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Saturday, November 18 2017 @ 07:01 pm ACDT

Galiwinku – An “Island Home” to Aussie Rules Footy

Australia

When Tayo Cafarella, the current Regional Development Manager for AFL Northern Territory in the town of Galiwinku, first reported for work he was surprised. The local oval was closed for cultural reasons, which seemed to put a stop to his work before it even started.

Not so, according to the kids in town. Oval or no oval the footy must go on. As Tayo says, “this did not stop the juniors who were at my door every day pleading for footy [so] we played 10 rounds of our U13’s competition in the local park. The boys were running around barefoot, dodging trees, dogs, a sandpit and the odd pig. Not once did they complain of the conditions, they were just stoked to be playing footy!”

So, welcome to the spirit of Elcho Island, and Galiwinku, its largest town. A quick search of the map will show that Elcho Island is located near the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The island is long and narrow, surrounded by the Arafura Sea to the west and Cadell Strait to the east. It is one of the southernmost islands in Wessel Group and Galiwinku sits roughly in the cenre of the island.

Just last month, AFL footballing and coaching legend Kevin Sheedy visited the island and helped set in motion a partnership between the island’s footy loving communities and the Greater Western Sydney Giants. As Tayo says, “the whole town went mad, Sheedy had kids hanging off him and local football heroes were so appreciative that someone of Kevin’s stature could visit the community.”

This event placed Elcho Island firmly in the footballing spotlight for a short while, but Elcho Island is better known to Australians than many might think. It is the home of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the brilliant blind Aboriginal folk singer. Christine Anu rose to fame with more than a little help from the song “My Island Home”, written for the Wurrumpi Band about the island. Also, a dance version of Zorba the Greek was performed in 2007 by the Elcho Island Chooky Dancers to worldwide You Tube fame, and was also used to open the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala in 2009.

But the communities, which are the fabric of the island, might hold another claim to fame that is both more remarkable and little known. According to recent figures, around one quarter of the entire Galiwinku population play Australian Rules football in one of the established local competitions.

Tayo points out that “Galiwinku is footy mad and it is quite remarkable that in a town with a population of 2200 people there are 8 senior teams, 4 U16’s teams, 4 U13 teams and 4 women’s teams. That’s roughly 560 people who are playing footy in a registered competition.” It would be hard to find another place in Australia that has roughly one quarter of its population playing one code. What makes this even more remarkable is that the Galiwinku AFL Project only commenced in 2009.

As Tayo explains, “Galiwinku was the third of the now nine AFLNT Remote Projects. The first was Wadeye, when in 2007 the Federal Government approached Michael Long and the AFLNT to do a consultation on the delivery of a holistic football program in that region. The immediate success of the Wadeye project opened doors to then run a similar program in Galiwinku. In mid 2009 the Galiwinku AFL project commenced with Tavis Perry as the RDM.

The senior League had been playing for decades but through the AFLNT employees a focus on adding structure around the league has seen an enormous development from the league and clubs themselves. Areas such as creating a league committee, player codes of conduct, player registrations and tribunals have been part of these developments. Prior to this full time resource living and working on the island, there were no junior or female competitions and now the entire community is flourishing with participation and actually has the highest participation rate for a town or city in the country per capita.”

Shepherdson College is one of the key educational institutes on the island, and it also plays a major role in the development of Australian Rules football on Elcho Island, including the link with Kevin Sheedy’s GWS Giants. As noted by Tayo, “The local Shepherdson College has a great relationship with AFLNT. They support a boys and girls football academy which gives secondary school-attendees the chance to play in footy carnivals throughout the year.

The academy runs three mornings a week starting at 7.30am and focuses on health, fitness, education and of course footy. It is a stepping-stone for talented young footballers as it gives them opportunities for selection into representative sides including the national “Boomerangs”. This year three Galiwinku players have made the U15 NT side, an opportunity which would not exist if it weren’t for the school and AFLNT.”

“The partnership will allow the Shepherdson College Academy to utilize skype and video messaging to have contact with GWS players which will give them an idea of what it is like to be an AFL player. On top of this there could be a chance for some excelling school attendees to travel to Greater Western Sydney.”

The accomplishments of those involved in Galiwinku footy are, quite frankly, amazing. Continued growth at this rate could well see Galiwinku truly become an “island home” for Australian Rules football. Tayo also looks at the future this way. “With junior footy now in place, and the academy, the future is bright for footy in Galiwinku. The senior competition will only get stronger and more skilful and who knows, one day there could be a Galiwinku side in the NTFL.” That would be a remarkable story in its own way.

The motto of Shepherdson College is “Dhawal’Yurra Yuwulkku” which translates to “Search for Truth”. One of those truths is that the people of Galiwinku, and in fact the whole of Elcho Island, should be proud that their hard work and development of the game stands as a beacon for the rest of the Australian Rules football community.

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