Zephi Skinner leaps tall buildings, and an Almanac correspondent

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to play a couple of games for the NT Thunder side this year. They compete in the QAFL and unfortunately for them they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, player wise. I happened to be in town and they reluctantly decided they had no alternative but to give me a game. My first night of training was memorable for quite a few reasons, but none more so for what happened as I left the ground to hit the showers. One of the players ran up behind me and leapt over me! Note – leapt over me; didn’t leap frog me, or push off my shoulders, or even jump over me with legs spread, literally tuck jumped over me. I found out after training, that like Aker’s handstand (when he was at the lions at least), it was his party trick and he does it to each of the new teammates that arrive at the club. The players name was Zephaniah Skinner and he was recently taken at pick 88 by the Western Bulldogs.

Obviously, when a player does something like that to you, you can’t help but ask about him and everything my new teammates told me whetted my appetite to watch him play on the Saturday. ‘The bloke’s a freak’, ‘capable of kicking 5 in 5 minutes’, ‘if he’s on, will win us the game’ were just some of the phrases that had my head shaking in anticipation at the time. Nearly everyone mentioned that he once kicked over 20 goals in a game when he playing back in his community competition. Not a bad effort in any level of footy, but even more so in that he was playing in the ruck. In fact, I was taken aback when they said he spent a lot of time in the ruck in the Thunder side. He only stands 190cm and we had 2 ruckman that were 200cm. But when my new teammates told me that his vertical leap was almost 80cm it made perfect sense. That, and he often roves his own tap and is as evasive as a cat.

Justifiably, I spent a lot of time on the bench during the match, but was really taken back by Zephi; he could pick the ball up one-handed and sprint away from opponents like a rover, could leap and take marks over the tallest defender, was too quick on a lead and read the ball off packs like he had a sixth sense of where the ball was going to land. Added to that he could kick both feet and he was an opposition coach’s nightmare. How do you match up on a 190cm forward who loves to run and jump at the ball, is electrifyingly quick and can crumb the ball off a pack? With great difficulty, which is why Zephi easily won the QAFL rookie of the year.

Why, then, has it taken so long for someone with so much ability to be picked up by a club, and why did it take until pick 88 for the Bulldogs to pick him up this year? For most of the same reasons that it took so long for Liam Jurrah to be picked up; Zephi has an abundance of natural ability, but because he has grown up in such a remote location, he is miles behind someone of comparative age when it comes to the developmental side of his game. Zephi probably never would have ‘trained’ for footy until he was about 18, before then, if there was any training, it probably would’ve involved shots from the boundary, possibly a game and 1 ball between 20 players doing lane work. Instead of drinking water before, during or after training or a match, the norm in a ‘community’ is to drink coke and he would have had no specific instruction on how to improve his skills or how to become a better player. His endurance test scores would have been poor and I imagine it’s not unrealistic to think there would be a question mark over how he would go living in a city environment.

I can understand the trepidation from an AFL perspective on ‘taking a punt’ on such raw talent, particularly when clubs invest so much time and effort in players they recruit, but am just so wrapt that Zephi has been given a chance. There’s so much upside to him that it seems a shame that most AFL clubs seem to look just as much at why they shouldn’t recruit players compared to why they should. I realize he’s coming from a long way behind in regards to his preparation, but over time that can improve rapidly. It’s a lot more difficult to improve goal sense, vertical leap, and ‘X factor’, the undefined characteristic that every football follower knows exists, the ability to break games open in a 5 minute burst, excite the crowd every time the ball is in your vicinity and make the impossible a reality. And this is what Zephi brings in abundance.

He’s such a likeable bloke and will go out of his way to chat with everyone around the club, is never vindictive or abusive to teammates and has a wicked sense of humour. Personally, I’m stoked for Zephi on a personal level and so excited to see how he goes. I don’t think he’s as good a kick as Liam Jurrah, but certainly all the other attributes that Jurrah brings, Zephi provides, and being a bit taller means he’ll be even harder to match up on. Bulldogs and AFL supporters are going to be in for a real treat watching the progress of Zephi and who knows, he’s the kind of player who could have a significant say in the Bulldog’s quest of that elusive second flag. A massive call no doubt, but wait until you see what he can do, and all for the bargain basement price of pick 88.


