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Friday, June 05 2020 @ 04:51 pm ACST

Thursday Island, Palm Island: Same country - foreign game

OceaniaDespite being 150 years old and played in every Australian state and territory for a century, some readers may be surprised to find that there are places in Australia that Australian rules football has not, until very recently, reached. While the game continues to grow overseas, on Australia's own soil there are still remote areas where the code is has never been played. The game starts fresh in these areas similarly to the way it starts overseas. And with a little assistance, it is thriving. Following our story on footy in the Tiwi Islands we investigate the progress that the code is making in regions where rugby league has been well established for decades and Australian rules is very much considered - a foreign game. It is afterall, a very big country ....

Nowhere is the struggle to expand the code's reach more evident than remote Far North Queensland. Footy has been played in Queensland's capital, Brisbane, as early as 1866. It was the first football played there and became the most popular sport in the city. The game there has had its fair share of setbacks since. The formation of a local governing body for rugby union gave it the edge and in its early days, "Victorian Rules" (as it was then known) was governed from Melbourne and for this reason, it was voted out of private schools. Professionalism opened the door for union players to switch codes to a third code - rugby league - which had grown in popularity in nearby Sydney. Rugby League quickly established throughout Queensland to become the dominant sport. Aussie Rules survived, but by a thread. But Queensland is Australia's second biggest state in terms of land size and Brisbane is situated in the furthest South East corner. Some of the remote regions of Queensland are over 2,500 kilometres away. To put these massive distances into perspective, Auckland in New Zealand is closer to Sydney, and Brisbane is closer to Melbourne (across 3 states) than it is to Cairns.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that the game was first introduced to Far North Queensland, beginning with Cairns in 1957 before popping up in Townsville and Mount Isa. Over the following decades it spread further to carve a niche in the other major regional cities. The game struggled against the established sport of rugby league, but in Cairns, where it had been played the longest, it had also grown the most, resulting in it becoming one of the biggest strongholds for Australian Rules outside of South East Queensland.

While footy has been played for 140 years in Queensland, the game has only recently come of age in the last decade with the recent AFL premierships of the Brisbane Lions. Before this time, local competitions had plodded along until the Brisbane Bears began as a then Victorian Football League expansion team back in 1987 setting up base in the holiday town of the Gold Coast for a small bunch of southern expats. They were never taken seriously as a sporting force, killed interest and participation in the local competitions and were often labelled the "Bad news Bears". The club would have gone the way of the Dodo without league assistance. Even during the Bears years, most born and bred Queenslanders had never heard of the game, much less seen it. This was despite home grown talent Jason Dunstall, who moved from the Brisbane suburb of Coorparoo to Melbourne to play with Hawthorn, becoming one of the greatest all-time VFL/AFL players. There was little if any mention of the sport in the media, newspapers or television and the odd occasion that someone kicked around a Sherrin, would receive very strange looks. These days things are very different in South East Queensland. The Brisbane Lions, formed out of a merger with Melbourne-based club Fitzroy, averaged the highest crowds of any football code in Brisbane between 2000 and 2005 (over 30,000 people per game). For a time, the club enjoyed second to none media exposure in much of the state. As a result, in the 2006 AFL Draft, as reported by Brisbane's Courier Mail in the story Wealth of maroon talent the state recorded a record number of draftees (a total of 11 in 2006) for the second year in a row and this year saw the first ever draftees from the regional centres of Townsville, Rockhampton, Mackay and Toowoomba.

Despite this success in the big cities, much of the 3rd most populous state remains an untapped reservoir, particularly the indigenous communities. Indigenous Australia supplies almost 10% of the AFL's talent despite making up only 2% of the country's population and over a quarter of all Indigenous Australians live in Queensland, many in the furthest reaches of the state. The first Murri (true Queensland aboriginal) to play AFL, Rhan Hooper from Ipswich, west of Brisbane, was taken in the 2005 AFL Draft and impressed many with his 6 games in 2006.

Being seen as a foreign game can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Overseas it has novelty value, but in Australia, it can be difficult to break through sometimes staunch existing prejudices, one of which is the association of Australia's indigenous code by many Queenslanders as the "southern" or "Mexican" game. Understandably many people associate rugby league as part of their identity and see the growth of Aussie Rules as a direct threat to their culture. But these prejudices are slowly being broken down as more and more locals play the indigenous game and spread the word to others. Different football codes appeal to different athletes and body types, and there is a niche that Aussie Rules can fill for those who are not built for playing league.

As reported in Radio National's Sports factor, the game was first introduced by Keith Sambo, a former Darwin rugby league player, to the remote mining town of Weipa in 2001. From the success in Weipa, later the same year, clinics were held in elsewhere on the Cape York Peninsula, including Thursday Island in the Torres Strait Islands. With a population of 3,500, Thursday Island has had rugby league entrenched for many decades, but in just a few short years of the first Aussie Rules game being played there, with the help of a development officer based in Cairns, it has grown quickly as a participation sport amongst the local indigenous communities. Just this year, Chris Hunt, a young man from Thursday Island made the state under 15 team having only played the sport for six months prior. His performance in the state team earned him a scholarship in Cairns as part of the AFL Lions Academy.

When many people think Palm Island, the stunning artificial islands in Dubai, a country where Aussie Rules has recently kicked off come to mind. Well Palm Island Queensland has also only in the last few years had its first taste of footy. Located 65 km north-east of Townsville and with 2,500 indigenous inhabitants, has a comparable population to the Tiwi Islands. Rugby League is very popular on the island, but Aussie Rules was recently introduced and as reported in the Age story Indigenous stars boost pride on Palm Island has developed a small but growing following.

The support is definitely there for continued growth of the game into these new areas with the AFL investing millions of dollars in this market. While success stories like these show that it is possible to start from scratch closer to home, they may also add weight to the belief that overseas markets have as much if not more potential (for example see the WFN article Opinion: Funding - Queensland versus the USA). Many overseas markets lack existing prejudice towards Aussie Rules, do not compete with other similar contact sports for players and have significantly larger populations. The success of the Brisbane Lions was like gasoline on the hot coals of Queensland football, but the continued on-field performance of this team is no longer guaranteed. The exposure gets kids playing the game, but other ingredients are required to ensure that they can play it on a regular basis. Even without a successful team, steady growth is still possible with the right ingredients in place.

The truth is that like soccer and or rugby union which are entrenched in many countries around the world, Aussie Rules may never overtake rugby league in popularity in Queensland. The Australian market is big enough for more than one code and many people in Queensland follow local teams whether they be the Broncos, Lions, Roar, Cowboys, Titans or Reds. Although it is part of Australia, is one of the fastest growing regions in the pacific, has huge potential and enjoys great pathways to the elite level, Queensland is just a small part of the bigger picture. The big picture is the potential for Australian rules football, with a little help, to reach the billions of uninitiated around the world.

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