Phyllisia’s dream is to play footy. But it takes more than raw skill to make the big league

A woman in a blue shirt handballs a yellow football on an Australian Rules oval

The future of the Tiwi Islands’ football legacy is female. But is the AFLW ready to support First Nations women?

It’s mid-October and Bathurst Island footy training gets underway on a grass pitch that’s bathed in rays of golden sunlight and framed by a bank of distant, towering clouds.

The atmosphere is all at once humid and heavy and crisp and dynamic. On the field, there’s a buzz of activity.

If you haven’t witnessed it before, the sight of Tiwi Islanders kicking around a football can be a jaw-dropping experience.

Footballs shoot between players with such fluidity and assured accuracy, it’s as if they’re rehearsing a choreographed performance.

“We all got like … skills and natural … kicking, handballing and just timing the ball and stuff like that,” explains Phyllisia Palipuaminni.

Philly – as everyone calls her – is the captain of the Tiwi Bombers women’s side which is competing in the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) competition for the first time this year.

The moment Phyllisia Palipuaminni steps onto a footy oval, she transforms into a loud leader.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

One on one, Philly is quietly spoken and likes to giggle. But once on the footy field, she transforms into a very loud leader, firing a constant stream of encouraging advice to her teammates.

Unlike most of her teammates, Philly has experience playing on the mainland. Until recently, she was winning premierships in the U18s NTFL competition, playing for the Darwin Buffaloes.

“Sometimes they make me laugh too. But I want to take it seriously … especially at this level.”

Making it into the AFL Women’s league (AFLW) has always been Philly’s dream. But at only 21, she’s also driven by a desire to help her younger players.

“I want them to achieve more and get scouted out … looked at, and hopefully one day, they’ll get drafted.”

A woman in a blue shirt handballs a yellow football on an Australian Rules oval
On the training field, Phyllisia Palipuaminni shouts at the top of her voice, geeing her teammates up with bursts of energy.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Tiwi Bombers women's team training
Despite the momentum of the Tiwi Bombers, Tiwi Islander representation in the AFLW is low.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

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A woman in a black and yellow guernsey marks an Australian Rules football
Some have questions over how capable the league is in supporting women from the Tiwi Islands. (ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Last year, the Tiwi Bombers women’s team played a series of trial games to assess their competitiveness against NTFL teams. They made an impression and debuted in the NT women’s competition this year.

In the rapidly expanding AFLW, it seems inevitable that the Tiwi Islands will produce some of the female superstars of the future, mirroring what the islands have done for the men’s game.

But just as the AFL has struggled to ensure a safe and supportive environment for its male First Nations players, how prepared is the AFLW to support players like Philly and her teammates?

Draft a Rioli, win a premiership

The Tiwi Islands lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin’s coast. There are smaller uninhabited islands but the big ones are Bathurst and Melville.

There’s a population of only about 2,500 – but about one third of those people play competitive Aussie Rules – either in the inter-island comp or on the mainland.

That’s the biggest community participation rate in the country.

A landscape shot of a tropical island's coastline
The Tiwi Islands sit 80 kilometres north of Darwin’s coast.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Tiwi Islands coastline
Bathurst Island and Melville Island are the biggest Tiwi islands.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

The Tiwi Bombers men’s team has been playing since 2006 and has made it to three NTFL grand finals, winning the premiership once.

The history of Aussie Rules on the islands stretches back much further than that.

The game is said to have been introduced to the Tiwi people in the early 1940s by Brother John Pye, a Catholic missionary. Since then the game has become deeply intertwined with the local culture.

The Tiwis’ male exports have a long and storied history in the AFL. The islands have produced a number of stars, many of whom have made their way to the AFL through the red and black guernsey of the Tiwi Bombers.

The most iconic of the Tiwi Islands’ families are the Riolis.

It began with Maurice Rioli, who was recruited to play for the Richmond Tigers and went on to win the 1982 Norm Smith medal, the award for best on ground in a grand final — an achievement that Essendon’s Michael Long and Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli, two relatives of Maurice, would later replicate.

There’s even a saying in the AFL: “Draft a Rioli, win a premiership.” It’s not a lazy cliché either.

Every AFL team that has ever drafted a Rioli has won a premiership within three years.

An Australian Rules player in a yellow and brown striped guernsey sits on the sidelines, clutching his chest.
Cyril Rioli was a star player for the Hawthorn Hawks, until he retired suddenly in 2018.(AAP: Julian Smith)

But the experience of First Nations players in the AFL has not been without controversy.

Players such as the Sydney Swans’ Adam Goodes stepped away from the game over being subjected to sustained racist vilification.

In 2021, the Collingwood Football Club’s Do Better report concluded that it was guilty of systemic racism, and that it was experienced by both First Nations players and players of colour.

At Hawthorn Football Club, it’s been alleged that First Nations players were told by coaching staff to end their relationships with their partners if they wanted a football career.

The coaches deny all wrongdoing.

The allegations are contained in a review commissioned earlier this year after AFL legend and Tiwi Islander Cyril Rioli revealed why he had suddenly left the club in 2018.

