Book Extract – Derby: David Wirrpanda


This is an extract from Derby by David Whish-Wilson and Sean Gorman.




David Wirrpanda – Eagles

(captain, number 44)


For David Selwyn Burralung Merringwuy Galarrwuy Wyal Wirrpanda, football has been good. Having played 227 AFL games for the West Coast Eagles, culminating in the one point grand final win over Sydney in 2006, Wirrpanda or ‘Wirra’ as he is more commonly known has worked hard to establish the Foundation that bears his name. In 2007 he was named by The Bulletin as one of Australia’s most influential Aboriginal people, and in 2009 he was awarded the Young Western Australian of the Year. Such was the power of his brand that he was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, and he even had a tilt in the 2013 federal election as the National Party’s Senate candidate for Western Australia. At his North Perth home we are not only greeted by Wirra but two employees and old Docker adversaries in Dale Kickett and Troy Cook. The banter ensues about derby rivalry and games won and lost, but Wirrpanda focuses on what he first thought of the derby, having come from Victoria where he had witnessed hundred-year-old hostilities first hand.


‘Well, as a young bloke I didn’t really understand the Western Derby because being a Victorian we had a derby every week in Melbourne. You know, the great rivalry between Carlton and Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond. I was a mad Hawthorn supporter so there were some pretty hot contests. That’s why I wore forty-four – because I was a Johnny Platten fan. I played on him when I was sixteen and didn’t know whether to tackle him or kiss him. So when I heard about this derby, and the rivalry, it didn’t really click until I was here. I started in ’96 and I was pretty keen to see the Fremantle Dockers because they were the new franchise and they had a lot of Indigenous players. I remember watching Scotty Chisholm in the warm-up one day and thought he was pretty good. Then in round one in 1996 I got a little bit of an understanding of it, straight up.’


It didn’t take Wirrpanda long to understand the importance of the derby game in the context of local football. ‘I’ve got a really good understanding of the derby rivalry. I think the passion is huge, considering for a long time the majority of supporters were West Coast and now after twenty years I think it’s almost fifty-fifty. That’s exciting for Western Australian footy because Fremantle are now a serious contender. They’re not there to be pushed around anymore by the so-called big brother. To their credit they have clawed their way back, and football in this state has been the winner.’


Wirrpanda had an intimate insight into the inner workings of the Eagles and he is refreshingly honest about what a derby means from a players’ point of view. ‘We used to be very diplomatic when it came to the derby, and we were gently instructed to make sure that we used the old clichés. But to be honest, it’s a rivalry, you don’t want them to win regardless of where you are on the ladder. It’s as simple as that. There’s nothing better than making sure that you’re number one in the state. If we lose, we feel the heat. Like when you go up North, the majority of Kimberley people are all mad West Coast, and after a derby loss you get: “What’s wrong with you? What happened?” You feel terrible because you’ve just let everyone down. The players all shake hands afterward but we couldn’t stand each other, and that’s the truth.’


Having taken some time to ease himself into the demands of the elite AFL competition, Wirrpanda recalls his first derby. ‘I think my first real derby was in ’99, and from there I played a fair bit of them, but I got a real taste for it when John Worsfold was our captain. He made it very clear he did not want to lose to those blokes down the road and that was the rule of thumb.’ Wirrpanda recalls that his first derby coincided with the first Dockers win, and it’s not a pleasant memory. ‘I just remember how gutted I was. I was playing on Brad Wira. He was tagging me for the day, and he got on top of me by kicking three goals. It was massive, like a final. To their credit they just kept clawing and clawing and eventually it was going to happen because it’s just part and parcel of footy. It took me more than a week or two to get over it.’ Wirrpanda is quick to point out that there were other times when the boot was on the other foot. ‘If you really want to be successful you have to have a little bit of arrogance about you. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a respectful person. My mum used to tell me to be fair and play the ball. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s what we tried to do – to keep the lid on things and not blow them out of proportion. The wins were great and felt good, because I wanted their players to remember me for next time. But you can’t relax. They are tough games.’


Asked to describe how Wirrpanda and his teammates prepared for a big derby game, he replies, ‘I know people like Dean Kemp really set himself for a big day with the derby. Brett Heady was another one. Glen Jakovich used to really fire up. Non-stop talking, geeing us up. Some blokes would spend the entire morning spewing up. I was relaxed, if anything too relaxed. Sometimes it used to annoy Woosha that I was a little bit too laidback. But I’d try to avoid that pressure of thinking about it a lot. I’d sit in the spa just before the game, have a yarn and a laugh. I wanted to make sure I was not wasting any energy and could come in fresh. But as soon as the siren went I’d go one hundred miles an hour.’ Apart from trying to calm himself before a big match, Wirrpanda’s other concern before a big game was ‘making sure my family had tickets. A few times in the warm up, our boot-studder at the Eagles would walk in and say we have you got your family here, and they want tickets, and I was literally just about to run through the banner. That was the thing that I used to stress over more. So I would make sure there was always a few spares at the door, because I didn’t want them coming in to the change rooms humbugging me just as I was running out.’ During the week in the lead up to a derby game Wirrpanda often spent time training with Phil Matera as he  prepared for playing on his toughest Fremantle opponent – The Wiz.


