Elcho Island footy an inspiration

Not many people have been to, or heard of, Elcho Island. And to be honest, before I accepted the position of Regional Development Manager for AFL NT, I hadn’t, either. It’s a unique place in that it’s a remote aboriginal community and one that every white person who I’ve spoken to agrees every Australian should visit at least once in their lifetime. It is typified with high unemployment levels (around 85%), over-crowded housing (a recent survey averaged 4.5 people per room, which includes kitchen and bathroom, not just bedroom) and the lowest socio-economic group in Australia. Indeed, male life expectancy is just above 50 years – one of the lowest in the entire world. A work colleague who is an extensive traveller likened it to ‘just above’ the living conditions of the worst places he’d seen in India and Bangladesh.

But it’s the spirit of the local people and their obsession with the game of AFL in particular that’s made my time here thus far so enjoyable. The local football competition (the Galiwinku Football Association) has just come to a close and it’s been fascinating to see firsthand how it’s unfolded. The community only numbers 2,500, but amazingly 7 senior teams competed in the 21 round home and away competition. This figure is even more incredible when you factor in that there are over 1,000 school aged children who live in the community. In short; if you’re a male adult living on Elcho Island there is a very good chance that you participate in our great game.

A lot has staggered me this year, but the one thing that I’ve found really fascinating is the evenness of the competition. I’ve followed a lot of football over the last 15 years and I can’t recall a season in ANY league where every team was still a chance to make, or miss out on, the finals with only 3 rounds remaining. The fact that the bottom side still finished on 8 wins for the season typifies the evenness in itself. All up there were 5 draws for the season and there were only 2 occasions where sides copped a traditional belting of over 60 points. In fact, there were many times when the 3 games of each round were all decided by 2 goals or less.

Typical football followers always mention the ‘injury factor’ when assessing which team is likely to figure in the business end of the season; ‘we’re a good chance IF we don’t get struck with the injury curse’, or ‘we’ll be right as long as (insert champion player’s name here) DOESN’T get injured’ are commonplace statements across the board at any level of football. Extraordinarily, for the entire season, only 2 players missed games through injury in the GFA and both of those were only for a week. Cynics may say that the aboriginals don’t play as ‘physical’ as their counterparts, but I can assure you that in the 60 plus games I umpired this year the hits the players received were as big as any that I’ve seen in my time following local football in Victoria. They also play on an oval that at the start of the year was covered in termite mounds, didn’t have a single blade of grass on it and was rock hard and there were also times when we had to play ‘catch up’ rounds where games were scheduled every day for weeks on end.

So what is it that allows these players to keep ‘getting up’ for games, when they are under nourished, ill-educated on proper recovery techniques, inadequately prepared for matches (in terms of not having done a pre-season) and playing in the harshest conditions of any group in Australia? 2 words; desire and passion. It’s been inspiring to see the desperation shown by each individual that’s taken the field in the competition this year. Their thirst to be the first to the ball and their willingness to chase and tackle and get up when they can’t has been on display every quarter of every match for the entire year. They are spurred on by the accolades they will receive by their peers if victorious and the pride they see on their families faces after the game. They play because they don’t want to miss out on the opportunity of experiencing victory with their team mates and put every ounce of effort into ensuring success.

The story of the year was without doubt the Tigers; at the midway point of the season they were last on the ladder, and although competitive in every match, a seemingly long way off matching the top teams. The form reversal came when 2 of their younger on-ballers returned from Darwin. They are both tenacious, fleet footed on-ballers who typify the spirit I mentioned previously. Slowly, the Tiger train started churning and in the final 2 rounds they had to win both games to guarantee a spot in the top 4. Both games turned out the same – down at 3 quarter time and then ‘finding something’ in the last quarter to register a win. They scraped into the top 4 and the other teams were cautious of their progress. In the first final they came up against the Kangaroos, who, in my opinion, were the best team in the competition and likely to be too strong for the Tigers. Given they were 2 goals up at 3 quarter time and kicking with the aid of a strong breeze in the last, my opinion seemed vindicated. I hadn’t fully factored in the spirit and desire of the Tigers outfit, however, as they stormed home to win a thriller by 8 points. They deserved all the plaudits that went their way as they repeatedly kept throwing themselves at the contest, desperate to win no matter what the cost. They had won their way through to the Preliminary Final against the Cats and before the game no-one could split the 2 teams. In another bruising encounter, the Tigers won on the last kick of the day to book a birth in the Grand Final against the Eagles. The Eagles had lost the previous years’ Grand Final and were keen to make amends. Not many people gave the Tigers a lot of hope of causing an upset, particularly given the Eagles had earned a right to 2 weeks off and the Tigers had played the preliminary final on the Monday before the big game, meaning they only had a 5 day turn around.

