Dusk has already enshrouded the Findlay Oval on this balmy Thursday evening.
As the glow of the floodlights takes effect, eighty players or more burn up the track….. jabbering excitedly…..moving frenetically……footies zipping here and there, like tracer bullets……
A hardy group of regulars survey proceedings……Then we spot a lone figure…a massive fellah, who’s following the action intently, up in the shadows of the Hogan Stand.
Funny, we’d only been swapping yarns a few days ago, about the exploits of Michael Nolan, who first pulled on the Brown and Gold guernsey 50 years ago.  Someone jokes that, maybe the ghost of ‘Big Mick’ is re-visiting us ……..
Well, not exactly, but Mick’s spirit will always live on whilst his eldest son is around.
Rick has forged a sizeable football reputation of his own. When I greet him he’s momentarily distracted by a post that has come through on his I-Phone, announcing his decision to relinquish the coaching position at one of Australia’s most famous footy clubs, St.Mary’s of Darwin.IMG_3265
He told them that he wasn’t going on about a month ago, he says, but they’ve only just made it public.


How does he feel ? “Yeah, I’m comfortable with it. After five years in the job, I could sense my energy levels dropping, but I’ve maintained good relationships with everybody. And I didn’t want to damage those by going on for an extra year.”
So he took the opportunity to escape down south for a week or so. Being the football ‘nut’ that he is, he watched three AFL games last week-end, caught up with a few people, then headed to Wangaratta, where his family roots are, of course, deeply-embedded.
Rick’s has been a fascinating football journey .
He was just a whippersnapper when his dad, mum Nettie and the kids moved to Queensland.  Mick had drawn the curtain on a fine career at North Melbourne and was enticed to take up a coaching position with Brisbane club, Mayne, in 1981.
Charged with spreading the ‘gospel’ in this rugby-oriented state , Mick became the face of Queensland football, whilst turning the Mayne Tigers into a QAFL powerhouse.
Tracing his every step was young Rick, who began with Mayne’s juniors as a seven year-old and moved through the ranks, to play 50-odd senior games.
He had just left school, when an uncle, Graeme Smith, the vice-president of St.Mary’s, suggested that a season of summer footy in their Under-18’s would do him the world of good.
He loved it ; grew fond of Darwin and decided to hang around. When he was 21 he qualified as an Aviation Fireman – a job he’s held ever since.
And he began to make his mark as a strong, hard-working ruckman, protective of the will-o-the wisp, magical small men who abound in Top End footy.IMG_3263
Deceptively agile for his size, he inherited ‘Big Mick’s’ gift for deft tapwork and his sound understanding of the game.  Some also attested to his healthy appetite, which was again, a family trait.

A decent feed of Spaghetti Bolagnaise would be Rick’s standard post-match fare, along with a side dish of a couple of rounds of toasted cheese sandwiches.  His hangover-cure was a full Chicken, washed down with two or three stubbies.
Beneath a stern-looking visage  is a warm-hearted, friendly fellah. He loves yapping about footy – and is keen to elaborate when  I quiz him on the reason for St.Marys’ amazing run of success.
They’ve won 32 of a possible 65 NTFL flags since they entered the League in 1952, and have missed the finals only twice.  Rick says the Club was originally formed to give full-blood aboriginals on the Tiwi Islands the opportunity to play regular, organised football in Darwin.
At the time, none of the other clubs would allow full-bloods to play. Thus, a long line of Long’s, Rioli’s, Dunn’s and Virgona’s, among others, have helped create the Saints’ tradition, blending in with the diehard locals.
One of the legends of the Club is the patriarch of the Long family, Jack, who used to sell crocodile skins to Darwin businesses to pay his way from the Tiwi Islands, to play with St.Mary’s .
The assembly-line of champions who have worn the Green and Gold over the years includes 21st century stars Anthony and Iggy Vallejo, Peter ‘Noodles’ McFarlane, Xavier and Raph Clarke, John Anstess and the Illett brothers – Cameron and Jarred.
“People are envious of our great culture, but it’s a culture of hard work. We train harder than any club, but we also have unbelievable bloodlines,” Rick says.
“Every year you’ll be watching a junior game and a Rioli or a Long who’s been living on the island, will bob up from nowhere.”
Rick played in two flags in his 125 senior games with Saints. In between, he fitted in a season at SANFL club Woodville-West Torrens, then realised a long-held ambition when he spent a couple of months with the Rovers in 2001.
He dominated four or five Reserves games and, when belatedly swung into the senior side, fitted in like a glove in two finals matches. He wishes time had permitted him to play more.
He’s always been a keen student of the game, and did a couple of internships with AFL clubs. In the period he spent at the Gold Coast Suns, Rick noticed that Shaun Hart, one of the assistants, had a computer with him at all times.
“His computer was a vital coaching tool. I was pretty impressed. I reckoned that was the way to go,” he says.
Thus, he was instrumental in creating SportsClipMaker, a video analysis software program and sports coaching app.
“Many Victorian country clubs are using it, but it has the potential to spread world-wide,” he says. “Hopefully, I can now devote more time to promoting it.”
Rick first put his toe in the coaching water, as an assistant at St. Mary’s. Then the opportunity presented itself to take on the big job in 2013.
He was apprehensive. “One of my best mates, Stewart Sceney, was putting a bit of pressure on me. He told me: ‘It takes courage to coach, but it takes extra courage to coach St.Mary’s.”
So he took the plunge. Sadly, not long after he’d been appointed,  Stewie, his wife Karmi Dunn and their two kids, died in a plane crash at Anson Bay, on the west coast of Darwin.

