Football crazy: Australia’s Tiwi Islands

By Natsumi Penberthy 21 March 2012
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We went north to the Tiwi Islands to discover how a tiny community has produced so many Aussie football greats.

WHY IS IT that people so often talk about the Tiwi Islands and Australian football in the same breath? David Kantilla. Maurice Rioli. Michael Long. Against the odds, these three iconic players hail from two small Northern Territory islands about 80km north of Darwin.

There’s no doubt it’s a great line up. David was the first indigenous Australian to play in the South Australian Football League, Australia’s oldest competition; in 1982 Maurice became the first player on a losing team (Richmond) to win the Norm Smith Medal for best afield in an AFL grand final; and in 1993, Michael played in a grand final for Essendon and earned another of the 34 coveted Norm Smiths.

Each of these players had the ability to magically pluck a ball out of a scramble – and all returned to the Tiwis when their professional football careers ended. There they have acted as important role models to younger Tiwis.

But, it’s not just these pros that have the sport running through their veins – the islands thrive on footy. Roughly 900 of the 2600-strong population play on one of the eight teams in the local league – the highest participation rate in the country. There’s also a steady stream of players recruited to go south to the Australian Football League (AFL). 

Bump into artist Ken Wayne Kantilla, David Kantilla’s son, at the Ngaruwanajirri artists collective on the Tiwi’s Bathurst Island, and talk will invariably turn to football. “Tiwis are good at football,” he says simply.

Tiwi Islands’ big day

It’s the afternoon of the 2012 Tiwi Islands Football League grand final, and you couldn’t buy a smile on the small warm-up fields. Men in football jerseys are jumping, pacing, stretching and having a kick around with some of the kids, obviously shaking off nerves as they prepare for a showdown between the Tuyu Buffalos, from Bathurst Island, and the Imalu Tigers, from Melville Island.

Nguiu, where the game is held, is Bathurst’s capital and a 20-minute flight by light aircraft (or 45 minutes by ferry) from Darwin. Rectangular, corrugated iron houses flank the dusty Kerinavia Highway, Nguiu’s main drag, and while a couple of cars cruise past, the predominant mode of transport seems to be foot.

Industry on the islands consists mostly of pine plantations, tourism and art. There’s talk of building a bigger harbour, which will create much-needed jobs, but a large proportion of the islands’ current income comes from government leases of Tiwi-owned land says Brian Clancy, a development advisor for the Tiwi Land Council.

Grand final day is the one day of the year that anyone can travel to the Tiwi Islands without a permit, and there’s a pretty fair crowd gathering at the local oval for the game. During warm-up Norman Pangiraminni, centre half-forward for the Tigers, throws onlookers a quick thumbs-up, but quickly races off. It’s clearly not a time to be joking around.

“Today, it’s island against island. It’s not always like this, but it turned out that way today,” says Sister Anne Gardiner, a ‘retired’ Bathurst Island fixture, who was a missionary, but now runs the local museum, op-shop and school cafe.

Tangled web of Tiwi football

Sister Anne protests that she’s not a real local, even after a half-century on Tiwi soil, but she’s entrenched in the community and talks knowingly about how difficult it is for Tiwis who are recruited to go south to big-time footy.

“Cyril Rioli is playing for the [Hawthorn] Hawks now. Ross Tungatalum went down to St Kilda but didn’t last. Austin Wonaeamirri went to the Melbourne Demons but came back.” Various other players have gone and returned for different reasons, and Sister Anne boils it down to homesickness. “Sometimes they struggle to adjust. I can understand that,” she says.

Anne McMaster, wife of Tiwi College principal Ian Smith, is sitting on the grand final sidelines with her son Rehn. She’s only been living on small Melville Island for a year, but she’s already been pulled into football’s fold. “We take in young footballers for three months at a time, and help them get used to how we do things,” she says. “It just helps them adjust if they go south [to the Australian Football League (AFL)].”

When I ask Sister Anne who she’ll be supporting, she doesn’t miss a beat. “I’ll be going for Tuyu… but Imalu win many of our games,” she says firmly. The Imalu Tigers, named for Maurice Rioli’s former team, Melbourne’s Richmond Tigers, have won 10 premierships in the past 40-odd years since the Tiwi competition began. They’re currently the league’s most successful team.

For the first time they also have Maurice’s bother Willie Rioli as coach. On the field I hear grumbling that Willie isn’t playing. The Riolis of Melville Island are clearly gifted footballers.

In fact, the tangled web of Tiwi footy connections is no better illustrated than by the ties of Willie’s nephew, the young AFL player Sister Anne spoke of, Cyril Rioli. A nephew to both Maurice (who died in 2010) and Willie Rioli, both of Cyril’s parents have also played in territory premierships. “Oh yeah, women often play in Darwin too,” says Sister Anne. And, as it happens, Cyril’s mother is also sister to Norm Smith medal winner Michael Long.

Keeping the Tiwi faith

Tuyu coach Leslie Tungatalum picks his side just a half hour before the game, which is a nail-biting and heated process. The team looks nervous as about half will show up only to be cut. “Well, it’s their religion, since they were little they’ve been kicking around coke bottles,” Leslie says, shrugging off the tension.

While the players are focused, the sidelines around the small oval are buzzing – much is talk about Darwin’s Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) grand final the night before. The Tiwi Bombers’ entry into professional football in 2007-08 featured in a documentary, In a League of their Own, which followed their struggle to adjust to the schedules and rigors of the territory league. Their hard work had been definitively vindicated the day before when the Bombers won their first territory cup over the Nightcliff Tigers. 

On the island the whistle blows, and the game gets underway as yells drift up from the field. There are some impressive leaps and the play is fast. Around the oval onlookers are stretched out on grass, straddling the low fence around the field or perched on plastic chairs, and the oval is vividly green following the north’s rainy wet season.

The NTFL has scheduled its season during this oppressively hot and humid period to avoid injuries – the region’s ovals turn to hard, dry dustbowls during the dry season. Southern teams, however, play in the cold of winter, and the heat may be one reason why the NT seems to have an edge on producing small, fast, lean and skilful players.

Grand final moment

Darwin commentator Charlie King is calling the fast game for ABC radio as best he can, with help from commentator and comedian H.G. Nelson, aka Greig Pickhaver, who’s along for his first Tiwi game.

“The rules,” says Charlie, “are pretty…”

“…Vague,” chips in H.G., with a smile. “They exist in someone’s mind, but neither Charlie nor I have access to that mind.”

In the end, despite Sister Anne’s doubts, Tuyu dominate winning 84:71. In a post mortem on the uneven truck trailer from which the ABC are broadcasting from the sidelines, Charlie has a chuckle about the fact that some of the players have run out in two grand finals in the past 24 hours. “[The Bombers] were just supposed to come here with the NTFL cup and have a bit of a celebration, and so of course a couple of them decided to pull on a jersey and play here as well!”

A hundred or so of the watchers flood the field as soon as play ends, and some impromptu dancing and yelling celebrates the Tuyu win. Players work their way around slowly, exchanging a few words, shaking hands and hugging, some catching up with family and friends on the opposing team.

The small bar on the sideline (the only one on the otherwise alcohol-free island) is beginning to heave, and naturally everyone’s in fine form. It’s been a momentous week for Tiwi football and so it’s well and truly time to kick back and enjoy the company of some of the country’s most entrenched and entangled footy people.