Rioli explained he had made his decision after Hawthorn’s then president Jeff Kennett offered loose change to his wife to pay for repairs to her distressed denim jeans. Jeff Kennett said he meant no offence and was making a joke.

A coach of an Australian Rules football team coaches his players, holding a whiteboard
Tiwi Bombers men’s coach Brenton Toy says he’s not surprised about the Hawthorn allegations.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

When Tiwi Bombers men’s coach Brenton Toy first heard the recent Hawthorn allegations, he was astonished.

“I was shocked and surprised. But then when I started talking to a few people I went, ‘Uh, actually it’s not surprising,’” he says.

“Players have come to me and said, ‘I was told by a coach that right now I’m in the best 22 and if I go home for Christmas break, I won’t be in the 22 when I come back.’

“So to me, that comment at the time probably didn’t seem like much, but right now that’s a club restricting a player to go back and engage with their family and their culture.”

‘The support goes a long way’

Kim Kantilla is compact, fit and confident. His beard is trimmed neatly around a killer grin.

He comes from a legendary family on the Tiwi Islands. His great grandfather, David Kantilla, was the first Tiwi Islander to play in a big southern league – for South Adelaide in the early 1960s.

Kim Kantilla and his daughters
Kim Kantilla is currently with the Tiwi Bombers, but his sights are set on playing in the AFL.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Sixty years later, Kim has followed in his footsteps, playing for South Adelaide and the Tiwi Bombers and knocking on the door of the AFL.

In July, the 23-year-old was in the running for the mid-season draft.

“Maybe a week before the mid-season draft, I broke my wrist and then I got injured and I was out for about three to four months,” he says.

“My manager said, ‘Look, this might not be your year, but you know, you did good to put your name out there. There’s a few clubs we’re looking at you now. Come out bigger and stronger next year, then that will see how it goes from there.’”

Kim is now back playing with the Tiwi Bombers but plans soon to return to South Adelaide.

His partner, Reharnee Heenan, has supported his footy career. But it’s clear that whatever the future holds, she wants to keep the family together.

“I’m good with him going with his footy. I am very supportive towards him. It is hard for him being away,” she says.

“So if he does get into like the AFL, I would love to follow him, and me and our girls, to support him throughout his footy career.”

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Kim Kantilla strolls beach(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

There’s a beautiful white sand beach about 20 minutes drive from the Bathurst Island main town of Wurrimiyanga where Kim likes to spend time with his two little girls.

As I watch them play together, I ask Kim how he feels about Hawthorn and the allegations that First Nations players were discouraged from having children.

“If it did happen to me, I would feel very disgusted. Yeah, I would be really furious, just really frustrated with them. That’s how I would feel if it happened to me.”

But it hasn’t happened to Kim. He says he’s been well-supported at South Adelaide, particularly when his father passed earlier this year.

“I got [support] from the coaches and people I stayed with. They’ve been really supportive.”

A man stands on a beach, playing with two infant girls
Kim Kantilla loves spending time at home with his two young daughters.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Kim says he’s never experienced racism while at South Adelaide.

“I’ve never heard anyone from the crowd say this or that. I’ve never even walked in the shopping centre [and] heard anyone say [racist] things or stuff like that.”

But he adds that education – particularly at boarding schools away from the islands – is a well-worn path for Tiwi Islanders eyeing an AFL career.

“I tell the kids coming up, education is the main thing that got me to where I am now and going places to play footy. That made me confident. I can go away from home now without being homesick.”

Kim believes the success of the Rioli family partly comes down to the wide support network they have across the country.

“The support goes a long way. Really long way.”

But Kim knows that all the support in the world isn’t only what’s needed to make a top footy player – that’s got to come from inside, he says, no matter where a player’s from.

“We have a lot of people who have aspirations of being in top football or something like that,” he says.

“Commitment is another thing. Some people just play for the fun of it, but once they get to that next level, they have to make a commitment.”

Playing the long game

For players like Phyllisia, the introduction of a Tiwi Bombers women’s side reflects the trend of women’s professional Australian Rules.

This year marks the seventh AFLW season and for the first time, all 18 AFL clubs were represented in the league.

But despite the heritage of the Tiwi Islands, a survey conducted last year identified just two Tiwi women playing in the AFLW — Danielle Ponter at the Adelaide Crows and Janet Baird at the Gold Coast Suns.

A young woman stands between her parents as all three look towards the camera
Phyllisia, or Philly as she’s known, is captain of the Tiwi Bombers women’s side in its maiden NTFL season.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

One club, the Essendon Football club, also has a presence in the Tiwi Islands, where it sponsors and helps promote the code throughout the islands.

Three Tiwi women – all teenagers, aged 14 to 15 – are currently attending Essendon’s Development Academy in Melbourne.

So why are there still no Tiwi women playing in Essendon’s AFLW team?

“Great question,” says Jacara Egan, who is the men’s Indigenous player development manager at Essendon and an AFLW development coach.