The news devastated the St.Mary’s club, but strengthened their resolve for the season ahead. The Saints took all before them and went through the season undefeated.IMG_3260
That was certainly a highlight for Rick, but the flag win he cherishes most came in March 2016.
He’d lost key players John Anstess and Ryan Smith in the lead-up, then Ben Long was rubbed out after a gruelling Preliminary Final.

“Within five minutes of the start, two blokes did ACL’s, and just before half-time one of our stars, Justin Cooper, broke a collarbone. Mickey Coombes, another key player, was out of the game with an ankle injury at three quarter-time.

When the last quarter started we had no bench, it was 33 degrees and 95% humidity. We were two goals down and barely hanging on”
“With a minute or so remaining in the game, Shannon Rioli threaded his way through a few Wanderers players and booted the goal that gave us victory by two points. It ranks as one of the best of our 32 flags.”

(to see vision:  https://www.youtube.com/watchv=lSwnIpEq3wk )

The following season St.Mary’s belted old foes Wanderers by 57 points, to clinch Rick’s third title in four years.

This year they started sluggishly, recovered, but were always just off the pace – bombing out in the First Semi Final against Nightcliff.
He concedes that coaching in the Top End is a tough gig.

“You’re allowed a maximum of four fly-in players ; there are the boys from the Communities, like Wadeye . You have to make sure they’re picked up, fed and accommodated .My wife Danielle was terrific in helping me with this.  “
“Additionally, the blokes from down south need to be settled in Darwin by October 1. You try to ensure that they all fit into the Club okay……And most of all, hope they can get a kick .…………”IMG_3266
Rick likes to think his coaching methods were strongly influenced by watching his dad in charge at Mayne. His younger brothers, who  both made a considerable imprint on the game, have also carried the Nolan name with aplomb.
Dan started with Mayne, played 54 games with the Rovers, 100 at St.Mary’s, close to 200 with Heidelberg, and finished with two seasons at Mornington.
Dale’s career followed a similar trajectory – Mayne, St.Mary’s, Heidelberg and Mornington.

Rick will certainly find time this year to visit his 14 year-old son Noah, in Sweden. He’ll also take his usual trip to Bali, to play in the Over-35 Masters Football Carnival.
But the next stage of his career awaits. He’s unsure what it will involve at this stage, but there’s no doubt he’ll remain heavily involved in the game……………..IMG_3254


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.


Rick Nolan is a condensed version of his late Dad, Mick. He used his large frame to advantage in an impressive football career, which saw him play in four states and include in his CV, a few appearances with the Rovers in 2001.

