Grass­roots footy: A mir­ror for our na­tional ex­is­tence


IT was the great Bernie “Su­per­boot’’ Quin­lan who told me at a 1992 Fitzroy Foot­ball Club fundraiser that grass­roots foot­ball will al­ways be the lifeblood of the game.

It was in­side the hal­lowed chang­e­rooms of Princes Park in Mel­bourne, where Quin­lan played a lot of his ca­reer in a Fitzroy jumper.

A joint Brown­low medal­list with South Mel­bourne’s Barry Round in 1981, Quin­lan hailed from Trar­al­gon in East Gipp­s­land, about 160km from Mel­bourne.

That chat with Quin­lan more than 25 years ago came back to me this week while watch­ing the East­side-Kather­ine Camels Big Rivers grand fi­nal in Kather­ine.

The grand fi­nal was noth­ing spec­tac­u­lar, a game dom­i­nated by East­side who won their fifth BRFL flag in suc­ces­sion to cre­ate a new league record.

But it re­minded me again of the raw ex­cite­ment gen­er­ated in small com­mu­ni­ties by the great Aus­tralian game and what it means to the lives of the peo­ple who live there.

A reg­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion in Kather­ine did not hap­pen when I was a school­boy there in the 1960s and ‘70s.

There was the an­nual CSIRO v Schoolteach­ers game on the old oval near the town’s pow­er­house and of course Kather­ine had the great Doug Kelly, who plied his trade in Dar­win’s NTFL from the 1960s to the ‘80s.

But when Kather­ine en­tered the NTFL re­serves com­pe­ti­tion in 1985 a whole new world of footy opened for kids in the town and com­mu­ni­ties 500km east and west of the town.

A glance at the record books will tell you Kirby’s Agents and Row­lands met in the first grand fi­nal in early 1989, with Kirby’s win­ning by 83 points.

It was the same in Ten­nant Creek’s Barkly league, where Spor­ties Spit­fires beat Memo Mag­pies in 1991 to be­gin a tra­di­tion in the gold town that con­tin­ues to­day.

In the com­mu­ni­ties it is the same, Man­ingrida, Jilk­ming­gan, Wad­eye, El­cho Is­land, Pa­punya, Santa Teresa and La­ja­manu live and die by the sound of a foot­ball be­ing kicked.

As the late Ron Casey, the doyen of ra­dio sport in Aus­tralia through the 1960s and ‘70s said of the Aus­tralian game, “it brings peo­ple to­gether and puts ev­ery­thing else into per­spec­tive, it is the mir­ror of our live”.

A 16-year-old kid from Jilk­ming­gan, a road trip about 150km south­east of Kather­ine, won the Mor­ris Medal as the best player on the ground in the grand fi­nal.

Stephen Rory, al­ready an un­der-16 rep­re­sen­ta­tive with Ter­ri­tory Thunder and a reg­u­lar with NTFL U18 side Big River Hawks, is a star in the mak­ing.

Typ­i­cal of the shy young­sters that emerge from re­mote com­mu­ni­ties with a foot­ball in one hand and a pair of boots in the other, Rory let his foot­ball do the talk­ing for him on a day when he cov­ered ruck, wing and goal­kick­ing du­ties.

The AFLNT was well or­gan­ised off the field. Um­pires boss Mark Noo­nan had his crew up and run­ning and his fin­gers on the but­tons that con­trolled the new elec­tronic score­board.

The Kather­ine Show­grounds (Nit­miluk Oval) is an ideal ground for day and night foot­ball, though the AFLNT and prob­a­bly the Town Coun­cil need to look closely at in­stalling more lights and a per­ma­nent loud­speaker sys­tem at the ground.

Try­ing to iden­tify play­ers on the far side of the ground was al­most im­pos­si­ble and for the third in four years, a spec­ta­tor was forced to sing the na­tional an­them pre-game when the elec­tron­ics broke down.

But isn’t that footy in the bush, a unique and vi­tal part of Aus­tralia’s sport­ing le­gacy?

Ac­tion from the Kather­ine-based Big Rivers Foot­ball League be­tween East­side and Beswick. In­set: Stephen Rory won the Mor­ris Medal af­ter help­ing to in­spire East­side to the 2017 Big Rivers Foot­ball League premier­ship against Kather­ine Camels at Nit­miluk Oval on Satur­day night

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