Pandora’s box opened?

Anyone who’s read any of my articles on footy almanac would’ve realized how much males love playing AFL on Elcho Island. Basically the only community on Elcho Island (Galiwinku) is home to 2,200 individuals, yet the senior competition has 9 teams and over 350 participants! Last weekend the senior Grand Final was played in front of a parochial crowd, with the Eagles defeating last year’s premiers, the Tigers, by 20 points. Usually after an AFL season is finished, there is considerable downtime; not so in Galiwinku.

On the Monday after the senior Grand Final I had a sign up day for the new U13 and U17 competitions that were starting. In a community where it is unusual for kids to go out of their way to sign up for anything, a staggering 83 boys put their names down for the U13 competition and 92 put their names down for U17 (that number actually increases to 105 if you include the U13’s who are keen to double up and also play U17’s). So, including the senior competition, there is well over 500 males in the community who participate in structured AFL matches.

Frequently I’ve been quoted as saying that ‘92% of the male population aged 10-35yrs play AFL in Galiwinku’. Most who I’ve mentioned it to suggest it’s possibly the highest participation rates of any sport anywhere in the world. I’m not so sure about that, but the success of the male competitions may have some rivalry on its hands if tonight is anything to go by.

In the 2 years I’ve been working as a Regional Development Manager I’ve had 3 failed attempts at trying to get a female competition started. Of course, all the girls go to each match and know the rules (better than the umpires, apparently!) and a vast majority of the school-aged girls have been exposed to the skills of AFL from participating in the AFL clinics that have been run. But getting them confident enough to want to participate in an actual competition has posed many challenges. The first was the men on the senior committee. When I put posters up around town encouraging girls to come and see me if they were keen to get a competition started, I was chastised by the committee and told it wasn’t appreciated; ‘girls don’t play footy.’ Of course, I respected their wishes and it didn’t take me long to realize that any cultural matter in the community is not to be questioned.

It always seemed, though, that the potential to get a girls AFL competition was always there. The longer I stayed and the more trust I earned with the locals, the more some of the stronger willed girls suggested that AFL was what the girls really wanted. So I told them that if they could organize the team lists of about 20 girls I would do the rest – jumpers, balls, umpires, scoring, siren, the lot. After a few weeks they came back to me, but unfortunately on the day of the match pretty much the entire bunch of girls from both teams didn’t turn up. They felt too embarrassed to participate. After this scenario played out exactly the same way 6 months later I’d pretty much put the idea to bed.

I’m not sure what the turning point was, who initiated it, or what changed, but when the same strong willed girls approached me again about a week ago telling me that they really wanted me to try one last time to start a girl’s competition, I thought I’d give it another shot. I’m glad I did, because the outcome was staggering – 85 girls formed 4 teams and played 2 highly entertaining, high quality matches tonight that had to be seen to be believed! They were definitely harder at the ball that the guys and there were a lot more heavy hits. Pretty much all the girls who played knew how to bounce, knew where to stand, played on instinctively after taking a mark and protected the ball carrier at every opportunity. The response from the community was overwhelming and already 2 more teams have approached me to allow them to join the competition. Another 40 girls would take it up 125, taking the number of AFL participants in Galiwinku up to 650! At this rate I wonder if there will ever come a time where the hit the magical 1,000 mark. It certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, and then I think we could lay claim to having the highest community participation in one sport.

As a side note, 6 girls teams would mean that are 23 teams in total in Galiwinku. Matches are held on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Every team trains, yet there is only 1 oval in town.. Wonder if Andy has any left over pay rights money he could throw our way? Fair to say I think another oval would come in handy.


  1. Careful Tavis, there might be so many teams up there that you’ll have to introduce Divisions or a conference system and then you’ll have to concoct a fixture rather than a home and away concept, then you’d have to manage a season end draft…………………things could get ugly.

    I must get up there one day.

  2. Ha ha.. You’re right Dips, it’s almost getting unmanageable! We actually did have a draft day when I first started the junior competition about 18 months ago (there’d never been junior footy here previously..) and it was a massive success. I put a photo of the number 1 draft pick in the paper the following week and not unexpectedly he was swamped with hoardes of adoring female fans afterwards!

    Elcho Island is a beautiful place and has some of the most magnificent beaches in the world. The trip alone would be worth it to see them and also some of the local footy matches. There were a few workers from down south in town last weekend and they watched the senior Grand Final and they couldn’t get over the standard and that there were no ‘dud’ players in either side..

  3. I might have asked you this before but I don’t suppose you know Frank O’Donnell?. Lives in Darwin but has spent a lot of years in and around Aboriginal communities. Works for the Murin Association which I understand supplies a lot of communities with food, provides transport etc.

  4. No Dips, I don’t know Frank.. I have heard of the Murin Association, though. They seem to have a pretty good reputation. I imagine Frank would’ve visited Galiwinku in the time that I’ve been here, but I imagine there’d be a lot bigger fish to fry than to talk to the bloke who only runs the footy!

  5. Tavis – he would be at the footy! Loves it. Look for a big bloke who tries to hide away in the background or under a tree somewhere. That’ll be him.

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