Rugby League

‘It’s bigger than footy’: Dragons No.1 defends Koori Knockout despite being injured in it

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Tyrell Sloan is making a case for NRL players remaining eligible for the Koori Knockout at a time when critics are using him as a case against it.

“Bro, we don’t do it for the footy, we do it for our community. That’s what I want everyone to know,” Sloan said. “It’s not about the footy at the end of the day. It’s about my mob getting together, that’s the biggest corroboree.

“Everyone comes together from 10 to 12 hours away. Those little kids, we get to put a smile on their face. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.”

One person who wasn’t smiling after the 51st and latest edition of the Koori Knockout was Shane Flanagan. The new St George Illawarra coach had a detailed pre-season program to transform Sloan into the hardened fullback the club needs him to be for the 2024 season.

Those plans went awry when Sloan injured his ankle at Tuggerah’s Central Coast Regional Sporting Complex two months ago. It wasn’t the only mishap from the Koori Knockout.

Josh Addo-Carr became embroiled in a fight that ultimately cost him a Kangaroos jersey.

Despite NRL players being targets of rough play, Sloan believes they should be allowed to continue to participate in the event next year.

“Definitely. I know there’s a risk and reward, and I’m first-hand [proof] – I’m injured from the knockout,” he said.

Tyrell Sloan says NRL players should be allowed to participate in the Koori Knockout, despite the Dragons fullback being injured in the recent event.Credit: Janie Barrett

“Yeah, I’m frustrated by it, but I do have a lot of time until round one comes, and it could have been a worse injury, it could have been a less injury.

“But at the end of the day, my focus is putting a smile on those kids’ faces and making sure that I leave a good impression on them.

“As I said, it’s not always about the footy, it’s about the next generation coming through.

“How it’s set up right now is amazing. There’s over 64 men’s teams, there’s a lot of kids teams, a lot of women’s teams and there is a lot of care there.

“People just think it’s black fellas, turning up and playing footy and getting their head bashed in.

“There’s a lot of doctors there. I went and saw the physios there straight after I did my ankle and it’s set up how an NRL carnival will be set up. It’s nothing different.

“The footy is a lot tougher. I’ll tell you that from experience, you get your head taken off. But it’s fun. You get that contact that you don’t usually get. The refs are a bit more lenient.

“The game’s changed and I like playing knockout footy because it is tougher. I just keep coming back to those kids, man, it’s just all about them.”

“It’s not always about the footy, it’s about the next generation coming through.”

Sloan is at a crossroads. Through the course of his 36 NRL appearances, the 21-year-old has shown enough potential to warrant a call-up to the Prime Minister’s XIII side that beat Papua New Guinea in September. However, the Dapto Canaries junior has also struggled for consistency and conceded that criticism of his defence has been warranted.

Having played through the pain of a thumb injury last season, the latest syndesmosis setback is an untimely one. Flanagan’s plans to take Sloan to a “dark place” during the pre-season to toughen him up have been put on hold at a time when the coach is making a pitch for Roosters star Joseph Manu to be the long-term Dragons No.1.

There is also internal competition for the custodian role from Zac Lomax, who is an option for the opening-round clash against the Titans.

Tyrell Sloan is preparing for a big 2024 season.Credit: Getty

Pointing to his difficult upbringing – his parents spent much of his youth in jail – Sloan said he was not afraid of a challenge.

“No, no way brother,” said Sloan, who aims to be fit for the trial matches. “Look at my background, it’s easy. Footy, it’s an escape for myself. Away from life, there’s a lot of harder things, what’s going on in the world, than footy at the moment …

“There’s always lots of competition, and it’s something that I don’t really stress about because, at the end of the day, I back my ability. But, then again, it’s whatever’s best for the team.

“We haven’t been performing where we need to be for the last three years that I’ve been in grade. I really want to step up and make that position mine.”

Cronulla’s Will Kennedy was maligned for his lack of toughness and defence when he came into first grade. Under the tutelage of Flanagan, Kennedy established himself as a genuine NRL No.1, and the hope is that the premiership-winning mentor will help Sloan go to the same level. Improving his defence will be a major focus.

“It’s something I do lack, I’ll be honest,” Sloan said.

“I do lack there. I do save tries too, though. There’s moments there where I’m good and there’s moments there where I’m bad.

“You are your own worst critic, and sometimes I come out of a tackle feeling for myself. And not just myself, but letting my team down. That’s the main focus, that I want to be that person that, if there’s a line break, I can be depended on to make that tackle.”

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