But he forged his reputation in Darwin, in 140-odd games and 2 premierships with St.Mary’s. Rick is now 40 and has turned his hand to coaching. After a year as an assistant with the N.T Thunder rep side, he was appointed to take charge of his old club for the 2013/14 season.

Rick has a rugged countenance and a stern-looking face, but beneath it all he is a kind and caring soul. His mum, Nettie, is over from Brisbane for the Grand Final tomorrow, but she has decided not to stay with her eldest son. “He gets pretty uptight and he’ll probably be pacing the floor tonight. I’ll leave him in peace,” she said.

When we renew acquaintances with Rick, he wears a pained expression. You get the feeling the weight of expectation is bearing down on him.

And little wonder. St.Mary’s have won 29 N.T flags in 60 years of existence. They are on a 38-game winning streak, but some experts give Wanderers, their opponents and arch rivals, a realistic chance of causing a boilover.

Saints are a crackerjack side, but the ‘Nuk Nuks’, as Wanderers are known, led them at ¾ time a fortnight ago before being overpowered in the last. They are welcoming back AFL premiership player Daniel Motlop, who has served an 8-week suspension, incurred in an earlier game against the ‘Green Machine’. One of 4 Motlops in the side, he’ll surely give them a lift.

When we bid adieu to Rick, he says: “It’s hard to believe that 2 hours of footy, gone wrong, could f….. up your year “. Sleep well, Rick.


Darwin’s Marrara Oval is the centrepiece of Australian football today.  Forget anything that’s happening down south! It’s been a sweltering day after a stormy ‘Wet Season’ night and the town is agog, as all roads lead to the spectacular sporting precinct on the outskirts of town.

We’re advised  to avoid the huge grandstand. Gets too hot, they say. So we opt for the far side of the ground, where a whiff of a breeze offers slight relief.

What an atmosphere!  Dusk takes over, the lights kick in and a crowd – close to 10,000 – have packed in and are expecting a clash of the titans.

They’re not disappointed. It has everything that Top End footy can produce. Saints kick the opening four goals of the game into the breeze and look set to run away with it. Iggy Vallejo, a Saints stalwart, has been given the job of tailing Daniel Motlop, who doesn’t fancy the attention he’s receiving.

An incident on Wanderers forward line produces a decent punch-up, but once the dust settles Wanderers seem to flick the switch and come back into the contest. Our previous recollection of N.T footy was that it was high on risk-taking and low on accountability. But this game has a terrific level of defensive pressure and has developed into a classic.

But Wanderers just can’t peg back the Saints sufficiently, although they draw to within  10 points in the last ¼.  Ex-St.Kilda player Raph Clarke has performed some heroic deeds and is my choice as BOG. Mark Blake, who played in Geelong’s flag 4 years ago, has been unstoppable in the ruck and lifts to another level when the pressure is on in the dying stages.

But it’s not until battle-worn star Peter McPharlane, winner of the League Medal, juggles a mark and lines up a set shot for goal from a fair way out, that you feel the game could be taken out of the ‘Nuk Nuk’s’ reach.

The crowd hushes, but a vociferous dark lady continually thumps the advertising hoardings in front of us, to try to distract the Saints skipper. ‘Noodles’ McPharlane, Dimboola born-and-bred, nails it. Even though Wanderers continue to fight the game out, the siren beats them and St.Mary’s have clinched flag No.30 by 21 points.

The giant colour screen portrays all of the post-match celebrations and finally it settles on a taciturn gentleman, whose back is being slapped by St.Mary’s supporters. Finally, the mask disappears and a slight grin creases his face. Rick Nolan, premiership coach, has dropped his guard.

The ‘NT News’ in the following days, lauds the Saints and their class on and off the field. They pay homage to the coach, who is now basking in some of the glory of the premiership success. St.Mary’s President of 42 years, Vic Ludwig, says he is the most studious coach he had seen in all his years at the famous club.

“His pre-game, matchday and post-game work in terms of video and player reviews is incredibly articulate and a credit to himself,” he says.

Veteran scribe Grey Morris also weighed in with some praise. “I’m sure his late dad, Mick, the North Melbourne premiership ruckman, was looking down on him on Saturday night with a tremendous amount of pride”.

Enjoy the rest of the year, Rick.