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Footy stars share faith on new Catholic podcast

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Lifelong Bulldogs fans Fr Benjamin Saliba and Anthony Eltarraf explore the connection between their love of Catholicism and rugby league with their new podcast, Against the Grain. Photo: Against the Grain Podcast
Lifelong Bulldogs fans Fr Benjamin Saliba and Anthony Eltarraf explore the connection between their love of Catholicism and rugby league with their new podcast, Against the Grain. Photo: Against the Grain Podcast

In a small garage attached to a granny flat on a corner street in Western Sydney, a Catholic priest and his “spiritual son” are witnessing to their faith, one footy conversation at a time.

Lifelong Bulldogs fans Fr Benjamin Saliba and Anthony Eltarraf have tapped into the unexplored connection between their love of Catholicism and rugby league with their new podcast, Against the Grain.

Together, they produce weekly episodes on the intersection between sport and life.

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“We know in this country sport is like another religion,” Fr Saliba said.

“One of the great things that we have the ability to do each weekend is be a witness to our faith, watch a game of footy, go out and play park footy on a Saturday, the two almost go hand in hand.”

The pair met after Mass in 2013, where a young Anthony in his Bulldogs polo connected with the now-assistant parish priest of St John the Baptist in Bonnyrigg Heights.

Over 10 years later, they are bringing together Catholic belief and rugby league in a new venture for the media minority.

“The culture has gone so far in a particular direction that we all need reminding, because by not speaking, behaviours and attitudes are normalised that are in complete disagreement with the Catholic faith,” Fr Saliba said.

“We wanted to not just push back on social issues, but to give people the actual teachings of the Catholic church, and hopefully through the Holy Spirit, change lives,” Anthony added.

“Contrast that to an elderly lady at my parish,” said Fr Saliba, “who says she doesn’t know football, has no interest, yet finds herself glued to what we’re saying every week.”

They credit their team, including socials manager Sarah Merhi and editor Anthony Costa, for their growing success.

Together they’ve hit almost 800 followers on Instagram in nine short weeks, drawing notable guest appearances from Danny Abdallah and NRL stars Josh Aloiai and Jacob Kiraz.

Aloiai spoke in episode five on the consequences his faith posed to his professional career in 2022 as one of the “Manly Seven” who refused to participate in the “pride round.”

“If you’re not compromising your beliefs, you’re hateful,” Aloiai said.

“I’m not going to fall into that trap.”

Follow the Against The Grain Podcast on Spotify, Instagram, YouTube and Tiktok.
Follow the Against The Grain Podcast on Spotify, Instagram, YouTube and Tiktok.

Devout Catholic Kiraz said on episode six that his unorthodox rise into first-grade football was a work of God, though he was not without doubt at times.

“Sometimes even I was questioning God, which sometimes we do,” he said.

“And I remember saying ‘Why? Why am I here? Why does this have to be my path?’”

After leaving home to play out-of-state, career-threatening COVID-19 complications, and stagnant trials, Kiraz found the Bulldogs, which he said wasn’t only his own doing.

“You have faith, and you trust in God, and now I can look back at it and say, ‘Thank God that was my path.’”

Fr Saliba believes the generosity of players has defined the podcast.

“I’m a Catholic priest expected to speak compassionately about these topics and remind people why it is the church teaches what it does,” he said.

“But these men in professional sport have obligations to sponsors and their club, and they put their neck out on the line when they stand up for their faith.

“That’s the reason we talk about it.”

Two months in, Father and son are testing how to balance both elements of the podcast’s niche.

“When I was a kid, footy was probably my religion for a very long time,” Anthony said.

“I’m still trying to grow and understand you can have these passions as a secondary thing after those priorities in life, namely God and family.

“The main goal is to reach those people … where footy is their passion, so we can meet them there and then bring them up with us to the faith.”

Fr Saliba says the show is finding that demographic which otherwise might have never been reached.

“We’re engaging with adults, elderly, teenagers, who think religion and faith are uncool, or they’ve lost their way a bit,” he said.

“The beauty of having this medium means we can, in a non-intrusive way, come into homes, and people can just watch and listen.

“If that’s going to help people who don’t go to Mass or have the big question mark about who God is, or what this whole faith thing is all about, it gives them an opportunity to explore that.”

ATG releases across Spotify and YouTube at 7:00am each Friday, with presences also on Instagram and TikTok.

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