‘Mate, Jeff Farmer was the toughest to play on by a country mile. I mean he was one of those players that I used to prepare myself for, and I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before. He knew the way I played, and I knew the way he played. We had really good battles and I think he’s probably the best Docker I’ve played on. I would train really hard with Phil Matera in small spaces especially in the goal square. The only thing that The Wiz probably had over Phil is he could jump on your head. You’d keep him quiet all game and in two minutes he’d kick four on you. I’d yarn with him and have a bit of laugh and ask about his family. We used to rotate different players on him. Drew Banfield was unbelievable as far as locking down on players, and Daniel Chick was good because he would get Jeff Farmer upset. I’d kind of take over from there and hold on because it was always a wild ride with The Wiz.’


The conversation shifts from that contest to perhaps the most bone-jarring incident to have occurred in derby history – the clash between Shaun McManus and Wirra in derby thirteen, 2001. Wirrpanda takes a sip of his coffee and looks off into the distance. He breathes in slowly and lets out a thoughtful sigh. ‘That clash with Shauny Mac is probably my favourite memory in footy. It’s up there with the Grand Final. Fremantle were breaking in the play and my mate Andrew Shipp had the ball I knew his kicks are not that accurate. He lobbed this kick and I saw Shauny Mac probably about ten metres behind me over my right shoulder, and I just remember thinking, “I’m quick enough to get to where the footy will be.” I left my man and the footy was in the air. I was confident I was going to get there, mark it and take off. We were both watching the footy and running full lick and then I felt his jaw on my shoulder and the way I hit him it jolted my neck and I felt a bit unwell. I just remember getting up, and Peter Matera saying it’s not a mark, and then Cookie had me by the throat. I was immediately concerned. I thought, “Jeez, he’s seriously hurt,” because Shauny’s eyes were at the back of his head. He got the free, and was probably the worst kick in that team, and he’s had a shot a goal and kicked it. Great memories, of a hard contest with one of Freo’s favourite sons.’


Despite the derby ledger being so in favour of the Eagles for so many years, the outcome of having regular highly competitive games has seen the win–loss ratio even up and both teams have benefitted. ‘Once we played regular derbies you could see players really develop from Freo’s end, as well as ours. I mean there was myself, Ben Cousins, Chad Morrison, Michael Braun and Rowan Jones. Then you saw players like Paul Haselby and Matthew Pavlich really start to push and make a name for themselves, not just for Fremantle but in the AFL. And that’s where the respect starts to grow, because the rivalry grows too. Now these retired players are some of the most popular, and it’s important for me and for the boys as well to keep that relationship, because they were pretty big servants for the footy club. I encourage all the Aboriginal players that work for me to keep up relationships with their old clubs.’ Wirrpanda, Cook and Kickett have to head off to the airport where they have a scheduled meeting. We ask Wirra whether there will ever be a derby grand Final. ‘Well, we almost had one in 2006. I think that was probably the closest we’ve been, but the potential between both the football clubs now to play in the GF is a lot closer than we think, whether it’s this year, or maybe another year or two, down the track. But I’m worried about the changeover of the squads. That’s probably to Freo’s detriment that they’re going to have a big change over in the next couple of years. We all saw what happened when the Eagles lost Matera, Kemp, Jakovich, McKenna, Worsfold, and we had that big dip down the bottom. It’s a process that Freo might have to deal with soon. But both footy clubs are really well managed with fresh blood, new ideas, different coaches, different structures and I think they’re going to be a lot more successful, but I would love to see a derby grand final.’



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  1. Congrats on the book Sean and David. I remember that Wirra and Shaun Mac clash very well. They both had their eyes on the ball – Wirra going back and Shaun running toward it. Sort of like the Woosha-Tony Modra collision (without the malicious intent).
    I was away for the Demolition Derby. Is “Mad Dog” Dale K in the book about hitting everyone in the Demo Derby? Clive Waterhouse – Commetti’s fave?
    I remember watching the Balla’s narrow miss from the boundary in the dying minutes after we had thrown away a solid lead in a recent Derby. It must have been a Dockers home game as I saw it on TV.
    Funnily my strongest Derby memory is a young Nat Fyfe running toward the northern pocket boundary line at the City End and looking over his shoulder for a 90 degree snap from 30 metres out.
    We were directly in line with the kick as it went straight through the middle, and I remember his quick look to size up the situation and the goals as he gathered the ball.
    Said to AE “this Fyfe kid is class – wish he was ours”.
    Yours in enmity until Saturday night. PB.

  2. Sean Gorman says

    Yes PB all the Derby fav’s (heroes and villains) are there. Come along to the launch. 3pm Subi Sports bar. It promises to be a good arvo in true Almanac style. Go Freo……

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