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One of Australia’s smallest football leagues is fighting to survive

As a community grapples with change, one of Australia’s smallest footy leagues fights to survive.

On a miserable Saturday — the “windiest of the season” — Irene Robins sat sheltered in the passenger seat of her hatchback, scrutinising the oval beneath.

Despite the cold, the car window was open, her left arm shooting out every minute or so, pre-emptively and expectantly, to collect small fistfuls of cash from passing cars.

Saturdays on King Island are for football.

It was a Grassy home game — Irene’s team — which meant she sat sentinel over the ground, taking entry fees from some of the island’s 1600-odd residents.

A rainy Saturday afternoon at the King Island football league.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

A flipped-open glove box balancing a scattering of coins, notes and a homemade egg sandwich revealed something of a game-day routine.

For Irene, and most of those parked around the oval’s perimeter, it amounts to more than just habit.

It is ritual. It is congregation.

“Football is very important to me. It means everything,” she said.

“I mean, if there was no football, I’d hate to think what the kids would do.”

She paused for a moment: “Or even the adults.”

“I think we’d be lost without it.”

Irene Robins taking entry fees on game day.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Cash only for takings at the gate.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Irene Robins takes entry fees in her car at the ground.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Irene Robins in her car watching the King Island Football League.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

There is no football league in Australia quite like King Island’s.

From April to August, the same three teams play one another on loop.

North vs Grassy. Grassy vs Currie. Currie vs North.

The Grassy Seniors Football team at three-quarter time in the rain.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Rinse the chunks of volunteer-tended turf off, and repeat.

Set on an island that was once a land bridge between Tasmania and Victoria, it is the romantic ideal of country sport.

Inside the North change rooms before a wet and windy King Island football match.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It exists to sustain community, and is sustained only by the grit and loving grind of communal effort.

The league’s vice-president Nicole Conley is an ever-present part of that effort.

Nicole Conley is vice president of the King Island Football Association. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“People look forward to Saturdays,” she said.

Cars parked to watch the King Island Football League.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“There’s a lot of people who live spread out all over the island — farmers especially — and it means you get to come off the farm, you get to have a break.

Grassy celebrate a win over North.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“It’s so important for people’s mental health to know that’s going to happen.

A man and his grandchild watch the football from a sheltered vantage point.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“You may have been working on your farm and not seen anyone for a whole week.

Grassy celebrate a win over North.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“But then come Saturday, you know you can go to town and there’ll be some of your mates there.”

On the ground

Football was first played on King Island in August 1903.

120 years on, it stands as a national curio — one of the smallest Australian rules football leagues in the country.

An early photo of the Currie Football Club on King Island in 1912. (Supplied: King Island Museum)

From the outside, it is treasured as a portal to times past; a competition where nothing seems to change.

Lately, things are not quite the same.

Players from North in the King Island Football Association get ready to run out after half-time.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Jan Van Ruiswyk, the mutton-chopped president of the King Island Football Association, has been a part of the league since his family moved to the island in 1970.

“It’s at a critical point,” he said.

League President Jan Van Ruiswyk takes photos and video at matches on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Money is not so much the issue — the finances of the clubs and league are healthy enough. Aside from the umpires and a small honorarium given to the league secretary, no-one on the ground or behind the scenes is getting paid.

For all the commitment King Islanders make to the league, the bigger issue is people. Specifically, players.

Look out across the picturesque oval in the main township of Currie, and the problem reveals itself.

Only 12 players from each team take the field — a recent adjustment, and a third fewer than the standard 18.

Benches might only house a couple more.

A match between Grassy and North on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A match between Grassy and North on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A match between Grassy and North on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
There are rarely enough players to have more than a couple of players on the bench.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Players from the club not featuring on game day can often be spotted filling in for one of the other teams. So too, juniors.

Even the ground itself is, according to Van Ruiswyk, as small as it can be while still being AFL compliant — the 50-metre arc more like a generous 40 metres and change.