The Grand Final was a unique spectacle that I was proud to be a part of. The crowd numbered in excess of 3,000 and people had flown in from all over the top end to witness it. Before the game both teams had cheerleaders who performed well rehearsed dance routines and the teams (as they do every game) lined up and shook hands before the first ball was bounced. They then put on a fantastic, free-flowing, hard hitting, highly skillful game of football that was one of the best Grand Finals you could witness. It was fitting that it came down to the last kick of the game to decide the result. The Eagles captain and leading goal kicker, Wayne Dhamarrandji, had a shot after the final siren about 45m out. The kick fell tantalisingly short, giving the Tigers a 2 point victory and their first premiership since joining the competition.

After the game there was the usual pandemonium that takes place with the crowd rushing onto the ground and the cheers flowing. As I walked away I realised that the players hadn’t put their bodies on the line for money, or trophies, but for the jumper, for the bond they have with their teammates and more importantly for their love of the game. In a place where it is easy to be down trodden, pessimistic and sullen it is football that gives them hope, fuels their spirit and ignites their passion for life.


  1. John Butler says

    Thanks Tavis

    Sobering, enlightening and inspiring all in one hit.

  2. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says

    Good one Tav – fascinating insight into life and footy in a remote community.

    As a Rushworth man and an ex Rochester player I’m sure it gladdened your heart to have the Tigers win!

  3. Dave Nadel says

    Excellent article. That’s what footy is about when it is at its best!

  4. Excellent Travis.

    I once went to Hermansberg on an organised tour. We had about an hour there and were ushered into the old Mission (Gaol) complex for a cup of tea, a scone and a trinket or two. I was pissed off.

    I left and walked around the settlement and ended up at the footy ground. Grassless, covered in empty plastic soft drink and water bottles and foot print scuffed.

    I walked to the centre and could hear the crowd from the previous Saturday’s game.

    I went into the local shop and looked at what was in there. Fast foods and a footy jumper section. Tigers and Bulldogs.

    When I got back to Alice I checked the paper and noted that the Tigers had beaten the Bulldogs in a thriller infront of a crowd of about 600 people that week.



    Did you get to Hermansberg
    where red rock collided with good German stock
    have you seen how they saved the savages
    within fretting stone walls of civilization
    could you walk beyond the outer gate
    towards their dogs in defined stinking yards
    confining corroding artefacts of the grand new way
    have you seen the prints from one man’s hand
    white arching ghosts stalking,
    stalked as they haunt a troubled land
    guide posts from a doomed ancient way
    gone, gone, gone to stay.

  5. Tav – great story. In the 70s my uncle played for Beagle Bay (I think). All I know is they wore Richmond jumpers. Is that the same competition or am I getting confused?

  6. pauldaffey says


    Loved it. I’ve been to a few grand finals in the Top End and every time I’ve felt enriched to the point of gluttonous by the experience.

    It’s true. They play their hearts for the accolades of their community, like every other footballer at every level in Australia. Down South, though, it’s just not as spectacular as you see in the tropics.

    My favourite moment from a Top End grand final came during the last quarter of the 2002 Tiwi decider. The Tuyu Buffaloes were playing the Imalu Tigers.

    Whenever Tuyu killed a goal, a few of the women hared out to centre half-forward and performed a buffalo dance. It seemed to work. The Buffaloes came from behind to force a draw.

    When the final siren rang, everyone sprinted on to to the ground and did a few circles if only to get rid of some excitement. Then the players played a period of overtime, during which the spectators could hardly contain themselves.

    People ran out on the ground after every goal, after every behind, after every whistle for a ball-up. I hadn’t seen so much pitch invastion since Viv Richards last hit a ton at Antigua.

    Finally, the Buffaloes won by a battered old tusk and half a dozen women did a buffalo dance at centre half-forward.


  7. Tavis,

    I was there at that Grandfinal on Elcho. It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever witnessed or been part of. The excitement and passion shown by not only the players but the crowd as well was anazing. It was hard not to get caught up in the passion.Even the lead up to the final was something amazing to watch. I was so lucky to be able to witness this and be part of it. I was adopted by the community while I was there and my uncle was the coach of the eagles. Was disappointing for them to lose again but it was a well deserved win by the tigers.
    Galiwin’ku is definitely a place that everyone should see in their lifetime.

  8. Gidday Tavis,
    I went to school with Kath Barlow – your cousin, and I met your wife last year in town – (lovely women, both of them!), however I stay out at Gawa, so we haven’t yet crossed paths. I’ve also been in Melbz. I am thinking about putting a website together for one of the teams – probably Naninburra ‘roos – can you post me some images of Nigel and the team? I’m a software developer, and I’ll be back in Gawa till at least mid Jan. Hope to meet ya this time round!

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