The Northern Territory's remote Tiwi Islands are renowned for producing Australian Rules champions including Maurice and Cyril Rioli and Michael Long.
But two weeks ago NRL legend Matt Bowen was the star attraction as the former Cowboys fullback helped to host skills sessions at Tiwi College as part of the National Non-Contact Rugby League Program.
The NRL and Touch Football combined to deliver the Government-funded program, the organisations each providing a game development officer to lead clinics across a Tuesday and Wednesday.
And despite the Aussie Rules posts on Tiwi College's sweeping oval and a painting of Cyril Rioli in one classroom leaving little doubt about the preferred sport, students quickly warmed to rugby league and Steeden balls were flying in equal measure to Sherrins.
On the back of the program visit, the boarding school - home to more than 80 primary, middle and senior students - intends to add non-contact rugby league or touch football into their PE lessons.
The non-contact program, launched in Broome in 2019, focuses on five core demographics - regional/remote areas, Indigenous/Torres Strait people, youth, women and low socio-economic societies.
It aims to promote healthy, active lifestyles and the game of rugby league and touch football in places where it has the potential for growth.
About a 30-minute chartered flight from Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are comprised of two inhabited islands - Melville, where Tiwi College is based, and Bathurst. The total population is just under 2500.
The Tiwi - which means "We, the only people" in the native language - are culturally rich Indigenous people who have always owned the land they continue to occupy. Permits are required for visitors."
Bowen was raised at the Hope Vale Aboriginal Community in Cape York and saw similarities to his upbringing in Tiwi College.
"Hope Vale is probably a little bit bigger, [but] I know what the kids are like walking around with no shoes on," said Bowen, who does community work for the Cowboys but hadn't visited Tiwi Islands.
"I went to school there [at Hope Vale] from grade one to six. Tiwi College is pretty lucky that the NRL have come to their community.
"Back when I was growing up, I don't think the NRL or ARL came to our community. These kids really enjoyed it, so, hopefully, we can come back and do it again. The kids were really good.
"They were a bit shy at the start, but once three or four get involved they all start to creep in. It doesn't matter what ball they have in their hand, they're fairly talented no matter what community you go to."
Tiwi College's acting principal Sila Pati said the visit from Bowen and NRL staff would have a lasting effect.
"Having Matty Bowen and the NRL come around, it's good for the community," Pati enthused. "People will talk, the kids will talk, and we want more exposure to this.
"The kids can go home happy knowing they've met Matty Bowen – someone famous – and to also link in with if we are going to offer rugby league in their future."
'A safe haven'
To understand the benefit of the National Non-Contact Rugby League Program's visit to Tiwi College, it's worth learning about how the school operates and the "vicious cycle" it aims to break for the youth.
Only a smattering of students were present when NRL representatives arrived. It was the first day back from holidays and kids had to be transported from their communities - some as far as 100km away - to the campus via the College's troupe vehicles.
As an independent school, owned and managed by the Tiwi people, the College operates in a unique fashion. Students arrive on Mondays, sleep at eight family group homes on campus during the week, and then return to their communities on Friday afternoons.
"A bit of history - we had 30 elders who, 30 years ago, went to the Federal Government and asked for the school to be built here," said Sila Pati, who began as a teacher in 2010.
"It was going back and forth. The Government said, 'No, it's not going to work', and then during 2008, as part of the Sorry campaign when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, he said, 'Let's give it a go'.
"The school has been operating since then. Like any other school, we have our moments. Weather sometimes plays a huge part [with wet and dry seasons] and the school was built away from the communities just to get the kids away from some unfortunate social happenings.
"We do have kids from our non-Tiwi staff whose kids go here as well. We have a population from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands."
The College's website proudly states that it has about an 80 percent attendance rate - "which is higher than any remote, Indigenous secondary school in the country".
While students are given a thorough education in a range of fundamental subjects, Pati describes the school as "more like a safe haven" where kids can "develop better trust with the staff."
Some teachers are Tiwi residents while other non-Indigenous staff travelled from interstate to take up an enriching opportunity.
Sport, Pati explained, is an integral part of the College curriculum - something that was evident as kids continually and happily kicked and bounced all kinds of balls - as well as music and culture.
Rugby league is gaining steady traction. The College sent girls and boys league teams to compete in a Darwin competition last term and they displayed a natural flair for the game despite limited experience.
"They're still learning, but in terms of being talented, they're very fast and quick. It was funny - they kept passing the ball forward because of their AFL background, but they got used to it," Pati said.
The non-contact program's visit came at an ideal time with the Broncos and Eels facing off in an NRL clash at Darwin's TIO Stadium a weekend prior and the Touch Football NT titles - in which Tiwi students competed - started on the mainland a day after departure.
