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Tiwi Islands’ Norm Smith Medal Connection

  • Wednesday, October 07 2015 @ 11:34 am ACDT
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Hawthorn’s superstar, Cyril Rioli, more than deserved his Norm Smith Medal last weekend when Hawthorn defeated the West Coast team for the 2015 AFL Premiership. His electrifying skills, especially during the first half when the victory had to be set up, thrilled the crowd. No person at the game would deny his influence, and Rioli now sits in the history books alongside other legends of the game.



But two of those legends are his uncles and they all hail from the same islands to the north of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Cyril and his uncles, Maurice Rioli and Michael Long, not only share a heritage, a home and a culture – they also share a unique place in VFL/AFL history as Norm Smith Medal winners, adjudged best on ground in a AFL Grand Final.


Maurice won his for Richmond in a losing team in the 1982 Grand Final. The Tigers went down to Carlton, but Maurice Rioli was simply magnificent on the day. For that match he had only 19 possessions.  Dale Weightman, Robert Wiley and Geoff Raines all had more possessions for Richmond, as did Carlton’s fearsome mosquito fleet of Ashman, Johnston, Marcou and Sheldon. But every time Rioli touched the ball his team and Tiger fans believed they could win. His three goals almost single-handedly dragged Richmond back into the contest time and time again.


It was an amazing performance and Rioli followed this up by finishing second in the Brownlow Medal in 1983. Many people believe that he was the first genuine indigenous superstar, and his Norm Smith Medal is compelling evidence. Along with the Krakouer brothers at North Melbourne, Rioli ushered in a new era of indigenous footballers that would change footy forever in the most positive and scintillating ways.


Just eleven years later Essendon great, Michael Long, a cousin of Maurice’s, set the MCG alight with one of the greatest running goals in AFL history – dodging and weaving around Carlton players as if they were so many witche’s hats – to kick Essendon’s second goal. Long went on to have an amazing game which culminated in the club’s 15th flag. His 33 disposals and two goals capped of an amazing finals series for Long and the club.


Today Michael Long has taken his influence to greater heights with The Long Walk for bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues to national recognition. Now held as part of the Dreamtime Round to commemorate his walk from suburban Melbourne to Parliament House in Canberra for recognition of indigenous issues and causes, Long’s legacy lives well beyond his Norm Smith Medal.


His stand against racism in 1995 forever changed the attitudes of Australians, and people the world over, to issues of racism, wellbeing and reconciliation.


With this pedigree behind him, Cyril Rioli was almost destined to make his own mark in footy, and as if his individual highlights reel isn’t enough, winning the Norm Smith Medal has taken him into another level of footballer - a level of greatness that sits well alongside uncles Maurice and Michael.


The three stand as beacons for the people of the Tiwi Islands. They are not the only relatives to have played the game and done well, either locally on the islands, in Darwin or on the WAFL stage in Perth. His father, Cyril Jr, played in 12 premiership teams for St Mary’s in the NTFL in Darwin. He was also a revered champion amongst his people. Former Essendon player Dean Rioli is also a cousin. Cyril’s mother, Kathy, is Michael Long’s sister.



To understand more fully how deep the footballing bloodlines are on the Tiwi Islands it is useful to consider how much the game is ingrained into Tiwi islands society as a whole. According to an article on the SBS website, “Welcome to the Tiwi Islands, two small islands about 80km north of Darwin, where AFL isn't just a passion but a way of life.”


“The Tiwis have the highest participation rate in AFL of any other community in Australia: about 900 of the Islands' 2600 population play, a staggering 35 per cent.”


Such is the background of Cyril’s footy, having lived on the islands until he was eight years old before moving to Darwin. He may have excelled in footy from Darwin onwards, but the seeds were planted on the Tiwi Islands and nurtured by family and uncles who provided tremendous inspiration. It is not difficult to picture a young Cyril Rioli kicking a footy along the beaches of Melville Island or the streets of his home town


A deeper connection can be found when examining the traditional stories surrounding the creation of the islands. The Tiwi Land Council website describes the origin of the islands as follows:


Mudangkala shaped the land and made the Tiwi Islands.

“... and then Mudangkala, the old blind woman arose from the ground carrying three babies in her arms. As she crawled in the darkness across the featureless landscape, seawater followed and filled the imprints made by her body. Eventually the pools became one and formed a channel. The old woman continued on her journey overland and once again the moulded earth filled with the flow of water. Before she left, Mudangkala covered the islands with plants and filled the land and sea with living creatures. Finally the land was prepared for her children and for generations of children who followed.” (TLC 2001:11-12).


The imagery of the three babies in the story can almost be aligned in an abstract way to the three Tiwi Island heroes to have won Norm Smith Medals.


Cyril Rioli, Maurice Rioli and Michael Long: forever linking the Tiwi Islands to the AFL Grand Final through the Norm Smith Medal. Not only are they all heroes of the people of the Tiwi Islands, but they are all heroes above and beyond the football fields of the AFL.


The people of the Tiwi Islands are blessed to have such talented and inspirational people born to their lands. The rest of us are simply blessed to witness such talent.



Picture: Cyril Rioli receiving his Norm Smith Medal from fellow indigenous great, Andrew McLeod (photo: afl.com.au)