• St Mary's Premiership Side 1966/67. (St Mary's FC)Source: St Mary's FC
From Tiwi Islander servicemen to women taking the premiership trophy - Darwin's St Mary's Football Club plays a fascinating role in Australian sport.
By
Sophie Verass

17 Jan 2017 - 3:55 PM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2017 - 10:53 AM

Emblazoned in green and gold, champion club St Mary's is more than a successful football team in the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL).

Forming in an era of overt racism and racist policy, St Mary's Football Club (FC) was formed to give the Tiwi Island community an opportunity to play organised Australian rules, despite backlash and criticism at the time. 

St Mary's has produced the Australia Football League's (AFL) best performing players, including William 'Billy' Roe, David 'Amparralamtua' Kantilla, Maurice Rioli, Michael Long, Ronnie Burns, Xavier Clarke, Cyril Rioli, Daniel Rioli and Austin Wonaeamirri and proudly nurture the skills of the area's local talent. 

Sadly, a large amount of the club's records were destroyed in the 1974 Cyclone Tracy disaster, but what can be accessed of its history reveals one of Australia's most significant organisations.

 

1. They’re the most successful football club in Australian history

St Mary's FC is famous for its record success, claiming 31 wins out of 48 Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) premiership Grand Finals.

The club have only missed out on the finals twice since forming in the 1952/53 season, finishing fifth in 1979/80 and 2000/01. However, they have never come bottom of the ladder in their 64 years.

They have not held a draw in the premierships since 1979. 

 

2. The club was formed to provide opportunities for Tiwi Islander service men living in Darwin

In 1952, there were dozens of men from the Tiwi Islands working for the Australian Navy and Army in Darwin. During the time, it was against the law for Indigenous Australians to drink or go into town after 6pm, so many of the men spent their leisure time playing Aussie Rules, basketball and hockey.

Aside from the Wanderers, no other club in the NTFL would allow "full blood" Aboriginal people to play. Bishop John O'Loughlin who was associated with the Tiwi Islands, as they have a large Catholic community, formed St Mary's Football Club with the help of Ted Egan AO and Father Aubrey Collins. He hoped to give opportunities for these athletic men who clearly had an interest and talent in sport. The affiliation with the St Mary's Catholic church in Darwin is where the club's name originates. 

The Darwin football community were against the idea of Tiwi men playing in the football league at the time, claiming they 'wouldn't even know how to play' and commenting on their bare feet, saying the men wouldn't even know how to run in shoes! However, during a community meeting, Police Sergeant Greg Ryall (famous for disarming the guards of Soviet Spy Evdokia Petrova) gave the crowd "a real work over" and swayed the vote in favour of allowing St Mary's Football Club. 

Vic Ludwig, President of St Mary's FC for 42 years (1962 - 2004) and Australian record holder of the longest serving administrator in any organisation, told NITV, "The funny thing about all these other clubs who were saying that the Bathurst boys 'wouldn't know how to play', didn't realise that during the war, a lot of Bathurst Island people working in the services were playing for the army teams and really well-versed in Aussie Rules." 

 

Ted Egan and Benny Cubillo are the only players in St Mary's original line-up in 1952 still alive today. Cubillo played at the tender age of 14 while still attending school at St Mary's Catholic School. At only 5 ft, Cubillo was known for his speed and had an ability to kick accurately with both feet. He is said to the youngest ever first grade Aussie Rules player in the NT. 

 

3. St Mary's lost their very first game

Despite their champion reputation, St Mary's first football game was an underwhelming loss against the Darwin Buffalos in October 1952. They were defeated 16-22 (118) to 7-10 (52) in round 2.

Another surprising loss of St Mary's was their 1000th game in 2007 played against the Tiwi Bombers - a club from the Islands that St Mary's was originally formed for. Tiwi Bombers 16 - 14 (110) and St Mary's 9 - 11 (65).

 

4. They played in the first NTFL women's league

Organised women's Australian Rules football began in Victoria in the early 1980s, forming the Victorian Women's Football League (VWFL) in 1981. In 1988 Western Australia followed suit, with South Australia doing the sam in the 1990s and New South Wales in 2000. However, it wasn't until the 2004/2005 season that the NTFL had an organised women's side. 

Prior to 2004 women's Australian Rules in the NT was adhoc, but there are records going back to the early 1950s of games being played. 

St Mary's womens won their first premiership against Darwin; St Mary's 7 - 5 (47) and Darwin 0 - 3 (3). In their 12 seasons, St Mary's womens have won 5 premierships, with the Waratahs claiming the most in the league with 6.

 

5. NAIDOC legend Billy Roe BEM was the first St Mary's player to win the NTFL Nicholas Medal and the first to be drafted to the Australian Football League

Billy Roe was one of the first players in St Mary's NTFL team and in his third season, he was awarded the prestigious NTFL Nichols Medal in 1954/55. In the same year, he won the club's 'Best and Fairest' and was recruited to East Perth in the AFL. He is the first St Mary's player to enter the national premiership leagues.

 

Roe coached the first Aboriginal Australian Rules Football team in 1972 and is currently in the NT Hall of Fame, awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) and elevated to NAIDOC legend status for his contribution to Australian Rules Football. 

Watch St Mary's vs. Palmerston tonight on NITV's coverage of the NTFL. Tune into AFL Summer tonight, 17 Jan at 10pm AEST on NITV Ch. 34.  

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