The main football oval on King Island.(Supplied: Jan Van Ruiswyk)

It is, like so many aspects of life on King Island, something of a contradiction: why in a place that so values football, is it so hard to find footballers?

There are a few immediate answers — some self-employed farmers on the island, for instance, fear the risk of injury preventing them from working.

Then there are those that are more concealed.

Build up

The King Island Club and Bistro.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Restless waves of change are lapping at King Island’s shore.

Around the football ground or at the pub, you are still most likely to meet a flannel-clad farmer — perhaps cattle or kelp — or maybe a worker from the recently reopened tungsten mine down on the south-east of the island.

The moody King Island coastline.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

But from a distance, or from Instagram, you could develop an impression of King Island as a place of windswept luxury.

Glossy photos of its perfectly untamed natural beauty and drone footage of its brooding coastline are increasingly used to market the island to a higher-end tourist crowd.

Cape Wickham lighthouse on the northern tip of King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Boutique houses and lodges — some of which cost north of $1000 per night — are emerging to cater to that market.

The island now has as many golf courses as it does footy teams.

For such a small population, King Island has three golf courses.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Two of the three are ranked among the best in Australia, with the one at Cape Wickham considered among the best in the world.

Bucket list-ticking golfers have been known to charter private planes, hire a driver to take them directly to the spectacular links course on the north-western tip of the island, then leave after a round of 18.

Cape Wickham Golf Links is ranked as one of the best courses in the world.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“I feel like as a community, we’re a little bit sheltered from the golf courses and the tourism,” Nicole Conley said.

Kelp gathered from local beaches is sold off the island for a range of industries.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“Unless you’re at the airport and you literally see them come in, you wouldn’t even know people are flying their private planes in.

Cape Wickham Golf Links is ranked as one of the best courses in the world.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“They are taking them to a golf course, or a retreat or accommodation, then they’re jumping back on their plane, and they’re leaving again.

A mine that has sat dormant for three decades has recently restarted operations.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“For a majority of us, we don’t even know that it’s happening. We’re just living our lives every day, not realising that this stuff is going on.”

One King Islander expressed anxiety that the island couldn’t live up to its own new image. Another complained that the only houses being built seemed to be “bespoke”.

The local mayor, Marcus Blackie, is wary of the risk of an increasingly bifurcated economy on King Island.

He wants to convert the recent “increased economic activity” into the sort of community presence that fills out football teams.

There is little development on the north of King Island, save for a luxury golf course.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

He thinks the island needs more restaurants, cafes and services to better capitalise on its luxury market. For that to work, King Island needs more people — 1,000 more by the mayor’s reckoning — and more affordable homes for them to live in.

“We need more of everything,” Cr Blackie said.

“We’re happy to accept the high-end [tourists] and the golfers that arrive in private jets, and those that can afford a massively expensive mansion on our beautiful coastline here.

“But our number one priority would be increasing our residential housing.”

King Island’s local seafood industry has a long history.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

The mayor doubles as one of the game day umpires at the football (the local baker is another).

He calls King Islanders “robust”, but he’s aware of the challenge of maintaining the island’s core sense of community, while growing its economy.

“They are a difficult people to lead,” he says.

He quickly adds: “I say that as a compliment.”

Sheep roaming freely on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

A hardened sense of community can be felt immediately on landing on the island.

King Islanders, almost to a person, will wave over the steering wheel as they pass — even if you’re from “away”.

Locals are quick to joke and quicker to laugh. There’s a buoyancy to conversation, a life and lightness that suggests whatever the challenge, people are happy to be there.

Many locals reference there being a high quality of life on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

There are, nonetheless, a few things worth grumbling about. Food is not cheap, owing in no small part to the cost of freight. A ham, cheese and tomato sandwich paired with a coffee might set you back $24.

The place is literally synonymous with dairy and the coveted cheese producer King Island Dairy looms large on its identity. Yet two litres of fresh milk at the supermarket costs upwards of $8.

Fresh milk on King Island can cost close to $8 for 2 litres.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

For such a small community, these forces have a habit of feeding into one another.

