Footy returns to Nauru with relaunch of clan against clan competition

On a field of rock near the equator, Nauru is relaunching a beloved football competition that pits clan against clan.

Australian rules football became the national sport on Nauru in the 1930s, after locals sent their boys 4700km southwest to Melbourne for school.

Children brought the game home to gravel training grounds, and each of the island’s 14 districts adopted the colours of an AFL team and played each other on Saturdays in the shadow of a phosphate processing plant. There were no matches on Sundays because that is strictly a day of rest for the Christian population of 10,000.

Nauru’s AFL president Leona Cain said the district competition was enormously popular, partly because players were literally competing for their families.

Nauruans follow Australian clubs closely and continue to name their kids after AFL stars. When Fitzroy Football Club was in strife in 1994, the government of Nauru loaned them a million dollars. But Nauru dismantled the clan-based league 12 years ago after rivalries got out of hand; fights on and off the ground forced local leaders to reconfigure the competition so that teams were no longer named after districts and they drew players from more than one clan.

Now Cain says there is excitement across the island that the AFL’s development manager in the South Pacific, Ben Drew, is helping her and other locals to resurrect the old league, after a commitment from fans and players to avoid rivalries descending into violence.

She said it made her happy the AFL had also helped locals establish a four-team women’s league.

“I wasn’t sure if the women would want to play but they love it,” she said.

Nauru is yet to produce an AFL club player. It came close a few years ago when Yoshi Harris, a deft handler of the ball, was for a short time on Greater Western Sydney’s player list. Harris is happy to be home and will play for his Menan district in the relaunched Nauru competition this weekend.