Saint Rick Abdicates by KB Hill

Dusk has already enshrouded the Findlay Oval on this balmy Thursday evening. As the glow of the floodlights takes effect, eighty players or more burn up the track….. jabbering excitedly…..moving frenetically; footies zipping here and there like tracer bullets.



A hardy group of regulars survey proceedings. Then we spot a lone figure…a massive fellah, who’s following the action intently up in the shadows of the Hogan Stand.


Funny, we’d only been swapping yarns a few days ago, about the exploits of Michael Nolan, who first pulled on the Brown and Gold guernsey 50 years ago. Someone jokes that, maybe the ghost of ‘Big Mick’ is re-visiting us.



Well, not exactly, but Mick’s spirit will always live on whilst his eldest son is around.


Rick has forged a sizeable football reputation of his own. When I greet him he’s momentarily distracted by a post that has come through on his I-Phone, announcing his decision to relinquish the coaching position at one of Australia’s most famous footy clubs, St.Mary’s of Darwin.



He told them that he wasn’t going on about a month ago, he says, but they’ve only just made it public.


Rick Nolan with St Mary’s


How does he feel?



“Yeah, I’m comfortable with it. After ?ve years in the job, I could sense my energy levels dropping, but I’ve maintained good relationships with everybody. And I didn’t want to damage those by going on for an extra year.”



So he took the opportunity to escape down south for a week or so. Being the football ‘nut’ that he is, he watched three AFL games last week-end, caught up with a few people, then headed to Wangaratta, where his family roots are, of course, deeply-embedded.




Rick’s has been a fascinating football journey. He was just a whippersnapper when his dad, mum Nettie and the kids moved to Queensland. Mick had drawn the curtain on a ?ne career at North Melbourne and was enticed to take up a coaching position with Brisbane club, Mayne, in 1981.



Charged with spreading the ‘gospel’ in this rugby-oriented state , Mick became the face of Queensland football, whilst turning the Mayne Tigers into a QAFL powerhouse. Tracing his every step was young Rick, who began with Mayne’s juniors as a seven year-old and moved through the ranks, to play 50-odd senior games.



He had just left school, when an uncle, Graeme Smith, the vice-president of St.Mary’s, suggested that a season of summer footy in their Under-18’s would do him the world of good.



He loved it, grew fond of Darwin and decided to hang around. When he was 21 he quali?ed as an Aviation Fireman – a job he’s held ever since.



He began to make his mark as a strong, hard-working ruckman, protective of the will-o-the wisp, magical small men who abound in Top End footy. Deceptively agile for his size, he inherited ‘Big Mick’s’ gift for deft tapwork and his sound understanding of the game. Some also attested to his healthy appetite, which was again, a family trait.



A decent feed of Spaghetti Bolognese would be Rick’s standard post-match fare, along with a side dish of a couple of rounds of toasted cheese sandwiches. His hangover-cure was a full Chicken, washed down with two or three stubbies.



Beneath a stern-looking visage is a warm-hearted, friendly fellah. He loves yapping about footy – and is keen to elaborate when I quiz him on the reason for St.Marys’ amazing run of success. They’ve won 32 of a possible 65 NTFL ?ags since they entered the League in 1952, and have missed the ?nals only twice. Rick says the Club was originally formed to give full-blood aboriginals on the Tiwi Islands the opportunity to play regular, organised football in Darwin.


At the time, none of the other clubs would allow them to play. Thus, a long line of Long’s, Rioli’s, Dunn’s and Virgona’s, among others, have helped create the Saints’ tradition, blending in with the diehard locals.
One of the legends of the Club is the patriarch of the Long family, Jack, who used to sell crocodile skins to Darwin businesses to pay his way from the Tiwi Islands, to play with St.Mary’s. The assembly-line of champions who have worn the Green and Gold over the years includes 21st century stars Anthony and Iggy Vallejo, Peter ‘Noodles’ McFarlane, Xavier and Raph Clarke, John Anstess and the Illett brothers – Cameron and Jarred.