From his vantage point, having been involved in both local dairy and football, Stacey Martin can just about draw a through line between the cost of milk, and the lack of football players on a Saturday afternoon.

The old King Island Dairy building(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Saputo bought King Island Dairy in 2019.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
King Island Dairy is perhaps what the island is best known for.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“Once upon a time we had our own local milk supply,” he said.

“It was family owned and run. They sent their excess milk into the dairy and then produced enough milk and cream for the locals to consume. But that is no longer the case.

“All the farms have got bigger (and) there’s less people, less families, less children. Hence, the struggle for numbers around football.”

Mr Martin is still involved in just about all aspects of King Island football — but its his work coordinating and coaching junior football on the island that seems to command his most earnest attention.

Stacey Martin is a coach and Auskick coordinator on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“Everyone is very aware that there’s a thin line and football could stop any year,” he said.

“We need to keep football going for as long as we possibly can for the juniors that don’t move off the island, who want to make a life here, to give them something to aspire to.”

Boys’ netball, girls’ footy

A mural at King Island District High School.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

If you stand on the main street in Currie at the right time of day, you can usually view the procession.

A school bell will ring, and a gang of kids disgorge from the only high school on King Island.

Their ages and heights vary wildly — some roughly the size of their backpacks, others awkwardly stretched in that mid-high school way — but implausibly, they are all mates.

They might stop by the supermarket for a post-school snack, but soon enough they all make their way to the football oval and stretch out across the field.

Kids on King Island kick around at midweek football training.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Kids celebrate a goal at after school football training.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Backflip practice after scoring a goal at training(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Kids practice goal kicking at training.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Juniors football training is one of the only regular organised activities for kids on the island.

It is loose — there’s random idle cartwheels and drills dedicated to who has the best goal celebration — but there’s enough cohesion for it to mean something.

Kids at Grassy Juniors football training(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“Even though they’re in grade 10, or grade seven, or grade three, they are all excited,” said Nicole Conley.

“They are teammates. They are friends.”

Irene Robins hands out post-training cupcakes to the Grassy Juniors.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

At a Thursday afternoon training for Grassy’s juniors, a group of boys joked about the semi-viral ‘Div 12 Ressies’ TikTok account while Irene Robins carried around homemade cupcakes.

Among the happy chaos was a group of four girls.

Savannah, Maddision, Heidi and Maddy from the Grassy juniors football team(ABC New: Jeremy Story Carter)

Australian rules football has for so long defaulted to locking out women and girls from meaningful participation.

On King Island, as with a growing number of communities around the country, things are starting to change.

A young girl at training for the Grassy junior football team.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“It’s fun,” said Savannah, a permanently-grinning 11 year-old.

A young girl before a game for the Grassy junior football team.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“You get to tackle all the big boys.

Grassy juniors vs a combined team from North and Currie.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“Yeah you get to dominate them,” said her mate Heidi, before bursting into a fit of laughter.

Girls are increasingly playing football on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“I dream of playing women’s footy when I’m older,” said Maddison, the equal oldest of the group at 13.

This year is the first time Grassy’s junior team has fielded girls.

It’s one of many small but considered adjustments being made around the island — an acknowledgement that survival, of sport and community, can only be achieved through grassroots change.

President of the King Island Netball Association Lauren Harvey.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Netball — the only other junior sport played regularly on the island — now takes place on Saturday mornings, timed so that girls who play can also feature at the football later in the day.

To the thrill of netball President Lauren Harvey, that change has also led to some boys — including her own son — playing netball before their junior football games.

Lauren Harvey and her son, who played an earlier game.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“It has been a really big step forward for our association and a great, great thing for the community to witness,” she said.

Grassy club president and self-described “general dogsbody” Tanya Stellmaker said it was incumbent on the adults of King Island to ensure community sport survived, by whatever means necessary.

The potential consequences of failure, she warns, are real.

Signs around King Island encourage people to slow down for the safety of children.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

“We are isolated. We are in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

“There would be 30 more kids on the street with nothing to do. I feel like our crime rate would go up.

