No turning back

Anthony Tipungwuti was inspired in his football journey by older brother Ephrem, 10 years his senior. 79504 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

Longwarry’s Anthony Tipungwuti is far more than just an extraordinary footballing talent. His sheer will and determination to succeed took him from the Tiwi Islands to Victoria in search of, not just a footy career, but an education – a better life. RUSSELL BENNETT uncovered the driving force behind a remarkable young man…


A 16-year-old boy sits in a sweltering top end schoolroom just watching his classmates. He sees them fooling around as they do in every lesson, having a good time but wasting it.
He wants more. He’s from a Tiwi community where unemployment levels are high and dreams aimed low. But he yearns for something different – an education and a life to call his own.

More than three years later, Anthony Tipungwuti answers the doorbell of his Longwarry home. It’s a freezing May afternoon and he opens the door barefoot and in a thin, v-neck t-shirt and shorts – just as he would up north.

Now 19, he’s a prodigious footballing talent but his story goes far beyond the field – it’s one of sheer will and determination to succeed in everything he sets out to achieve. To hell with the odds.

“It was all about Walla’s education, not football at all,” – Jane McDonald

He sits on the couch with professional sports coach Jane McDonald – his second mum.

The pair met when ‘Walla’ – short for Wallaby, the nickname given to Tipungwuti as an infant by his father – was playing for the Tiwi Bombers. They were on the same plane to Darwin – Tipungwuti as a player, McDonald as a coach spending time at Tiwi College.

She had flown up with her daughter, a trained teacher, who was in the most northern part of Australia as a “house parent”.

The pair would regularly fly with the team to Darwin and help out on game days.

Tipungwuti was just 14 when he made his debut in the Bombers’ senior side and by 16 he had cemented his place in the lineup.

Former AFL players Courtney Johns and Jordan Doering were in the same team and were given a hands-on introduction to top-end living by their fellow Bombers, who took them hunting and fishing.

It was a merging of cultures that extended to the McDonalds and their involvement with the Tiwi community.

“There is a huge difference in the cultures but I think my daughter and I got along well with everybody because – and Walla will attest to this – it doesn’t matter if you’re a kid down here at my school, or a kid up there, I treat you all the same.

“I get angry with you, I get happy with you… There’s just no difference.
“Everyone’s the same, and that’s just the way it is.”

McDonald, who now works at Chairo Christian School, had become entrenched in the Tiwi community when Tipungwuti approached her with his dream.

“A mate and I said to Jane: ‘Can we come down to Victoria at Christmas just to have a look?’,” he said.

“She said OK so we flew down with them, had Christmas and then I went to her school for a look around.

“Straight away, I said: ‘I want to come to this school to get an education’.”

McDonald flew back to Victoria to meet with the school, before returning to the Northern Territory.

Tipungwuti was still hell-bent on making his dream a reality.

“I said to him: ‘You’ll have to wear shoes and a tie, mate’,” McDonald said.

“He didn’t care.”

McDonald was sharing a house with Tiwi Bombers coach Karl Gundersen and a representative from the Northern Territory AFL. The three discussed the youngster’s plan, and opted to go for it.

“It was all about Walla’s education, not football at all,” McDonald said.

“People don’t understand that.

“We’re not even a sporting school, we’re a Christian school.

“He had an interview with the principal, who spelled out that it was about education, ‘not flying off all over the place to play football’.

“Walla said: ‘I want an education’.”

Before he moved to Victoria, Tipungwuti had to prove he could adjust to a life of daily routine and discipline.

He moved from Tiwi College on Melville Island to Xavier College on Bathurst Island, where McDonald started work at the Catholic school.

“I put a structure in place because they’re a little bit different in their views of kids walking around until late at night up there,” she said.

“That’s fine for them, but it was never going to work down here.

“So, I put a 9pm curfew in place and nobody in the community thought he could cope with it.”

Instead, Tipungwuti was home every night by 8pm.

