Three years ago I was given the opportunity of a lifetime when appointed  Regional Development Manager (RDM) for AFL NT. For the next two years my home was Elcho Island; a remote location based 500km east of Darwin where one of the biggest Indigenous communities in Australia, Galiwinku, is situated.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited the island, the profound beauty was evident straight away, with lush vegetation, sheer cliff faces and some of the most picturesque beaches I’ve seen. I went on a sunset cruise with my wife Nat, and dolphins circled the boat, akin to a scene from a movie. The surroundings had sucked me in. Going into the community for the first time was a completely different experience, however. I’m the first to admit that I was embarrassed and ashamed that I was unaware that there was such a large group of people living in third world conditions in the ‘lucky country’. The houses were run down and overcrowded, litter was strewn across the streets, infants were walking around unattended and the condition of the camp dogs that surrounded each house was cringeworthy. Unemployment was rife, with some reports estimating that less than 10% of adults in Galiwinku are engaged in work, and although not as bad as other communities I’ve seen in the NT, social unrest was commonplace.

The yolgnu people who inhabit this land live as close as I’ve seen to their traditional way of life, with initiations, ceremonies and local lores still practised on a daily basis, as they’ve done generation after generation. They are welcoming and friendly, and although in general their English is limited they are always eager to converse and find out any news they may have missed. As is common amongst Indigenous communities throughout Australia, school attendance is incredibly low, with probably only around 5-10% of school-aged children attending school 4 days a week or more and on any day only 40-50% of enrolled students attend. Malnourishment, particularly amongst the youth, is pronounced, with around a quarter of infants severely emaciated. While the majority of Australians are flourishing, communities such as Galiwinku are floundering, and while most Australian men can expect to live well into their 70’s, yolgnu men’s life expectancy is closer to 50 and one of the lowest on earth.

One of the shining lights in Galiwinku is their passion for footy. It’s been well documented that Galiwinku, in particular, has phenomenal participation rates, with 6 leagues, 34 teams and almost 800 participants playing each week, all on the one run down, dry, lifeless oval. From my 3yrs experience, football is undoubtedly the biggest motivating factor in terms of school attendance, healthy living, cardiovascular fitness and most importantly, a goal for the youth of Galiwinku. In a place bereft of opportunity for the majority of its inhabitants, having a factor as motivating as football is so critical to the lives of so many in Galiwinku.

One of the boys making the most of this opportunity is Ralph Dhamarrandji. Ralph was a part of the AFL Academy set up at Shepherdson College, Galiwinku, by Principal Bryan Hughes when I arrived. Although not a part of the initial induction 3 years ago, Ralph’s enthusiasm and love for football saw him persist and gradually forge his way into the group. Like the rest of the youth in Galiwinku, Ralph had never played in a structured football match, or league, until around 2 years ago when the first competitions were started. He was underdeveloped for his age, lacked penetration in his kicking and continually got bumped off the ball by his larger bodied opponents.

He was, however, incredibly determined and electrifyingly quick. Over time, his skills developed, he became more aware of his capabilities and his body responded really well to the consistent training regime he was exposed to. It wasn’t long until he started dominating junior matches in Galiwinku and you could notice a marked increase in his confidence when he was named best on ground in the inaugural U13 Grand Final in 2010.

That was the impetus for his rapid rise through the footballing ranks. Last year he was named player of the carnival in the Miwatj Health Regional U15 event held in Gove and was selected for the State U15 side, which competed in Canberra, as a 14 year old. His coach, Wayne Walsh, was blown away with his appetite for the contest, willingness to chase and popularity within the group. When we were selecting the U15 Indigenous side, which competed in the National Indigenous Championships, he was one of the first players we picked.

To say he delivered in spades is a massive understatement. Although still inexperienced in terms of games played against a lot of his peers, fatigued from travelling (3 hour flight from Galiwinku to Darwin, 4 hour flight from Darwin to Brisbane, then a 1 hour drive from Brisbane to the Gold Coast), unaccustomed to the environment and one of the smallest at the carnival, Ralph quickly turned heads with his precision foot skills, flamboyant dashes and commitment to chase and tackle. Incredibly, despite the numerous obstacles in his life to reach this point, he was named player of the carnival and named in the National Indigenous U15 side, the Boomerangs. When his name was read out to receive his award all 150 boys that participated in the carnival smiled; they all knew who he was and they couldn’t help but respect him, the way he conducts himself is first class and his infectious smile and placid demeanour had touched everyone who met him.

He has laid the foundation through his desire, dedication and actions to reach a peak not many thought possible for a boy from Galiwinku and with his achievements he is providing aspirations to so many talented youth in the Galiwinku community. The AFL has worked hard to establish pathways for remote Indigenous players to play at the highest level and Ralph Dhamarrandji is seizing his moment with aplomb.


  1. Beautiful story Tavis. So good to get a positive end to the week with a story of hard work, dedication and a kid having fun doing what he loves.

    Whilst it is sad to hear what goes on in our own backyard of this lucky country, nice to know that these kids having interested and passionate peopel like you giving them an outlet.

  2. Ralph is a beautiful smiling talented boy, I hope he continues with his dreams and above all have fun and be able to enjoy his life. He brings hope to others he will never know about.
    Galiwin’ku has many obstacles like most communities but every now and then a shining star like Ralph appears. He can make it and he has the support of you Tavis, Sam and many more to be his shoulder and take some of the weight that goes with being an Indigenous sportsman.
    Great words (again) Tav.

  3. Tav, Apparently Zephi had a good game for Willy today.

  4. Thanks Tavis. Inspiring and honest. I admire the work you do. We all have goals and dreams. You realise yours. With your help, I hope that Ralph can to.

  5. Yeah sorry…it is a given Tav. Love your contributions.

  6. David Downer says

    Nice one, Tavis.

    I can confirm your mate Zeph had some noteworthy moments in the VFL yesterday. With Sandringham coming home with a wet sail, right in front of me Zeph calmly curled through the sealer for Willi with a perfect left foot snap – he seemed to invent his own space time continuum in that piece of play. He flew high on other occasions throughout the day and I kept thinking of him clearing your head in a single bound!


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