Daniel Rioli will represent one of the AFL's best-known families in the Dreamtime match in Darwin. Image by Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS

Australian rules football

How the Rioli family became AFL royalty

2020-08-21 17:57:55

Nobody is certain how a rough leather football, stuffed with rags, first lobbed on the Tiwi Islands.

But the ball’s arrival in the 1930s has shaped an Indigenous culture, an Australian sport – and a family now known as footy royalty, the Riolis.

The Rioli footprint on Australian Rules leaves another imprint on Saturday night when Daniel Rioli plays in Darwin, some 80km south of the Tiwi Islands.

Melville Island, Bathurst Island and nine smaller uninhabited islands make up the Tiwi Islands.

The estimated 2600 population is momentarily decreasing.

About 20 of the Rioli clan have made the ferry trip from the islands to Darwin to watch Daniel play for Richmond in the AFL’s annual Dreamtime match against Essendon.

“I will definitely treasure this for the rest of my life,” Daniel said on Friday.

“It’s a well-known territory with the Riolis … to be able to come over here and represent my people and my family is going to be something special.

“To represent my family and the Rioli name is going to be emotional.”

The 23-year-old was born in Fremantle, Western Australia.

But his lineage traces to the Tiwi Islands, where historians date that arrival of the first rough and literally ragged footy to around 1935.

The locals first kicked the footy over a literal line in the sand, on a beach near a Catholic mission at Nguiu on Bathurst Island.

Catholicism sought to spread on the Tiwis. It did; but what also spread is now considered another religion on the island – football.

“Football in our backyard is like a religion. We love football just as much as anything,” famous Tiwi Islander and AFL legend Michael Long said.

In 1941, Brother John Pye marked out a makeshift field, with goal posts, on an old air strip and taught the basics of the game.

Soon, Cyril Rioli Sr would meet a girl, Helena – both children of the Stolen Generations – at a recreation night at the Catholic Church’s orphanage at the Garden Point mission.

They would marry and have 10 children, including Sebastian and Maurice.

Sebastian, known as Sibby, and another Tiwi Islander, became footy pioneers on the mainland.

Amparralamtua, better known by his Anglicised name David Kantilla, was the first Tiwi Islander to play in a big southern league.

Kantilla played for South Adelaide – and won the club’s best and fairest awards in his first two SANFL seasons, 1961-62.

Kantilla would return to Bathurst Island between seasons in Adelaide and play for St Mary’s in Darwin during the tropical wet season.

Sibby Rioli was a pioneer elsewhere: he went to Western Australia and played for South Fremantle from 1972 to 1976.

His brother Maurice played for South Fremantle from 1975-81.

Maurice won best-afield medals for South Freo in the 1980 and 1981 grand finals; then was recruited for the 1982 VFL season powerhouse Richmond.

He made history in his first season by collecting another best-afield medal in that year’s VFL grand final –  the first Indigenous player to win the Norm Smith medal; the first to claim it despite playing for the losing team.

Maurice also collected Richmond’s best and fairest in his first two seasons of his brilliant career – he retired from the VFL after the 1987 season and returned to South Fremantle for another two seasons, before playing again with St Mary’s in Darwin in 1991.

In 1993, the AFL gave Maurice the honour of awarding the Norm Smith medal: it was won by Long, a Tiwi Islander who is related to the Riolis by marriage.

Long himself carved out a stunning AFL career while nephews of Maurice also hit great heights in the nation’s elite competition.

Dean Rioli, also born on the Tiwi Islands, played 100 games for Essendon between 1999-2006.

Another nephew and Tiwi Islander, Cyril Rioli Jr, won four premierships, and a Norm Smith medal, with Hawthorn between 2008-18.

And another Tiwi Island-born nephew, Willie Rioli, became a West Coast premiership player in 2018.

And Maurice’s great-nephew Daniel is already a two-time premiership player with Richmond.

Daniel readily admits awe at the achievements of the Riolis – and the prospect of their story turning near full-circle by playing in Darwin on Saturday night.

And there’s more in the offing.

Maurice Rioli Jr, the son of Maurice Sr, looks set to be a father-son selection at this year’s draft.

Maurice Jr is available as a father-son selection to Fremantle, given his father’s ties with South Freo, and also Richmond – which has already staked their claim.

“If he’s a racehorse, you’re certainly putting your money on him,” Richmond’s development officer Xavier Clarke said on Thursday.

“He did train with us a little bit in pre-season last year.

“He was going really well and was on track to do it again this year but with what happened (COVID-19), we haven’t been able to do that.

“He will have some work to do whenever he gets to an AFL club wherever that may be – we’re hoping that will be with us.

“But he has certainly got some great talent.”