Almanac Footy: A Grand Final week postcard from the Tiwi Islands where a whisper of history is at play

On the Tiwi Islands football is everywhere.


At Pirlamgimpi the toilet block at the airstrip has been painted with images of football matches. The checkout at the store is wallpapered with front pages featuring Riolis in various moments of triumph.


A similar shrine has been created at the Clearwater Fishing Lodge (where the clubhouse leader ‘Clark’ has 14 Barramundi and 4 Mangrove Jacks) featuring Maurice and Cyril. Nearby a Sherrin is trapped in the jaws of a crocodile skull.



Only about 350 people live here but they have a connection to three Norm Smith Medallists. Michael Long’s sister teaches at the school.


The centre of the community is the footy field of the Imalu Tigers. This is an unforgiving deck. A stretch of grassless earth baked rock hard in the dry. It’s the build up now and thick clouds bring humidity that wraps you in a velvet blanket.


A man who introduces himself as Dennis is sitting in the shade. He explains the Tigers lost the grand final this year. When asked who he likes in the AFL decider he shrugs and suggests history is against the Demons because very few teams win the minor and major premierships.


‘You should ask this one, he will know,’ Dennis says pointing at a figure walking onto the oval.


This one is Tiwi football royalty. Willie Rioli is home for a few weeks and is stretching in the blazing late afternoon as kids gather around him. Soon he will have a kick and catch and run sprints until the perspiration cascades off him like a mountain waterfall. He can’t decide who is better in the Grand Final but would like his mate Steven May to have a premiership. May grew up across the water in Darwin and has Gunbalanya and Larrakia heritage.


Willie Rioli at Perlamgimpi


An hour’s ride from Pirlamgimpi by troopie along a spine-compressing red track is Milikapiti. It is the home of Shane ‘Tippa’ Tipuamantumirri who had a decade with Glenelg and South Fremantle before returning home to lead the Tiwi Bombers to their first premiership in 2011/12.


Walking along a curl of impossibly white sand known as Snake Bay he points out crocodile tracks that suggest a big one had a snooze in the sand recently. The casual observation ignites a primeval reaction that isn’t easily suppressed.


‘Melbourne definitely,’ he says when asked about the Grand Final. ‘Every part of their system works – backs work hard, forward defend well and the midfield is strong.’


He suggests we seek a word from Austin Wonaeamirri who played down south with Norwood and then Melbourne. We stop by his house where the front yard is almost filled by a pair of aluminum fishing boats. A community buffalo known as ‘Lady Gaga’ saunters past.


‘Aussie’ isn’t home but the Melbourne flag that covers the front window suggests his heart still beats true.


In another era before the names of Wonaeamirri, Rioli and Long brought fame to the Tiwi Islands, there was a ruckman called Amparralamtua who was known to football fans as David Kantilla. He was a 6 foot five, 11 stone streak of elbows and knees whose ability to float through the air and mark captivated South Australian football. He joined South Adelaide as a 21-year-old in 1961 and won the club best and fairest in his first two years. Port Adelaide boss Fos Williams called him ‘a spark that always looked likely to spread into a fire.’


Williams’ prediction came true when Kantilla burned his Magpies in the 1964 grand final.


Kantilla was best afield in what remains the greatest fairy tale in SANFL history. Neil Kerley took over as captain coach that season and took the club from bottom to top. In the grand final the wind swirled around Adelaide Oval making the play chaotic for everyone except Kantilla who marked surely. In The Sunday Mail he received 12 of the 15 votes available from the panel judging the best player.


Kantilla was killed in a truck accident in 1978 at Wurrumiyanga on the Tiwi Islands. He isn’t forgotten. Several years ago the sculptor Ramilo Tipiloura carved a statue of Amparralamtua from ironwood that memorialises the reach and grab.


Ramilo Tipiloura with his statue of David Kantilla


Here is the whisper of history from the Tiwi Islands this year.


After winning the 1964 premiership, South Adelaide met the VFL Premiers Melbourne for a match under lights at Norwood Oval. Leading into the game Norm Smith went into the hotel where the licensee was Neil Kerley. He sat on a stool and dropped anchor and the pair talked football for hours.


The match was tight but the Victorians got home. After the game several players exchanged guernseys and held a common belief there was more success to come. There wasn’t. Neither side has won a premiership since. The longest flag drought in both competitions.


Now South Adelaide is through to the Preliminary Final in Adelaide and Melbourne is in the Grand Final in Perth.


Indigenous communities are known for their patience with time often viewed as a concept created by others. But almost six decades since David Kantilla became the first Tiwi star a full circle might be almost complete.


‘I think it is the Demons’ time now,’ says Tipuamantumirri.


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

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