“It is fight. It is a fight every year.”

Welcome to the club

On a typically windy midwinter Tuesday night, players from Currie gathered under lights to train. Breath — from men, kids, dogs — hung in the chill of the air.

I had been in King Island for a few days and had walked down to the football ground to watch seniors training.

Thursday night training on King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

As I approached, a man, who later introduced himself as Jimbo, shouted over the fence.

“Hey mate — do you want to have a run? Are you here on Saturday? Do you want to play?”

With that, I was part of the Currie Football Club, established 1904.

An old Currie FC uniform and ball. The team was founded in 1904.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

I tried to caution Currie’s captain, a skilled and commanding half-back called Mole, that I wasn’t much of a player, and even less of an athlete.

Mole, otherwise but only very occasionally known as Joel Williams, said that wasn’t a problem.

The club, he assured, had a rich tradition of topping up its lists with whoever is in town.

“We get people from all over the globe to play. We’ve got two or three blokes this year that hadn’t even seen an AFL footy.”

A local fills in as goal umpire for the juniors game.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

By the following Saturday, the offer, or demand, had not been rescinded.

Irene Robins was once again working the gate when I drove into the ground. She scowled when I told her I’d be playing for Currie against her Grassy.

In the early juniors game, a high-vis-clad volunteer ran alongside a nine-year-old boy, offering encouragement and gentle advice as he nervously made his debut.

The Grassy juniors team celebrates a win on a wet afternoon.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Inside the seniors change rooms, footballs thudded off the concrete floor as Cosmic Psychos’ Nice Day To Go To the Pub blared.

Someone asked which way the wind on the ground was blowing.

“F**in’ everywhere,” was the response.

I peeled away from the rooms and bumped into Grassy President Tanya Stellmaker, who was positioned outside the canteen.

A volunteer holding a sports grip product in the change rooms.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Teams rotate who runs the game day canteen. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Umpire Wayne Hamer, who is also the town baker, pours himself a half-time cup of tea.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Her son, 15, was set to make his debut alongside his 55 year-old dad.

I suggested it was poignant — maybe even a moment of profound symbolism for her and the family.

Tanya bristled, immediately cutting through any sentimentality.

“It was inevitable,” she said.

Grassy seniors in their rooms.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

As soon as the opening siren rang, a crunching physicality ensued.

The quality of life on King Island may not always be matched by the quality of football, but there’s a hardness and commitment to the contest that hints at how much it matters.

Cars pulled up to the football ground at King Island.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

I found myself in an unaccountable position up forward.

Early in the game, the ball was launched into a tangle of bodies in the forward pocket.

It slipped out the back of the pack, like a piece of kelp falling from a ute on the main street. I gathered it, turned and snapped. I missed.

“Straight to the back line for you maaaate,” chuckled a local over the fence.

The game was paused when a dog called Pepper came running out mid-game to our ruckman, who had to jog her back to the boundary line. Twice.

Pepper the dog is taken from the field mid-game.(Supplied: Jan Van Ruiswyk)

Grassy, who locals believe are on track to win their third consecutive premiership, were too strong, recording a 11.10.76 to 5.10.40 win.

By some mixed fortune, I finished with three goals and five excruciating points, and left the field convinced that no sound is more exhilarating than a few dozen car horns beeping in reward of a goal.

The generosity of community — of being truly welcomed and feeling part of something bigger — was carried deep into the night.

Football has been played on King Island for 120 years.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

A Helen Keller quote is used as the Facebook cover photo on King Island’s community noticeboard: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

It is an almost jarringly tender sentiment from a hard-headed, “difficult to lead” community.

And yet on King Island, whether viewed from afar, or a brief glimpse within, it reverberates in resounding truth.

“For football to survive on the island now, we have to work together,” said Jan van Ruiswyk.

“We need to do whatever it takes. And that’s exactly what people are doing.”


Reporting, photography and digital production: Jeremy Story Carter



Author: Russell White