But moving to the other side of the country wasn’t his only option in achieving his dream. He could have received an education in Alice Springs.

“But there was this separation from the people of Alice Springs and the Tiwi boys,” McDonald said.

“There was a lot of that going on and (Walla) didn’t like it because he wanted everyone to get along as one people.”

When he went back last year as an 18-year-old to play to play for the Northern Territory Thunder, he stayed with his Alice Springs team mates.

“They’re the sand people, and he’s the sea people,” McDonald explained.

“That’s never happened before but he didn’t care.”

While in Victoria, Tipungwuti’s reputation and prodigious talent earned him a place in the elite Gippsland Power under-18 TAC Cup football squad.

Just as he did up north, he treats his Power team mates as one.

“His best mate at the moment is Nate Paredes, and the Paredes family are Cuban and Chilean,” McDonald said.

“Walla has always thought: ‘I’m just a person’.”

Tipungwuti has juggled his Chairo Christian School and working lives with his football, and is now studying Year 11 English and a Certificate III in Sports and Recreation from Victoria University. He first came to Victoria in Year 9 but with a Grade 4 level in his second language.

Countless hours of extra study included intense one-on-one tutoring sessions just to bring him up to speed.

“Towards the end of last year when he probably should have been hitting his peak in football, he was mentally and physically exhausted because he’d done so much schoolwork to catch up,” McDonald said.

“Trying to do football as well… It was enough.

“In the end, I just said to the school: ‘Enough homework. We don’t want any more. We’re finished’.

“The school was really good – they could see that as well and gave both of us a week off school.

“We went home up north just to get our bearings and recharge the batteries, and for him to decide what he wanted to do.”

Tipungwuti returned to the Power system in one of its three, mature-age 19-year-old slots this year after an unsuccessful bid to be drafted on to an AFL list in 2011.

His focus is now firmly on his second chance to show his talent, after the disappointment of missing out in both the National and Rookie AFL drafts in the past year.

On Saturday, the on-baller-turned-backman starred for the Northern Territory in a decisive victory in its first representative game of the year against Vic Metro. The game featured some of Australia’s best young talent.

Tipungwuti’s former Tiwi Bombers mentor, Gundersen, spoke to him in the lead-up to the clash.

“To see the young man he is now, it’s just a massive buzz for me, personally,” he said.

“It’s been 12 months since I last saw him but he has made huge progress.

“Northern Territory football is not a contested game – it’s open and wide and the players aren’t held accountable for their opponents.

“He has clearly done a power of work with Jane and the Gippsland boys to transform his game.

“He has such a great work ethic that, whether or not he ultimately gets drafted, he’s a role model for everyone up here who aspires to be more than they are.

“They can follow in great footsteps.”

Tipungwuti’s Gippsland Power coach, former AFL star Nick Stevens, echoed Gundersen’s sentiments.

“To be honest – when I first met him before the pre-season this year, he was overweight and wasn’t a draft-able prospect,” he said.

“He and Jane spoke with (Power football manager) Peter Francis and I about coming back as a 19-year-old, and I said I’d be happy to have him as long as he put in the hours and worked hard.

“You can only come back as a 19-year-old if you can prove to the AFL you’re still draft-able, and we had a fight on our hands,” he said.

So Tipungwuti put that work ethic and determination of his to the test once more and dropped six kilograms and 45 skinfolds, to the point where he could not be denied for a second shot at the big time.

Each week since the start of the season he has put in hour after hour of one-on-one work with Stevens, honing his game and improving his conditioning.
“The AFL system would do wonders for Tippa,” Stevens said earlier this week.

“When I first met him, he was raw, in his shell and needed a lot of work but now… it’s unbelievable.

“He’s in great condition and no one around the club can shut him up!

“He’s a cult hero amongst the boys and he has great skills – he can do things others can’t, especially with his tackling pressure and elite disposal by foot.

“I think he really can make it.”

Some would say he already has.