Rick addressing St Mary’s players


“People are envious of our great culture, but it’s a culture of hard work. We train harder than any club, but we also have unbelievable bloodlines,” Rick says.



“Every year you’ll be watching a junior game and a Rioli or a Long who’s been living on the island, will bob up from nowhere.”


Rick played in two ?ags in his 125 senior games with Saints. In between, he ?tted in a season at SANFL club Woodville-West Torrens, then realised a long-held ambition when he spent a couple of months with the Rovers in 2001. He dominated four or ?ve Reserves games and, when belatedly swung into the senior side, ?tted in like a glove in two ?nals matches. He wishes time had permitted him to play more.


He’s always been a keen student of the game, and did a couple of internships with AFL clubs. In the period he spent at the Gold Coast Suns, Rick noticed that Shaun Hart, one of the assistants, had a computer with him at all times.



“His computer was a vital coaching tool. I was pretty impressed. I reckoned that was the way to go,” he says.



Thus, he was instrumental in creating SportsClipMaker, a video analysis software program and sports coaching app.



“Many Victorian country clubs are using it, but it has the potential to spread world-wide,” he says. “Hopefully, I can now devote more time to promoting it.”



Rick ?rst put his toe in the coaching water as an assistant at St. Mary’s. Then the opportunity presented itself to take on the big job in 2013.


He was apprehensive.



“One of my best mates, Stewart Sceney, was putting a bit of pressure on me. He told me: ‘It takes courage to coach, but it takes extra courage to coach St.Mary’s.’”



So he took the plunge. Sadly, not long after he’d been appointed,  Stewie, his wife Karmi Dunn and their two kids, died in a plane crash at Anson Bay, on the west coast of Darwin. The news devastated the St.Mary’s club, but strengthened their resolve for the season ahead. The Saints took all before them and went through the season undefeated.



That was certainly a highlight for Rick, but the ?ag win he cherishes most came in March 2016.
He’d lost key players John Anstess and Ryan Smith in the lead-up, then Ben Long was rubbed out after a gruelling Preliminary Final.


St Mary’s triumphant in the NTFL


“Within ?ve minutes of the start, two blokes did ACL’s, and just before half-time one of our stars, Justin Cooper, broke a collarbone. Mickey Coombes, another key player, was out of the game with an ankle injury at three quarter-time.



“When the last quarter started we had no bench, it was 33 degrees and 95% humidity. We were two goals down and barely hanging on.


“With a minute or so remaining in the game, Shannon Rioli threaded his way through a few Wanderers players and booted the goal that gave us victory by two points. It ranks as one of the best of our 32 ?ags.”





The following season St.Mary’s belted old foes Wanderers by 57 points, to clinch Rick’s third title in four years.



This year they started sluggishly, recovered, but were always just o? the pace – bombing out in the First Semi Final against Nightcli?.



He concedes that coaching in the Top End is a tough gig.



“You’re allowed a maximum of four ?y-in players; there are the boys from the Communities, like Wadeye . You have to make sure they’re picked up, fed and accommodated. My wife Danielle was terrific in helping me with this.


“Additionally, the blokes from down south need to be settled in Darwin by October 1. You try to ensure that they all ?t into the Club okay…most of all, hope they can get a kick…”



Rick likes to think his coaching methods were strongly in?uenced by watching his dad in charge at Mayne. His younger brothers, who both made a considerable imprint on the game, have also carried the Nolan name with aplomb.


Dan started with Mayne, played 54 games with the Rovers, 100 at St.Mary’s, close to 200 with Heidelberg, and ?nished with two seasons at Mornington. Dale’s career followed a similar trajectory – Mayne, St.Mary’s, Heidelberg and Mornington.



Rick will certainly find time this year to visit his 14 year-old son Noah, in Sweden. He’ll also take his usual trip to Bali, to play in the Over-35 Masters Football Carnival. But the next stage of his career awaits. He’s unsure what it will involve at this stage, but there’s no doubt he’ll remain heavily involved in the game.



Rick Nolan, second from left



KB’s original article can be read here along with other fine works at his site, “On Reflection” here.




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