."

Pioneers and leaders

The Bulldogs embraced each other's cultures and in doing so many of the players became strong leaders within the game and their communities, such as El Masri, Ryan, Vagana, Thurston, Williams, Mason and Mark O'Meley.

“I loved being part of that team; teaching and learning at the same time," El Masri said.

"I had to embrace the footy culture and they had to embrace my culture and learn all about it. It was all new for both sides and we just loved it. I was like an open book in front of everyone."

As the youngest signing in Canterbury's history, moving from Auckland to Belmore as a 15-year-old was an eye-opener for Williams.

"It was my first time out of New Zealand and there was so much diversity - Lebanese, Maori, Samoan, Aussie and all other nationalities," Williams said.

“For me what was special was that although it was such a melting pot of different cultures, everyone came together and I guess the key for that was rugby league.

Rugby league bought us all together.

"When I first started there was only 10-to-15 per cent of Pacific Islanders playing at the highest level, so I sit back knowing what the game has done for myself and my family, and I see what it is doing for our Pacific brothers and sisters.

Match Highlights: Roosters v Bulldogs

Mason had a similar experience after growing up in Newcastle. 

"I think we were the only Polynesian family in Toronto West," Mason said. "My father was Australian and my mother was half Tongan, half Samoan.

"When I moved down to Belmore in 1998, I didn’t know what a Lebanese person was, I didn’t know about Greek culture but I learned so much playing at this club.

“Hazem educated me highly about the Muslim religion. We used ask questions all the time about Muslim beliefs, it is such a beautiful religion." 

 Strong bonds endure

El Masri trained and played during Ramadan, when he was unable to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset.

While tough to endure, El Masri said the support of the club and his team-mates helped him cope, with trainer Billy Johnstone allowed the Lebanon-born winger to perform his weights session at night after he had eaten. 

"The first couple of years I didn’t say much about it but slowly, slowly as they found out, they were supportive," El Masri said.

The best of Hazem El Masri

“They were learning and adapting at the same time, and they kept an eye on me when it was 35 degrees. They constantly asked how I was doing and did I need an extra break.

"I toughed it out and didn’t complain. Then I went home and suffered later. The amount of respect they gained for me was fantastic. When they saw me doing that they were like, 'wow'."

El Masri said the bonds that the players developed remained strong and he was pleased to see many of his former team-mates back at the club imparting the same values that helped them achieve success.  

"We learned about one another’s culture and that bought us closer together," he said.

"Everything is built upon respect and respect is always there with the boys, so to have them here teaching the next crop of Bulldogs is fantastic. They will learn a lot from their experience."


Acknowledgement of Country

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs respect and honour the Darug and Eora nations, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.