“I feel like there’s a level of development that needs to occur. We are leading the way, but there’s definitely a lot of learning and building that we have to do.

“I feel like if you bring people who aren’t ready to make that transition in, you can burn them really easily. And that’s a negative experience we don’t want them to have. So again, it’s playing a bit of the long game.

“You’ve really got to invest in community. You can’t just rip someone out of community and say, ‘You’re deadly, you’re a talent. Come on in.’ It’s setting people up for failure.”

An Australian Rules football team walks during training, led by a woman in a blue shirt
Playing Australian Rules football professionally is a dream for Tiwi Bombers player like Phyllisia Palipuaminni.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

An older woman handballs a yellow football to someone out of view
Is the AFLW ready to support the needs of First Nations players?(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

According to Egan, there’s another reality that AFLW players have to face. First Nations women in communities tend to have children earlier than other young women competing for a place in an AFL club’s roster.

Egan says that’s one reason Essendon is getting girls into the academy early.

“It is just a matter of opening up those pathways and those options and saying, will you have a choice to come in and be exposed to this sport, to this way of life?” she says.

“Some women may still choose – and that’s a perfectly normal and beautiful thing – to stay in and to start their families.

“But it’s just around having access and equal access to the opportunities that every woman should have in this country to this game.”

I ask Jacara Egan how this approach is different to the allegations at Hawthorne in which male First Nations players were dissuaded from having children with their partners.

“I think, for so very long, men and young men have understood the exact pathway that they can take and the opportunity that they have with football. It’s a real career option for them,” she says.

“Young women haven’t had that till the past … seven and a bit years. It’s only [just] become a real possibility to become even a part-time athlete.

“There are ways that we can approach the game … that will support our women to be … really independent about the decisions they’re making with their life and not feel like they have to step away from the game if they’ve got a family or if they want to have a family.”

Jacara Egan says a young First Nations man drafted into the AFL could make the sort of money that is life-changing. But in the women’s game, those sorts of deals are rarely on the table.

The current minimum salary for AFLW players is just short of $40,000.

“It’s a huge risk for them to be like, ‘Well, this is my whole life, unless I can do it in some kind of safe way where I can get my income supplemented.’

“It’s a huge life change and could be perceived as a risk for that young woman.”

‘It gave me goosebumps’

To get to the big Saturday matches, the men and women of the Tiwi Bombers share the ferry for the three-hour trip to Darwin to face their arch-rivals, St Mary’s.

Four men stand on the side of a boat as it cruises along the water
The Tiwi Bombers must take a three-hour ferry to Darwin to compete in the NTFL.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Before the Bombers were formed in 2006, St Mary’s was the team of choice for Tiwi Island men.

Hopes are high that the men will start returning to their former winning form after finishing bottom of the table last year in a season interrupted by COVID-19.

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Tiwi Bombers men’s side(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

But it’s not to be.

St Mary’s are all over them from the get-go. There are some fine individual performances from Kim Kantilla and others but it’s nowhere near enough.

At the final siren, St Mary’s beats the Tiwi Bombers men’s side by more than 150 points.

“Wowee,” exclaims the men’s coach Brenton Toy.

“Holy shit, 205 points. I reckon that’s the biggest hiding I’ve been involved in.”

A man playing Australian Rules football leaps to mark a ball in front of the goal posts
Hopes are high that the men’s side will return to form following last year’s wooden spoon.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Two men, one wearing a red and black guernsey and another in a yellow and green guernsey, compete in a match of Australian Rules
Yet their ambitions weren’t to be, losing to their arch rivals by over 150 points. (ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Men playing Australian Rules football get coached by their coach
Kim Kantilla gives a fine performance but it’s not enough to topple St Mary’s.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

When it’s time for the Tiwi women to step up, they make history with their first ever victory in the NTFL.

They beat the six-time NTFL Premiers, St Mary’s, by a convincing 48 points.

Philly is exploding with pride.

“It gave me goosebumps … I had tears in the end, you know, for them girls.”

Tiwi bombers women's side
By contrast, the women’s side dominated against St Mary’s. (ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Tiwi Bombers women's side
The win gave Philly goosebumps.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

A female AFL coach points, while in front of a white board.
Philly hopes that the AFLW might learn something from her team.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

On the sidelines there’s a few prams carrying the babies of some of the players on the field.

“We have quite a number of young mums and we do travel with the babies. So everyone’s a babysitter,” says Mary Dunn, the secretary of the women’s team and by far its loudest sideline supporter.

“For all of the young mums that we have that are playing, it’s going to be a big challenge for them,” she says, if they want to make it in the AFLW.

Two women in red and black AFL guernseys hold each other arm in arm
Philly says it’s good that Tiwi Islander women have their very own team.(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

Philly hopes that the AFLW might have something to learn from the example being set by the Tiwi women’s team.

“[I’m] happy to have Tiwi Bombers … give us the opportunity and encourage young mothers,” she says.

“[It’s] good we have the woman team, our very own woman team … who make them proud back home.”

Credits

Source: AFL NEWS ABC

    

Author: Adam Long