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Outback footy comp is nurturing female stars of the future

08:00am April 29 2024

Participants show off their new team guernseys (teams from left): Yulara, Irrunytju, Kiwirrkurra, Amata, Papunya, Ntaria, Mimili, Mutijulu, Kalukatjara, Imanpa. (Natalie Dyson)

Only a year ago Jess was playing footy in her bare feet wearing an oversized male team guernsey, now she’s set to play in a Grand Final. 

Jess’s team from the Central Western Desert region of the Northern Territory won all four of their games at the inaugural Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (NPYWC) Australian Rules carnival in Yulara, NT and will proceed to the final in June.

The carnival involved 18 teams and 160 players from communities across a vast expanse of Central Australia, offering a rare chance of competitive footy for girls from remote outback communities. 

The girls line up on the field ahead of the games. (Natalie Dyson)

In 2023, NPYWC received an overwhelming response when it piloted a Women’s Aussie Rules 9’s program for teenage girls. While the interest had always been there, aspiring players had been held back by a lack of equipment and facilities, nearby competition, and in some cases an inhibition to play the game they love.

The program started out with just 6 teams and 48 players but has grown quickly with the support of NPYWC and the passion of the girls in getting involved, said Brett Toll, Youth Manager at NPYWC. The carnival marks the next phase in its development. 

“The trip to Yulara was a fifteen-hour drive (1,145 kilometres) one way for some of the players, mostly on outback dirt roads. This is a big deal not just for the players, but some are leaving their families and communities for the first time,” said Toll.

One of those who took the long journey was 15-year-old Jess. Her footy is usually limited to an informal kick-around at lunch time so she jumped at the chance to take part in a formal competition.  

Jess, who has set her sights on playing for the Richmond Tigers, said her favoured position is centre where she loves to kick on the run and take ‘huge marks’.  

Eighteen-year-old Ebony West plays in the backline for Kiwirrkurra, an Indigenous community some 700 kilometres from the nearest major town Alice Springs. West and her team’s long journey to get to the comp involved an overnight stop at a camel farm.

“My dream is to be able to have all my family and friends come and watch me play, but there are no comps, and when there are they are too far for them to travel,” West said.

When Natalie Dyson from Westpac’s technology team set out to raise funds to help get more girls into sport she found the perfect match in NPYWC and the work they were doing to get the competition off the ground. 

Dyson is passionate about giving young female athletes the same opportunities as their male counterparts to realise their sporting potential, especially those from remote communities with limited access to facilities. 

With the help of her team, she raised over $28,000 to provide the carnival participants with uniforms in the colours of their teams, as well as football boots, kit bags, water bottles, medals and trophies. 

“No girl should be denied the opportunity to play their chosen sport, no matter where they live. They should have access from pathways to carnivals, and elite programs with permanent funding and sponsorship,” said Dyson.

“My goal is for these girls to have local competitions all year round and not have to travel days to make one regional event. Many of these girls have huge potential and skills, good enough to make it all the way as professionals if given the opportunities.” 

NPYWC’s Toll said the fundraising efforts of Dyson and her colleagues contributed to the event’s success, adding that its continuation would depend on securing regular sources of funding. 

“We need to make it a regular fixture and for that we need funding, currently we receive no funding or grants for the girls Aussie Rules 9’s,” Toll said. 

Jess faces another long journey for the final in June in Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) when her Central Western Desert team will take on Ntaria. She hopes it will be just one more step on a much longer journey in the sport she loves.  

To find out more visit the NPY Women’s Council website.

Lisa is a senior media relations manager and has been working for the Westpac Group in corporate affairs since 2010 across business units including wealth, technology, and institutional banking. Lisa’s 25 year career started at the Ten Network and she has worked in current affairs, tourism, sport, travel and lifestyle media.

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