Darwin, mid-December….. Soaring temperatures,…brooding,overcast skies….sweltering humidity…..,’Mango madness’.
It’s said that when there are mangoes in the markets of Darwin there is madness in the streets of Australia’s northern-most football stronghold.
My girls assume that I’ve caught a dose of the common Territory affliction when I leave the comforts of an air-conditioned apartment to venture to TIO Stadium at Marrara on this Saturday afternoon.
At least the Grandstand offers some shade, but, as a newly-arrived southerner, you still feel as though you’ve stepped into a sauna. There’s a handy crowd in, as the first game of a triple-header – Palmerston versus Southern Districts – gets under way in the heat of the afternoon.
Territory footy has a flavour like no other competition in the nation.
The fact that it’s played in the wet season, from October to late-March enables clubs to scour down south for players to top up their ranks. They’ll require a bit of ability, though, and will need to be able to adapt to a style which is absolutely offensive and is focused on pace, pace and more pace.
There are some big names on display today. Matthew Stokes, recently delisted by Geelong, is back home and is saddling up for Palmerston (the Magpie Geese), as is ex-Melbourne speedster Leroy Jetta.
Southern Districts have been the form side so far, and good judges have them firming as favourites for the flag.
But this is not their day. They are convincing in the first term, with former Western Bulldogs and Wangaratta big man Ed Barlow mopping up well in the back line and ex-Brisbane Lion Jarred Brennan in good touch behind the ball.
They lead by three goals at quarter-time, then proceed to kick 3.15 for the remainder of the game, to go down by 24 points to a Palmerston side, inspired by the brilliance of the breathtakingly quick Leroy Jetta.
The much-heralded St.Mary’s, who have just about the best record of any major-league club in Australia, face off against an arch rival, Darwin Buffaloes in a keenly-awaited twilight encounter.
Saints, after a slightly slow start to the season, are beginning to click into gear. They’ve won their last 4 games and are gradually filtering in most of their big guns.
They are still below full-strength and some people doubt whether they’ll be able to overcome Buffs, who have won seven straight.
One of the competition’s traditional powers, Buffs have struggled in recent years, but, according to the experts, are looking the goods.
They have included an old Melbourne and Carlton diehard Brock McLean in their side. Brock was a handy utility player in his 157 AFL games but appears to have lost a yard. He gains possession a few times, only to fumble the sweat-laden football, or be swamped by a nippy Saint on each occasion.
You could see, early on, that he’s eager to get into the clinches, but seems to be struggling for fitness. The longer the game wears on, the less impact he has, and by siren-time he appears ‘shot’.
St.Mary’s lead by a comfortable three goals at half-time and their coach, Rick Nolan, implores them to pile on the pressure in the third term. “You know these blokes are all talk. They’ll crack if you keep working hard.”
And they do, going out to a 44-point lead before letting up a bit in the last quarter, and winning by 30.
They have some talented youngsters, but the bloke that I like is, Ignatius Vallejo, an old-style defender, who cleared the ball time and again.
‘Iggy’ has played over 300 games with the Saints and figured in 8 premierships. It’s hard to fathom how he slipped through the AFL recruiting net. He is the sort of player who has made St.Mary’s the club they are and is one of the greats of N.T footy.
Wanderers and Waratahs square off under lights. The ‘Tahs’ have had a disastrous season, having lost every game. But they have all their fly-in players on deck for this game and are optimistic about their chances.
It’s a tough, relentless match and it is the famous Motlops (there are five of them playing) who provide the leadership for Dean Rioli’s Wanderers. Shane Thorne, a former Western Bulldog, kicks 5 goals, as the Eagles hold on to win by 28 points.It snaps a 4-game losing streak for the reigning premiers.
On Sunday I strolled around to the Nightcliff Oval for the clash between the Tigers and the visiting Tiwi Bombers.
Of all the games, this provided the most exhilarating display. The Bombers, who have been indifferent this season, really turned it on and belted the home team by 11 goals.
Their side contained 4 Puruntatameris’, 2 Kerinaiuas’, 2 Tipuamantimirris’ and 2 Tipungwitis’ and their dazzling array of skills just left the Tigers for dead.
The star of the show was Ross Tungatulum, the recruit who fired Wodonga Raiders last season. Every time ‘Rocco’ went near the ball there was a buzz and you just knew he was going to do something with it. He kicked 6 goals and was largely responsible, along with Austin Wonaeamirri, for their 8 goals to 2 opening quarter.
They led by 52 points at half-time and I expressed my delight at their display to an old-timer, Freddie Adams, who was standing nearby.
‘Yair, mate, but can they run it out ? That’s their problem,” he said.
There were to be no lapses today, however. They booted 23 goals to blitz Nightcliff by 66 points, much to the delight of their yabbering fans and happy coach Willie Rioli.
One of their players, Harley Puruntatameri, is the subject of a racism claim from left-field that has been swirling around the NTFL in the past couple of weeks.
Southern Districts star, Ben AhMat, a former Nichols Medallist, has accused Puruntatameri of calling him a white c….
It’s a strange one – a footballer with Aboriginal and Caucasian blood claiming he has been abused by an Aboriginal.
AhMat has asked the NTFL what they’re going to do about the matter. The League wants to follow the rule book with a handshake and apology.
But, as they argue, in a multicultural city like Darwin where skin colour and different cultures merge into one, is that enough ?
It’s just another slice of drama in the weird and wonderful world of Territory football.