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Coober Pedy Saints Football Club 10th Year
From the "Footy Provides an Oasis of Hope" article, Friday May 30, by Jon Ralph, www.heraldsun.com.au
Next month the Coober Pedy Saints will celebrate their 10th season of survival in the Far North Football League.
Yet if the challenges of this team are echoed across Australia, this just might be the most unique side in Australian football.
It has survived the tensions that come from a side populated by many of the 44 nationalities that live in Coober Pedy.
And it has endured despite the transient population that rises and falls with opal prices.
Most of all, it has survived despite travelling extraordinary distances for nearly all of its 120-odd
games in its 10-year history.
A side assembled in 2004 to arrest the declining social fabric of the town has travelled the 940km round trip to
Roxby Downs 83 times in those first 120 games.
Even those statistics do not do credit to its main goal: soothing the frayed tensions that so often occur
between so many races and with an indigenous population that mostly has little to do.
Just as Oz Mineral Oval is a lush green oval in a town with a landscape straight out of a Mad Max
movie, so too is the team an oasis for troubled and bored youth.
Coach Carmelo Crisa, whose parents landed in Coober Pedy from Italy to run the local pizza shop, says this football
team matters to the town.
“(The boom here) was incredible. We used to have buses lined up outside, 40 people at a time, in and out of the
shop. That was the heyday of Coober Pedy.
“Mining was at its peak. You could see the morning rush to the mines — car after car after car.
“A lot of people participated. Then a lot of people moved away or got older.
“This team was started at the lowest point of sporting activity in Coober Pedy. There was nothing structured.
For me this football team reflects the community. We have so much diversity in the football team — Aboriginals,
Greeks, Italians, Filipinos, New Zealanders, a Pakistani, Pommies.
So it reflects the 44 nationalities here in the middle of nowhere. We stick together.
“As part of this community we have a lot of indigenous youth. This football team is the way we can keep the
community united, because racism can come in very quickly.
“This community is about embracing people for who they are and giving them a second chance,
because the distance to anywhere else is so great.
“It’s six hours to Alice Springs and six hours to Port Augusta, with only petrol stations in between.”
In Coober Pedy the police vans cruise up and down the main strip as regularly as the 60-year-old retirees in their
monstrous caravans on the way to Alice Springs or Uluru.
The club’s captain Dylan Warren is also an indigenous health care worker who feels an obligation to his race to drag them from trouble.
“These kids feel like they are a part of something. Footy is about trying to keep these younger kids out of trouble. It’s the main big thing up here in town. It’s been in the media about break-ins and criminal stuff and we are trying to bring the younger ones away from that. We have to try to reduce racism here and bring the young ones together.
“Playing footy, they feel like they are a part of something. A lot of them smoke and occasionally drink, so we are trying to
get them off the rails.”
Martin Grava, 25, is an electrician for the council who has won the club’s past two best-and-fairests.
His take on the team is simple: it alleviates the boredom that comes when you live 688km from Alice Springs and 451km to Roxby Downs.
“I think for the younger fellas it gives them something to aspire to. Otherwise they get into the crime and break-ins.
Now they can focus on something fun and something good for them.
“Without this they have nothing else to do. With the (break-ins) it is more fun running if someone is
chasing you. That’s why they do it.”
The condition of entry to this league was travel, with Coober Pedy initially playing no home games,
then four a year, and only this year half of their 12 home-and-away matches.
Given that many of the residents of Coober Pedy are chasing opal, not leather, it is massive commitment.
Telstra technician Isaac Ankers has been in town for three months, and says it is a place like few others.
“I have met Sri Lankans, Slovenians, Czechs, Russians, Germans, Kiwis, South Africans, a couple of Sudanese,
Ugandans and one person from the UK.
“People are chasing the dream, hoping to find that one bit of opal which changes everything.
“They could do it here or sit at home in Melbourne and play the lottery. I have had a couple of blokes
(at the pub) say, ‘Tomorrow is the day I am going to find it’.
Grava, of Filipino heritage, has found the 10-hour round trips have been another way to bring this club together.
“We travel 1000km to play a game of footy, but most of the time we travel down on Friday night, stay at a sheep station
overnight, light a fire and have a yarn and have a bit of fun and then finish the travel the next morning.”
In the early days the indigenous boys caught kangaroos to roast, even if the different tribes fought over cooking it
whole or stripping its innards before resting it on coals.
The determination of these players to travel is quite extraordinary. Many travel hours just to board the minibus on Friday night.
Former Hawthorn player Amos Frank is one of a handful of players from the remote and traditional APY lands who travel
500km on dirt roads before the journey to play the four teams based in Roxby Downs.
Players have regularly travelled from Port Lincoln, from Adelaide, and from Alice Springs just to get their football fix.
Yet town mayor Steve Baines — also the postmaster, former player and current umpire — says the trips also allow the
indigenous boys to relax in different company.
“I remember a couple of the indigenous boys took a while to open up because they saw you as an authority
figure. And then finally on a trip down to Roxby they said, We want to talk to you about
something. We need a skate park in town. We ended up getting funding and building it.
If it wasn’t for the footy club those two lads would never have felt comfortable talking to someone like me.
“This team brings the town together because have a common cause.
“The police play a big part, too. They see the police as footy mates rather than cops. The guys who may have a
tendency to go off the straight and narrow are mentored by police.”
Finding enough players has been a weekly issue, with Crisa sometimes recruiting under-the-weather stragglers
wandering down the main street at 6am on Saturday mornings.
They sleep to Roxby Downs, he hands them a pair of football boots, and they take the field.
A number of forfeits saw the rival clubs — Olympic Dam Roxby Districts, Hornridge, and Andamooka — challenge their right to continue.
Recognised indigenous elder Andrew Dingaman, who still plays forward pocket at the age of 49, says this club has at times been on
“I think it’s just the game (that makes you travel so far).
“Everybody dreams one day of playing AFL. Like the young fellas from (APY lands town) Fregon, I played
up with them on the lands years ago and you play on dirt and gravel.
If you get scunned, you get scunned. And then you get up and run again.”
If the Saints had enjoyed even a fraction of success, you could see this decade of toil might have been so much easier.
Yet for the most part, the team has been utterly horrible.
In 2011 they won two games, in 2012 just one, and last year they lost all 12 games with a percentage of just 21.43.
As that anniversary rolls around on June 14, something special is in the wind.
Four games into the season, the Saints are on a roll.
Last weekend as the Herald Sun visited, they won again to take their record to 3-1.
The influx of stunningly talented boys from the APY lands has helped and the wins have seen players come from everywhere.
In reality, all of the Roxby Downs teams bar Roxby Districts have lost players as the mining boom weakens.
But, of course, the Coober Pedy Saints are daring to dream.
For men like Mark Bell, one of the founders of this team, on-field success is about the only thing he never considered.
“You wouldn’t imagine the sleepless nights we have had just hoping people turn up for the bus. It has been about the
camaraderie, the mateship.
“To be second on the ladder, with a 3-1 record, albeit with a 195-point loss to Roxby Districts, is just a great place to be.”
Picture by Michael Klein
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