  1. Ripper yarn Tavis. Would love to read more. Do you know much more about him. (And what weight is he just out of interest?)

  2. Andrew Fithall says

    What a great story. Hopefully there are many more chapters.

  3. Great yarn, Tavis.

    I have a similar yarn. Once upon a time I played in the inaugural season of the Katherine and District Football League. One of the Aboriginal community teams, Barunga, featured The Great Dave Mardi.

    It was Dave’s way to eschew footy shorts in favour of cut-off jeans. Like many of his teammates, he never wore boots. Standing all of 178 centimetres, he played in the ruck – often tapped it to himself and sallied downfield.

    Once, after taking a handy mark at centre half-forward, Dave wiped his right foot on his left calf, sauntered in for three steps and let fly with a barrel that split the sticks. Then he jogged back to the centre circle giggling and chattering high-pitched language to his excited teammates.

    Memorable times.

  4. Tav,
    From down here in Melbourne it seemed a pretty successful year for the Thunder. Just the logistics of the comp are boggling. Anyone who has dealt with Darwin Airport will know the flight hassles – leading even to you having a final rescheduled I believe-, plus getting players to represent the whole NT region in to one side.A season’s review and highlights would be welcomed.

  5. Thanks to everyone for their positive feedback.

    John, I don’t know exactly how much Zephi weighs, but I’d say about 73-75kgs.. It’s always hard to tell with the aboriginal guys, because they can be bulked up on top, but their legs are so skinny! I doubt he’d weigh more than that. To be honest I don’t know much more about him, I only played the 2 games with him and have only spoken to him 4-5 times. Obviously followed his progress with interest after that initial training session though!

    And Daff, I have heard of Dave Mardi, though never saw him play.. Beswick have a beauty at the moment called Josh Blitner, he wouldn’t stand much over 160cm and would weigh about 50kgs, but he’s as hard as a billy goats head and is lightning quick. I’m pretty sure he did really well in the League Medal in the Katherine comp this year. Hilarious little fella, one of those blokes who gets the giggles uncontrollably.. And often!

    The captain of Arnhem crows, David Groves, is also a ripper and it’s a shame he’s never given NTFL a try. Super skilled and reads the play so well, he’d go well at either end of the ground.

    In Galiwinku there’s a guy called Justin Gurruwiwi, who is your typical community superstar. Often has a smoke before and during each match and lets fly with a bare foot torpedo every time he gets the ball..! NO such thing as a short pass in his book. He’s about 186cm (6ft 1), with a leap not too disimilar to Zephi’s and although he doesn’t train has an awesome physique. He’s not interested in leaving Elcho Island at all, but in a way I find there’s something kind of ‘romantic’ about that..

    And Crio, in so many ways Thunder had a successful year, but in my opinion they were good enough to reach the Grand Final and to not win a final was disappointing. It really surprises me that more guys aren’t kicking the door down to play QAFL footy, especially when there are so many more opportunities to get drafted these days, but there seems to be a perception amongst the NTFL clubs that Thunder are ‘taking’ their players, not ‘enhancing’ their players.. It’s an interesting scenario that Thunder play in opposite seasons as the NTFL, but hopefully momentum in the team continues to grow and they can compete really well in the newly formed NEAFL competition.

  6. Tavis,

    Great description with the billy goat’s head.

    I’ve had a few of those canon into me.

  7. Tavis, this is a great story, and to be in it at the basement level is an achievement of its own for you. We all have stories like these, but few tell them that well. By the way, you weren’t out of your league in those games.

  8. Great read Travis.

    Are there any other players running around up there who you think deserve a crack at AFL level like Zephi?

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