‘Everyone shed a tear’: The cultural celebration that brought Bulldogs together

First they danced – Indigenous shake-a-legs, traditional Maori and Polynesian war cries and Lebanese dabkehs.

Then they belted drums – coach Cameron Ciraldo in AC Milan colours, Viliame Kikau in a floral Fijian number and sulu.

Then they cried.

Sat in circles around an auditorium at St Gregory’s, Campbelltown, before they sweated up and down the fields of the famed rugby league nursery, Bulldogs players spoke, and more than a few broke, of how they came to the NRL and the club.

Specifically, with premiership-winning captain Andrew Ryan leading the initiative, speaking to the heritage and cultures among the group that stretch from Samoa to Switzerland, Lebanon to Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

“I think everyone shed a tear that day,” Kikau said ahead of Sunday’s multicultural round clash against Wests Tigers at a sold-out Belmore Oval. “If you ask the boys what was the most important or most special thing we’ve done, it was that day.

Viliame Kikau and Bulldogs teammates represent their culture.

“The whole camp, the training was hard but that was the hardest part – sitting in the circle, looking into your teammates’ eyes, getting vulnerable and explaining what [your culture] means to you.

“We did a hardship/hero exercise and it was so good seeing the boys get vulnerable and emotional. It just builds that good connection.”

Throughout Ciraldo’s first summer at the club, the theme has been revisited constantly, with players and staff sat together in the Terry Lamb Reserve before training on Friday for their daily “connection chat”.

Two hours or so before kick-off on Sunday, they’ll walk across the same turf surrounded by Bulldogs fans, Lebanese drums, Vietnamese dragon dancers and through an Aboriginal smoking ceremony.

Josh Reynolds flies the flag.

The clash between two rebuilding western Sydney clubs comes 30 years after the first Multicultural Day at Belmore.

Lamb spearheaded a 42-6 demolition of great rivals Parramatta that day in front of 27,804 fans. Club patriarch Peter ‘Bullfrog’ Moore described it as “one of the great days in the club’s history”.

Ciraldo spoke in similar tones about the club’s culture day at St Gregs, dubbing it “one of the best experiences I have had.”

“Just seeing all of the boys buy into not only their own cultures, but everyone else’s cultures, as well,” the rookie coach said in the club’s documentary series, The Kennel.

“It was so good seeing the boys get vulnerable and emotional. It just builds that good connection.”

“And understanding where our guys come from, and who they represent and what they represent, was a really cool experience.”

The scenes are similar to those played out at Cronulla since Ciraldo’s good mate Craig Fitzgibbon took charge, encouraging club-wide buy-in to celebrations of every culture that walks through the door.

Like Fitzgibbon performing a shake-a-leg last year in front of Sharks players and staff, Ciraldo throws himself, and by extension the rest of the club, right into it.

Cronulla players often spoke of the initiatives as a key facet of their impressive rise up the ladder in Fitzgibbon’s first year.

Arm in arm: Bulldogs players connect at St Gregorys.

For the Bulldogs in Campbelltown, that saw former Canterbury winger Jono Wright teaching the Indigenous All Stars ‘Unity Dance’ and demanding players “bring your own culture and energy to it”.

Max King duly ripped his shirt off in the middle of the dance circle and led from the front.

When it came time to speak, uncapped 20-year-old centre Jordan Samrani impressed plenty by taking the floor and recalling the club’s most recent grand final runs.

While evergreen teammate Josh Reynolds led the Bulldogs from the scrumbase in 2012 and 2014, Samrani was still in primary school, marching down Burwood road belting a Lebanese drum.

Kikau too, recalled paying “$1.50 to sit on the computer for an hour just watching Sonny Bill Williams highlights” in his tiny Fijian village.

The two-time premiership-winner is still too embarrassed to tell Williams, recently welcomed back into the club, that he idolised him growing up. But Kikau plans to, which is the whole point.

“We’ve got a better understanding of everyone, especially the new players – why they are who they are,” centre Jake Averillo summed up.

“There was definitely a lot of emotion. It was good to see the boys open up and you saw them in a different light, even boys that I’ve been with for a couple of years now, just diving a bit deeper into who they are.”

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