General Footy Writing: Watch out for the termite mound!

I’ve recently moved to Galiwinku, which is the second largest Aboriginal community in Australia. It is based in a place called Elcho Island, which is a part of Arnhem land and situated about 500 kilometres east of Darwin. There are only 3,000 people in the community, but surprisingly there are eight football sides that make up the Elcho Island competition. I’m here to help develop Australian football on the island, make their football league sustainable, run Auskick clinics for the juniors and start up a football academy for the older students on the island.

To say it’s about as far removed as what I’m used to would be an understatement. First, there is only one football ground on the island, and it makes the surface at Ironbark Stadium in my home town of Rushworth look like the MCG; because it’s the dry season there isn’t one blade of grass, and there are sand traps, not unlike those found on golf courses, spread sporadically over the ground. There are also ten termite nests spread irregularly over the ground, posing OH&S risks throughout each match. Second, there is no centre square marked out, so the game looks like one of the games of the 1950s, where there are about 20 players around each centre bounce.

One of my first tasks is to introduce the locals to, and enforce, the interchange rule. At present, whoever turns up is welcome to play and it’s reported that in a game last year there was 32 on the ground for one side and 28 for the other! After last year’s Grand Final, in which the Bombers defeated the Eagles by two points, the Eagles supporters wanted the result over-turned because they believed theBbombers had 22 players on the ground. They quickly backed down when it was pointed out to them that they had 24.

The games themselves are vastly different to the games I’m used to watching back in suburban and rural Victoria. The players are, as you’d imagine, incredibly athletic and agile and the games are played at a frenetic pace. I umpired a social game tonight and the only two stoppages were those that came from boundary throw-ins. They play on at all costs, and even when they mark the ball 20 metres out from goal they feel compelled to play on and try to snap a goal, rather than just go back and have a set shot. The local players loved telling me the time, about five years ago, when Andrew McLeod came to the island to run clinics at the school. They roped him in to playing a game with the seniors, and the game was so fast he was completely exhausted after 15 minutes of play and decided to take no further part. Of course, this could be a footy myth, but the locals are adamant that it’s true.

The second thing that I really noticed was that, although their skills were quite proficient, a majority of their techniques were terrible. So, when the players are required to kick or handball under pressure, they inevitably turn the ball over. It didn’t take long to understand why: the first time I took a ‘training session’ it took the players a long time to grasp what I was saying, and what I wanted them to do. This was because they (even the senior players) had never been involved in a training session before; they’d just found a ball and started playing games. This explained why a lot of their kicking techniques aren’t great – because they’ve never been taught to kick and have just had to pick it up themselves. It also explains the huge chasm between the skilful and less skilful players – because whereas the skilful players might get 30 kicks a match (and have 30 opportunities to hone their skills), the lesser players might only get 5 kicks a match. Add that up over weeks, months and years and it makes even more sense.

Although I really wanted, initially, to just run skills sessions, I’ve decided to use a different approach. We still have a practice match after each training session, but I gradually introduce them to new training drills each week, and increase the time of the drills week by week. This helps keep them enthusiastic and helps keep me motivated. It was quite an experience when I took more than five minutes to get the players to undertake probably the most basic footy drill, lane work, and I had more elaborate ideas in place, but I wasn’t aware of their lack of exposure to training.

But it’s been greatly rewarding to see the number of attendees at training steadily climb, the zest for training increase, and the improvement in their skills across the board.


  1. Pamela Sherpa says

    Interesting article Tavis. What a great experinece. Last week at the ‘Force for Good’ seminar I saw footage of the frenetic paced football you describe.It was incredible how fast and hard the action was. I can relate to the ‘want to play a game’ aspect and not learning many skills and drills- Sounds like many P.E lessons I’ve taken over the years! Enjoy your time up there.

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