A group of players hold up a trophy at a football field.

‘Religion’ of Aussie Rules football draws thousands to Tiwi Islands grand final

As the dust settles from the Tiwi Islands grand final on Sunday, Pumarali Thunder and Lightning coach Kevin Pilakui consoles his shattered team.

“Be proud for who you are,” he bellows at the huddled players.

Mr Pilakui singles out the youngest on his team, one-by-one urging them to come back next year to fight for the premiership.

“Don’t let this happen to you again.”

Pumarali Thunder and Lightning were ahead until the fourth quarter.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

A group of players hold up a trophy at a football field.

But it was the Tuyu Buffaloes that clinched victory in the end.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The sea of red jerseys disperses shortly after, but for the nearby Tuyu Buffaloes — emblazoned in blue and white — the celebration that began with a siren and a surge of spectators onto the field is only getting started.

Final score: 70-63 to the Buffaloes.

This is the aftermath of yet another blockbuster Tiwi Islands Grand Final — a spectacle combining the passion of Aussie Rules football with an expression of Indigenous community and culture.

The game is held in the community of Wurrumiyanga each year, drawing crowds from across the Tiwi Islands and tourists from further afield.

Three Indigenous people wearing sports jerseys shout and embrace each other with joy

There was jubilation among Tuyu fans as the full time siren blew.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Two young Indigenous men embrace, each wearing different jerseys.

Amid the scenes of joy and heartbreak, there were displays of good sportsmanship between the two sides.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Amidst the fray of celebrating Tuyu supporters , player Jeffrey Simon is ecstatic.

“It’s an awesome feeling, it’s my first premiership for the club,” he says.

The victory is all the sweeter, given Tuyu had been lagging behind Pumarali into the fourth quarter.

“The coaches had a chat to us in the change rooms, told us to keep it simple, nothing too fancy, stick to your gameplan, and the rest took care of itself,” Mr Simon says.

The late-stage comeback made for a nailbiter, with supporters from both sides huddled right up against the sideline until the final siren.

An elderly Indigenous woman claps on the sidelines of a football field.

Aussie rules has become an obsession on the Tiwi Islands to Darwin’s north.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

A young Indigenous boy wearing a sports uniform watches an AFL game from behind a fence.

The game brings out fervent support from the young and old alike.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Change afield for finals

The Tiwis have produced greats of the game, most famously members of the Rioli family.

“I think there’s something in the water,” Pumarali coach Pilakui tells the ABC in the hours before first bounce.

“It’s a sport that we’ve learnt when we’re younger, and it has become a religion now.”

But this year has seen change come.

Sunday’s game marked the first grand final since the passing of a well-known Tiwi Island footballer, who the ABC has chosen not to name for cultural reasons.

A girl and young boy lining up along the fence at a football game

The grand final draws spectators from remote communities dotted across Melville and Bathurst islands.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

An Indigenous elder looks at the camera, leaning against a fence, with football supporters behind him

Gibson Farmer Illortaminni says people from across the country now travel to the Tiwi Islands for the grand final.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

“We miss one of the good leaders in football,” Tiwi Land Council chairman Gibson Farmer Illortaminni says.

“He was a founder of football, with his brothers Maurice and [Cyril].”

But he says the community is determined to “keep the passion alive” for a sport that has become so central to its culture.

“That was his legacy for the Tiwi people.”

The grand final has also moved away from its traditional month of March, with its torrential wet season downpours, to the clear sunny skies of August.

Competing cultural events in Darwin meant mainland attendance to the game was noticeably quieter.

The frantic influx of tourists from the mainland by ferry and plane — flush with cash and ready to spend up at the local art centres — was this year relatively more subdued.

Hope Tiwi ‘pride’ can help showcase culture

At one of the art centres, local guide Vivian Warlapinni Kerinauia watches the visitors shuffle around the various works on display.

Far from just a single event, she says grand final day provides the community with a once-a-year chance to showcase the remote islands’ local culture.

“This is the only time, one Sunday of the year, things get abuzz,” she says.

“It gives a lot of Tiwi people pride.”

A wooden carving of a bird sits on a table surrounded by other pieces.

Tourists from the mainland often flock to art centres while visiting for the grand final, providing a crucial income for local artists.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

An Indigenous woman looks at the camera with a smile, with a collection of artworks on tables behind her.

Vivian Warlapinni Kerinauia hopes the grand final can be a way to show tourists the local Indigenous way of life.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

On sale at the centre is everything from branded t-shirts and tea towels, to ornate carvings and paintings.

Ms Warlapinni Kerinauia says she hopes the event can also be a chance for mainlanders to get a better idea of how Tiwi people live.

“Footy is one thing, but we also would love probably in the future to take people out swimming or hunting, or camping, before the game starts.”

“Eating bush tucker, and you can catch things from the mangroves here in the sea.”



Author: Russell White