” ‘PUNDERDELIME’ THE FOOTY PIONEER …………”

The waves gently lap the shore on this typically humid Darwin afternoon. It’s late-September, 2000.

Thankfully, the relaxing sound of an air-conditioner and an uninterrupted, panoramic view across the Timor Sea extend some comfort to the occupant of the sparsely-furnished unit.

I’m in town on a flying visit and can’t resist the invitation to meet up with one of the Territory’s most cherished residents.

The old fellah invites me in. I detect that the idea of being cast as a ‘celebrity’ has worn a bit thin. But he recounts – with some prodding – the memories of an astounding life.

His name ?….. John Pye………..Or to be more precise: Brother John Pye MSC, OAM……….

He’s a Legend of the Top End.

As a missionary, author, teacher, historian, humanitarian, builder, wise counsel and great mate to the indigenous communities, he has made an enormous contribution to Territory life.

But I’m keen to tap into his famous passion for football, and his involvement in fostering the game…………

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He was born in Mulwala. As his dad was a policeman, the family moved extensively around the Riverina, settling at Coolamon when John was about 10.

He recalled his first taste of Aussie Rules – and being instantly hooked.

Genuine pace was his asset, ( he was capable of running even-time ) which made him an ideal candidate for a spot on the wing. When he went to boarding school at the Marist Brothers College in Wagga, they duly installed him as captain of the School’s First Eighteen.

He qualified as a Deisel Engineer, but eventually his calling was to join a Catholic Order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. They appealed to him because of his desire to help disadvantaged people in the nation’s North.

His first 10 years with the MSC were spent at Toowoomba, but in 1941 he was transferred to Bathurst Island, and its sister island, Melville, two tiny specks in the Timor Sea, just 80km north of Darwin.

“Apart from a couple of old houses there was no sign of any people when I arrived there – until they slowly came out of the bush to see me. All they wore was a smile, and I remember looking around, wondering if, maybe, Captain Cook was visiting at the same time as me !”, he joked.

“I saw them playing some sort of a 20-a-side game with a rolled-up rag on a rugby ground. The first team to get the ball over the line was the winner, regardless of whether you kicked, punched or carried it.”

“That’s when I said to myself: ‘Hang on, with my knowledge of Aussie Rules, maybe I can work on this’.”

His original efforts were thwarted by World War 2, but when he returned in peace-time, after a posting at Port Keats (Wadeye), he planted sticks (for the goals) at either end of one of the aerodromes left from the War. He then began to instruct them on the rudiments of the game.

“Each quarter would go from half an hour to an hour, because there were no watches. The prize for the winning team was usually a bag of flour or some tobacco.”

.“Football unified people on the Tiwi Islands,” he said. “They’re all from different totems, but as soon as you pick a football team, they’re all in it together. It’s almost like a religion for them. They are an athletic, spritely, springy people and their brand of footy is, as you know, lightning fast.”

He started the Tiwi Islands Football League after a game between Imalu and a side from Bathurst Island. It has now evolved into a vibrant eight-team competition.

From these beginnings emerged some of the great identities of Australian Rules football – the Longs, the Riolis and countless others who were to become household names in the Top End, like the Virgonas, Puruntutamuris, Kerinaiuas, and Tungatalums.

The St.Mary’s team, which joined the NTFL in 1952, was originally made up almost entirely of expatriate islanders. Br Pye took on the task of sending players he considered capable enough, over to play on the mainland, with the Saints.

Among them was Jack Long, whom he rated the pick of the talent he coached. Jack became an NTFL star, as did his offspring. One of the highlights of his life was watching all seven of his sons ( Michael, Chris, Johnny, Patrick, Noel, Brian and Stephen ) pull on the Green and Gold St.Mary’s guernsey in the 1988/89 Preliminary Final.

Another outstanding product was David Kantilla, a brilliant 196cm ruckman, who graduated from Bathurst, to St.Mary’s, and on to South Adelaide. ‘Soapy’, as they called him, was the first Tiwi product to play ‘big-time’ football, and went on to represent South Australia.

His brothers Bertram and Saturninus were also members of the initial St.Mary’s side.

Maurice Rioli, like so many others, grew up with a football in his hands at Garden Point Orphanage on Melville Island. Playing with St.Mary’s, he was spotted by South Fremantle, where he played under the coaching of hard-man Mal Brown. He won dual Simpson Medals as best-afield in consecutive WAFL Grand Finals.

The following season, after being lured to Richmond, he was adjudged the Norm Smith Medallist, despite the Tigers losing the 1982 Grand Final to Carlton……………

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Br Pye formed a strong relationship with the late Teddy Whitten. “Ted Snr was just like a mate to me,” he said.

“He used to say to his mates down south: ‘If you want to see real football, have a look at a game on the Tiwi Islands’.”

EJ used to make an annual pilgrimage, to present the E.J.Whitten Medal for best afield in the Tiwi Grand Final. ( His son Ted Jnr now performs the role ).

The Islands became Br Pye’s home. He was regarded as genuine family by people with whom he had been closely associated for decades.

“They’re the best people you’d want to meet,” he said. “Fiercely proud, and with tremendous sporting ability.”

When he retired, and settled into this unit at Nightcliff, he still maintained a hefty involvement with the Tiwi people. They call him ‘Punderdelime’, which means ‘Crocodile’s Tail’, signifying strength and age.

“Basically, it means I’m an old bloke who never gets sick, and helps win football matches for them,” he said.

He remains on the Board of the Tiwi Island Football League. The league’s Best and Fairest Award is called the John Pye Medal.

A keen historian, he has a huge football archive, which he likes to keep up-to-date. His enthusiasm for the game of football certainly hadn’t dimmed.

In October 1999, he was presented with the National Humanitarian Award.

The brief report of the citation said: “There were many stories told, and it became quite evident that Brother’s promotion of Australian Rules was the least of his accomplishments.”

“Rather, it was quite obvious that he had given his life, for sixty years, to the aboriginal people. It was also obvious that they loved him.”

“They, as we all did, listened intently to his talk and its humour, which showed that he still has the wit and wisdom, undimmed by his advancing years.”……………

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As a parting gift, Br.John hands me copies of four booklets he’s produced, relating to Catholic Missions in the Territory: ‘The Port Keats Story’, ‘The Daly River Story’, ‘The Tiwi Islands’ and ‘The Santa Teresa and East Arunda History’.

Tomorrow he’ll pull up his chair near the telly and excitedly prepare for the AFL Grand Final between Melbourne and Essendon.

His leaning will be towards the Bombers – not surprisingly – and he’ll take particular interest in the player wearing No. 13 in the Red and Black.

For without the influence of this 93 year-old we may have been robbed of the exquisite talents of Michael Long and his ilk………………..

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Postscript:

Brother John Pye passed away nine years later, in 2009, aged 102.

Acknowledged as the ‘Father of Football’ on the Tiwi Islands, and the other outlying missions he served, he was among the first batch of inductees admitted to the Northern Territory Football League Hall of Fame in 2010.

His continuing legacy to the game is shown by perusing the records of Tiwi products such as Norm Smith Medallists Maurice Rioli, Michael Long (1993) and Cyril Rioli (2015), and others who have made the big-time: Dean and Willie Rioli, Austin Wonaeamirri, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwiti, Ben Long, Sebastian Rioli. Adam Kerinauia, Malcolm Lynch, Ronnie Burns and Alan Christensen.

The greatest step forward for Tiwi football came in 2008, when the ‘Tiwi Bombers’ gained admittance to the NTFL, just a year before the departure of their staunchest advocate…………

A WEEK-END AT THE FOOTY

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.