On a sports oval in Barunga, an Aboriginal community south east of Katherine with a permanent population of a few hundred people, a fierce footy match is unfolding. It’s the grand final of the Barunga Festival football carnival, and the game is being cheered on by hundreds of spectators. A small colony of flying foxes provides additional commentary and special comments while hanging upside down from a fig tree in a corner of the ground.
The carnival has gone for the full three days of the festival, and for the third year in a row the Ngukurr Bulldogs win, defeating the Gurindji Eagles 4.7 (31) to 3.3 (21).
Don’t let the low scores fool you, though. In searing heat, there are just 10 minutes per quarter. The games are played at relentless pace, with little regard for the defensive structures and zones that constrict AFL games. They just play the game, one might say, as it should be played.
Helping coordinate the teams is Paul Amarant, who updates the crowd in between games. Ngukurr’s win is no surprise. It’s a remote community on the banks of the Roper River in southern Arnhem Land. It has 1200 residents and eight individual footy teams, making Melbourne’s old suburban VFL and VFA competitions look cosmopolitan by comparison.
“Whenever there’s a footy game on, everyone comes out – old people, young people, they all sit on top of the hill all around the oval and the noise is so deafening it’s like you’re at the MCG,” Amarant says.
“They treat the game so seriously – every kick, every tackle is watched and barracked for. This is where these kids learn the art of playing footy. They’re dodging and weaving or they get tackled into the ground. If you had city kids playing like this they’d be crying, running to mum!”
He notes, though, that the players are mostly lightly built, agile and very quick. “The contests are hard, but people bounce off each other because there’s no big, hulking bodies throwing them in the turf.
“Down south it’s more structured, it’s big bodies on bodies at stoppages. Whereas in the Territory it’s all pace, high marking, what football should be, good goal kicking. They kick goals from all angles and in the AFL they can’t kick goals from straight in front, and at Etihad they can’t even use the wind as an excuse because they’re kicking with the roof closed!”
As he speaks, with the game over, I watch a kid practising kicks from the boundary about 25 metres from goal as we speak, dribbling kicks through as casually as shelling peas, rarely missing.
A carnival like this isn’t easy to organise. Julie Hunter, the AFL’s regional development coordinator for Katherine, says sometimes teams simply don’t show up. But allowances need to be made.
For southerners, it’s hard to get your head around how big the Top End is, let alone the Territory as a whole, and how much harder it is to get around. For example, the trip from the coastal community of Maningrida – 500 kilometres east of Darwin on the edge of the Arafura Sea – takes 10 hours, much of it on dirt roads, with a few river crossings thrown in.
Try that in a bus with a trailer attached to the back. “So if buses break down or if there’s been sorry business [a funeral], or things happen in communities, that mean the community’s shut down, those are things that we obviously need to be respectful of,” Hunter says.
“So we’ve got a draft fixture ready, and as the teams rock up we confirm them in a slot and away they go. There’s going to be teams come in late, mostly for travel reasons, so we grab the teams that get here first, they get the first couple of games and we move forward from there.”
Representatives from Hawthorn were here on Friday doing reconnaissance; this is part of their Next Generation Academy zone. “They know how much talent there is up here and the only way to get them is to actually make AFL accessible to them at that elite level,” Hunter says.
But making elite football accessible doesn’t mean even the most talented players can make the required adjustments. Cyril Rioli, for example, boarded at Scotch College in Melbourne from the age of 14, giving him time to settle into life in the big smoke.
Amarant mentions a player from Ngukurr drafted by a big Melbourne club who rang him, begging: “Get me out of here.” Disadvantage and intergenerational trauma play a big role. If you’ve been shuttled between aunties and grandparents and are used to sleeping on floors in the Top End, sleeping in beds in a cold Melbourne winter is another kind of culture shock.
Women’s football is developing, too. “We tried probably 70 or 80 girls over the course of the two days here, and the Katherine comp started up last weekend, so we’ve got regular football for girls now.”
One thing that can’t be escaped is the heat. Simple things like lights at the Barunga ground would make a huge difference, meaning games can be scheduled in the late afternoon and evening. But resources are scarce, and in every community priorities need to be made.
In the southern and central Northern Territory, football is played in the dry season, but in the Top End, it’s played in the wet. The NTFL comp starts during the mind-melting humidity of October and November, the “build-up” before the rains come.
In Darwin, the grounds drain well, but “you take somewhere like Lajamanu where they’ve got a red dirt oval, put that with the wet season and they’re running around in red mud, basically,” Hunter says.
“But the reality is we’re playing in the Top End. It’s hot footy and they tend to struggle more when they go down south and they’ve got to play in the winter.”
The elements aren’t about to put off kids walking around in Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli shirts. “Ngukurr’s got a field that’s got bindis all over it that stick to the ball,” she says. “But they just love footy, it’s their life. I know we talk about footy being a religion. Up here it’s more than a religion, it’s a way of life.”
First published in The Age, 16 June 2018