'Education to employment'
Jeffrey 'Yello' Simon runs the College's Academy programs and is also the Indigenous liaison officer. He described himself as "the middle person between the community and the school".
Simon, an ex-police officer who was born on Bathurst island, is passionate about ensuring students find work after graduating.
He referred to his desire to help "break the cycle" - a tragic loop that in 2004 led the beautiful Tiwi Islands to have one of the highest suicide rates per capita anywhere in the world.
Full-strength alcohol and drugs heavily contributed to many Tiwi people taking their lives, according to Simon, who recalled attending as many as "three to four" suicide scenes a night as a policeman.
"That's a huge gap they fall into. If they haven't got a job when they finish school, they're at higher risk of getting into marijuana, alcohol, getting married at an early age - and that's where the cycle starts.
"In the two years from 2004, the community really stuck down, and we said we don't even have a word for suicide in our language - this is something new to our people. Same as drugs, alcohol, money as well.
"The Tiwi people ... we've come a long way since 2004. There hasn't been a suicide for a long time, touch wood."
Some students could end up working at Tiwi College. "We guide them as a way for them to become a staff member," Pati said.
"What we want is a Tiwi school and we try to make sure that we're being mentors and training up the kids for long-term pathways."
Other kids could be afforded employment openings in Darwin or interstate, with sport being a potential career route.
"We're tackling big issues like homesickness, Sorry Business, because we understand to make it to that [professional] level you have to leave country and go on the mainland," Simon said.
"That's a whole new ball game."
'Our mission is to bring people together'
Students filtered into the College just after lunchtime on a Tuesday. It wasn't long before NRL game development officer Courtney Crawford and her Touch Football counterpart Kendall Garling were putting classes through their paces in non-contact footy sessions.
The children were initially hesitant, but participation quickly grew - especially on the second day when Bowen joined the fun. Not even the baking-hot sun and oppressive humidity could stop them.
One teacher remarked how some of her female students were sometimes loath to get involved in PE classes but were having a great time engaging in drills like kick tennis and draw-and-pass games.
Ilisapeci Bari, a standout senior female student from Fijian heritage, loved the sessions and "getting to know the NRL staff".
NRL and Touch football crew had dinner at the family group homes on Tuesday night and were privileged to have a group of students perform a traditional Welcome to Country the next day.
Bowen, who finished his Cowboys career in 2013, signed plenty of NRL footballs, drink bottles and hats that were handed out.
From an NRL and Touch Football perspective, the trip was a massive success. Now, the goal is to receive further Government funding so the program can continue to achieve positive health outcomes.
"The partnership with Sport Australia to deliver our Non-Contact Rugby League Program has enabled us to reach remote and regional communities like never before," NRL head of community and participation Luke Ellis said.
"As an organisation, our mission is to bring people together and enrich their lives, and this program enhances our ability to provide opportunities to participants across Australia and our ability to be as far-reaching as the Tiwi Islands and Port Hedland.
"Since the start of the program in 2019, we’ve seen over 8600 participants across Australia in areas such as Groote Eylandt, Alice Springs, Bowral and Gatton."
Brad Mitchell, Touch Football's General Manager of Participation, said the program focuses on having a long-term impact.
"With any grant, you look at sustainability," said Mitchell, who oversees regions in the Northern Territory, South Australia and WA.
"And to upskill SEDA [Sports Education Development Australia] students in places like Tiwi who will then go out into the [neighbouring] communities to share their knowledge is a key deliverable.
"When we're going for further opportunities, if we can establish scope and sustainability in the program then the chance for further funding is more favourable.
"From NT alone, our target was 500 participants and to date, we have achieved 2304 with programs still to run."
Rachel Jedwood, who led the trip as the NRL's Sports Aus Program Coordinator, underlined the program's importance.
"A lot of the rural and remote communities don't always get the same opportunity as the locals [in metropolitan areas] do, so it's nice to get out and get the kids active while learning new skills of the game," she said.
"[And] it's great to be in a partnership with Touch Football Australia and to bring two sports together to deliver the same outcome.
"For this event in particular, we had both an NRL and Touch Football staff member working together to deliver the program.
"It's been a great and eye-opening experience coming [to the Tiwi Islands]. It was very rewarding and an amazing opportunity to see and learn more about their culture."
Pati has sensed the interest in rugby league increasing on the Tiwi Islands and believes it will only further develop.
"The kids now are talking about the NRL and they're talking about a lot of famous Aboriginal players," he said.
"They're talking about Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston. We have our Tiwi kids who know every player of the AFL, but when it comes to NRL they're starting to identity a lot of those popular players."
It may be a stretch to think that rugby league uprights will take precedence on Tiwi Islands sporting fields anytime soon, but who knows - the region could one day produce an NRL star to go with their litany of AFL greats.
Originally published on NRL.com
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