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Football and the Tiwis

‘Football is one of the ways we showed everyone else that Tiwi people can be excellent, we can be the best.'

Gawin Tipiloura, Chairman of the Tiwi Football Commission

The passion for Australian rules football begins at a young age on the Tiwi Islands and footy, or yiloga, plays a major role in the social and recreational fabric of Tiwi society.

The Tiwi Islands Grand Final is held in March each year at Wurrumiyanga and attracts up to 3,000 spectators. It is the biggest day of the year for Tiwi fans and visitors, and is a major tourist attraction for the Northern Territory. More than a football match, the day has become a celebration of Tiwi culture, with local art centres opening their doors to tourists.

The Tiwi Islands Football League (TIFL) has 900 participants out of a total population of about 2500, the highest community football participation rate in Australia. Tiwi footballers are renowned for exquisite one-touch skills. Many players elect to play barefoot and the game is fast and skilful. Pirlangimpi on Melville Island has produced three Norm Smith Medallists, awarded to the best player in an AFL Grand Final; Maurice Rioli (Richmond), Michael Long (Essendon) and Cyril ‘Junior Boy’ Rioli (Hawthorn). 

The Nguilla Football League was formed on the Tiwi Islands in 1968, and five teams competed in the 1969/1970 season. In 1990, the Nguilla Football League became the Tiwi Islands Football League with seven teams currently in the competition. 

  • Imalu Football Club (Tigers)
  • Walama Football Club (Bulldogs)
  • Pumarali Football Club (Thunder & Lightning)
  • Tapalinga Football Club (Superstars)
  • Muluwurri Magpies (Magpie Geese)
  • Tuyu Football Club (Buffaloes)
  • Ranku Football Club (Eagles)

In 2006, a newly formed Tiwi Bombers Football Club joined the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) and competed in the 2006/07 season. The Tiwi Bombers are affiliated with the Essendon Football Club and adopted the "Bombers" moniker. They were the NTFL Premiers in 2012.

Brother John Pye, a Catholic missionary, introduced Australian rules football to the Tiwi people in 1941. Tiwi quickly took to the game and the first dedicated ground was built in Wurrumiyanga. In 1944, the first games consisting of a full complement of 18 players and matches played according to the rule book were played.

In 1952, former Administrator of the Northern Territory, Ted Egan, and Father Collins formed the St Mary’s Football Club in Darwin. Most of the team was made up of Tiwi players living in Darwin, and Brother Pye operated as talent scout for the Club on Bathurst Island. In 1954, the St Mary's Football Club began enlisting Tiwi servicemen, and in the following year with a majority of Tiwi players, won the NTFL premiership.

In the 1960s, one of the most talented Tiwi player of all time, ruckman David Kantilla, began his successful career in the NTFL. He later became a leading player in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) with South Adelaide Football Club, where he was a member of the 1964 premiership team, and won the best and fairest and leading goal kicking awards at the club. David Kantilla played 113 games in his SANFL career, before returning to Darwin in 1966 to nurture more Tiwi talent as coach of St Marys.  The TIFL's top goalkicking award is named after him.

From 1980 to 1981, Tiwi Islander Maurice Rioli won two Simpson Medals for Western Australian Football League (WAFL) club South Fremantle as best player in WAFL Grand Finals before his recruitment by Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1982, where he won the Norm Smith Medal for the best player in the 1982 VFL Grand Final. After being drafted to the VFL and playing for the SANFL, Michael Long joined the Essendon Football Club. He played one of the best games of his career in the 1993 AFL Grand Final and was awarded the Norm Smith Medal by Maurice Rioli. Michael was also a member of Essendon's record-breaking premiership team in 2000, which saw only one loss for the entire season. Ronnie Burns was drafted by Geelong in 1996 and finished his career with the Adelaide Crows in 2004.

Dean Rioli joined the Essendon Football Club in 1999 and played his last and 100th AFL game for the club in 2006. In 2008, Cyril ‘Junior Boy’ Rioli was drafted by the Hawthorn Football Club and a year later was awarded the AFL Coaches Association award for Best Young Player and the Phil Manassa Medal (Goal of the Year Award). He has played in four premierships and won the Norm Smith Medal after Hawthorn’s 2015 AFL Grand Final win. Austin Wonaeamirri was drafted by the Melbourne Football Club in 2007 and played for four years. Allen Christensen made his AFL debut in 2011 with Geelong before moving to the Brisbane Lions in 2015. Sean Lemmens joined the Gold Coast Football Club in 2014. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti played junior football for the Tiwi Bombers before moving to Victoria and being drafted by Essendon in 2015. Daniel Rioli was drafted by Richmond in 2015 and won the Cosgrove-Jenkins Award (RFC Best First-Year Player) in 2016. Michael Long’s son Jake was drafted by Essendon in 2015, while his nephew, Ben Long, was drafted in 2016 by the St Kilda Football Club. Willie Rioli Jnr was recruited by the West Coast Eagles in 2016 and made his debut in April 2018.

Other Tiwi Islanders who have played in the AFL include Adam Kerinaiua, who played three games for the Brisbane Bears in 1992 and Malcolm Lynch, who played two games for the Western Bulldogs in 2007.

A book on Tiwi football - Tiwi Footy: Yiloga - by Darwin-based author Andrew McMillan with photographs by Monica Napper and Peter Eve, was published in 2008.