I’ve lived in the remote aboriginal community of Galiwinku, Elcho Island for well over a year now and am still astounded by how much they love their AFL. Last year we had a really successful senior season, with 7 teams competing in a gripping battle for the premiership. With 3 rounds to go all 7 teams still had the opportunity to make finals and all the finals matches were decided by single figure margins. The Grand Final itself is one that I won’t forget, with the result still in doubt at the final siren. The Tigers, who had come from 2nd bottom at the halfway point of the year, scraped their way into the finals and then came from behind at three quarter time in each of their 3 finals to procure an unlikely victory.

The 09/10 season generated a lot of excitement and interest within the community and this year sees the introduction of 2 new sides; the Thunder (named after the NT State side) and the Hawks. To enter a side into the competition, the committee rules state that each team must have at least 30 on their list before they can gain access. Given there are now 9 senior teams, all with at least 30 players, and some with as many as 40 players, that means there are close to 300 registered senior footballers on the island. All these players are drawn from a community of 2,200. Even more impressive is the number of junior footballers on the island. There are 8 teams, 4 in both the U13 and U17 competitions, for a total just under 200 registered players. So, if you say that half the population are males (1,100), that means that almost 50% of all males within the community are registered to a local AFL team. Astronomical.

One of the main issues I’ve encountered is that there is only 1 oval in town to accommodate all these enthusiastic participants. It is near on impossible to organize 3 separate competitions with 15 teams in total into a weekly schedule that also requires training sessions, on 1 oval. To try and counter the concern I played the 2 junior competitions during the dry season and left the seniors to have their season as they have done for the last 42 years – in the wet season, which they do in conjunction with the NTFL. This allowed the juniors to play a majority of their matches on the ‘traditional’ footy day, Saturday. To say they thrived being the centre of attention would be a massive understatement. Like their senior counterparts, there’s plenty of attacking flair, with long, blistering runs, freakish goals from the boundary and high flying marks littered throughout each match.

At the conclusion of the junior competitions, which were also a raging success and well received within the community, 30 kids rocked up, unannounced, and at different times, requesting with great gusto that I should start another junior competition ‘tomorrow’. This was the day after the Grand Finals and I even had parents asking how much it is to get their son/s cleared to another side! So, even though it was against my better judgement, due to excessive popular demand and threats on my well being, I’ve relented and the U13 competition will now run concurrently with the senior competition, effectively giving them 2 six month seasons.

The senior season started last weekend, but before that they love to have a pre-season competition, ‘like the NAB cup’. No million dollar prize money on offer here, though, unfortunately, though they were suitably impressed with the $400 premiership cup I had rushed over from Darwin. The senior pre-season competition, which concluded last week, also produced a ground swell of interest within the community, with over 500 people in attendance at each match. Unlike most pre-season competitions, in Galiwinku they play as many games as they can for a week.  All the teams get a shot at the finals, with all finals being sudden death. If I thought that this year wasn’t going to be as enthralling as last year, I needn’t have worried; of the 8 games that were played on the first Saturday, 5 of them were decided by a point. In fact, 2 teams ended up having a percentage of 100 after the first ‘round’ of matches; they both won a game by a point and lost a game by a point. Added to the spectacle on that initial Saturday was the senior debut of Sebastian Garawirrtja, a 13 year old who won the U13 league medals and goal kicking awards last year and who won a number of races at the State athletics championships in Darwin. Although only average size for his age group, he cemented the notion that he’s a player of the future, kicking an outstanding 3 goals for the Cats in their battle with arch-rival the St Marys. His composure under pressure and deadly left foot definitely make him a player the state recruiters will want to get a hold of soon.

The rest of the pre-season competition went as expected; close, gripping and action packed. In the end, the Eagles, who have lost the last 2 Grand Finals after being raging favourites for both, got over a much improved Waratahs side (who won the wooden spoon last year) by 7 points.

It always makes me awestruck that in a land where possessions are meaningless, there is a constant notion of not knowing when the next meal will be, the aura surrounding the town is that of hopelessness and the assumption from the outside is that prospects are grim, it is a game that galvanizes the community. Football gear is the only thing that seems sacrosanct, with all players wearing clean gear and boots with pride. They play like their life depends on it, they display passion rarely witnessed at the elite level, they are never forlorn and never beaten and their thirst for victory is as pronounced as their undoubted skill. And they love every second of it. So do I.


  1. Great read Tavis. Sounds as though your doing a great job within the community and, despite what must be a very challenging role, you have a competition that provides a focus for the locals which is terrific.

  2. John Butler says:

    Always good to get an update Tavis.

    We’ll post as many as you can send.

    Great stuff.

  3. Sensational Tavis. Perhaps in years to come the AFL teams will be counting how many NON-indigenous players they have. I love how these blokes play with a complete concentration on the footy and nothing else.

Leave a Comment