Twenty-two children line up between miniature posts, waiting for the goal umpire’s signal.
As soon as she waves her flags, the youngsters take off from inside the centre square.
Most in sneakers, some in bare feet, almost everyone in a football guernsey.
All of them running about 60m across grass towards much taller goalposts, the same as those from the MCG.
This is new for the remote Northern Territory community of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), 80km southeast of Alice Springs.
The oval had long been dirt, made up entirely of clay and covered in small rocks.
Over the past two years, the ground has transformed from reddish brown to green.
Dubbed the MCG of the Desert, it is now the only fully grassed oval in a remote central Australian town and its colour is striking in an otherwise arid landscape.
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The resurfacing project has been a partnership between Melbourne football and cricket clubs, AFLNT, the Northern Territory government and the area’s traditional owners, the Eastern Arrernte people.
Santa Teresa’s oval was officially relaunched last Thursday, in an event attended by a majority of the town’s 500 people.
To the local community and the Demons, it is the culmination of a dream years in the making.
For primary school student Latahnia Anderson, the winner of the race from the miniature posts to the AFL standard ones, the oval ticks all the boxes.
“It’s green and new, and it’s soft,” the 10-year-old says.
“We used to play when it didn’t have grass and it was a bit hard and boggy because of the sands.
“It will be nice.”
The Herald Sun is in Santa Teresa for the day, which falls in the middle of the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round and News Corp’s Indigenous Sports Month.
Thursday’s centrepiece is a football match between two sides from the community’s only club, known as Ltyentyies.
It is the first official game on the grass — there have been unofficial ones.
In the week leading up to the launch, some members of the community, which had tried to stay off the oval while the lawn grew, could not wait to test out the new surface.
Among them on Wednesday night was Malcolm Hayes, one of the traditional owners, who helped fund the lights that were installed at the ground last year.
“It’s pretty good for the kids so they can play around on grass,” Hayes says.
“I had a couple of kicks — it’s the same as playing in Alice Springs.”
Ltyentyies (pronounced Gin-gees) travels each Sunday to Alice Springs, where all matches in the Central Australian Football League’s community cup are played.
The club, which has two teams a seniors and under-18s, hopes to next year become the first in its competition to host games.
Re-grassing the oval had long been a goal for the town but getting the Demons involved started as something of a joke.
After Melbourne staff visited Santa Teresa on a cultural immersion trip in 2017, spending a night under the stars in swags, hearing stories around a campfire from community leaders and eating traditional foods, they asked locals how they could assist.
Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation (AAAC) chief executive Susie Low told Melbourne’s IT manager Jimmie Martin the club could help get the ground resurfaced.
“It was initially tongue-in-cheek,” Low says.
But within a month, the Demons conducted a feasibility study that would later determine re-grassing was possible and the club went on to source support for the project.
MCG turf manager Michael Salvatore visited Santa Teresa in 2019 to provide advice on growing and maintaining the drought-tolerant kikiyu grass, and remained a mentor.
The MCC came on board that year, donating the goalposts, which were installed last week, padding, as well as one of the MCG’s mowers.
Covid-19 has presented challenges, including a three-to-four month lockdown delaying sowing of the grass.
If not for Melbourne’s latest coronavirus outbreak, the Demons would have been at the launch and played their annual game in Alice Springs last weekend.
“I’m just so sad they can’t be here,” Low says.
The Demons’ presence is still felt in Santa Teresa.
On the oval’s fence — built to keep wild horses off the grass — are balloons in four colours: Ltyentyies’ green and yellow, and Melbourne’s red and blue.
There are also matching streamers, which are used for the pre-game ribbon-cutting ceremony, done by Hayes and groundsman Matthew Cavanagh.
During an announcement, the Demons are referred to as “our cousins”.
Four former Melbourne stars from the NT — Liam Jurrah, who hails from Yuendumu, four hours northeast of Santa Teresa, Austin Wonaeamirri, Aaron Davey and Matthew Whelan — are also mentioned.
Whelan, the Demons’ Indigenous project officer, and possibly the others were going to play with the Ltyentyies’ teams in Thursday’s match until the club was unable to come.
To show their appreciation to Melbourne, the entire community gathers in small groups near the middle of the oval, spelling out the word ‘thank you’.
“People here support all different clubs … but they’ve all got a special place for Demons now,” Low says.
There is a hint of irony an AFL team with that nickname has become a local favourite.
Santa Teresa is among Australia’s most Catholic towns per capita, having been established by missionaries during the 1950s.
According to the 2011 Census, 88 per cent of the town identified as Catholic.
A large, white crucifix sits atop a hill, overlooking the oval, and at the intersection of the community’s main street, Alice Rd, is its church, on Church St.
You can also spot crosses at the ground.
A woman who helps lead the pre-game smoking ceremony wears one as a necklace.
Another necklace of hers features a small Sherrin.
As smoke rises from 10kg flour buckets, parish priest Father Elmer Ibarra stands metres away, splashing holy water onto the oval.
“When the committee and traditional owners met, they insisted that before we do anything with the oval, it has to be blessed first, so you can see the faith of the people here,” Father Ibarra says.
“The smoking ceremony is very, very precious to them, so you can see the blend between the traditional culture and Catholic religion.”
Football intertwines each Sunday, as players — mostly the married ones — attend church in the morning before heading to Alice Springs to play.
Ltyentyies have also held Friday night masses in the lead-up to recent grand finals.
Their seniors have won the past two premierships.
Born in the Philippines’ capital of Manila, Ibarra is in his second year in Santa Teresa and has quickly learned of footy’s significance there.
“I’ve heard some people sacrificed for 16 months by not stepping on that oval because the grass is growing,” Father Ibarra says.
“That’s why today is very meaningful because they can play footy again, especially the children because that used to be their playground.”
Fittingly, it is the students of the town’s only school, Ltyentye Apurte Catholic, who christen the surface, taking part in an AFLNT clinic.
It is all smiles, raw skills and laughter.
As they kick the day off, a barbecue sizzles in a trailer on the other side of the fence.
Nearby, there are a handful children whacking a drum kit, which is set up for a post-match gig.
Other students are having their faces painted at a stall.
Then comes the most notable sign this is a grassroots match in regional Australia.
“We are a community football oval, but we need the dogs off the oval to start the game,” says the ground announcement, as several pooches linger.
The match features Ltyentyies’ older players, including some recently retired, against its youngsters, many from its under-18s.
While the seniors are in club guernseys, their opponents are wearing Demons jumpers donated by Melbourne.
AFLNT Central Australia remote manager Clinton Firth says the region, which is zoned to Demons’ Next Generation Academy, is home to plenty of talent.
Many Ltyentyies players show they are comfortable using both feet to kick and it is difficult to know which is their natural side, one hand pick-ups are executed with ease and several eye-catching forwards boast explosive pace.
Firth says having grass can help fast-track development.
Gibson Turner, who was on Richmond’s list in 2012, made it from Santa Teresa to the AFL.
“You play in dirt, you’ve got to stand up and keep your feet,” says Firth, who visits the community fortnightly and is one of the field umpires on Thursday.
“Here they can adapt to the way the ball bounces so getting those conditions that’s played in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide can only be a benefit to their football.”
The grass will also be significant for the community’s health.
Dust has been a hindrance to asthma sufferers, while rocks and the uneven surface have caused injuries.
Demons chief executive Gary Pert recalls picking up stones close to the size of his fist during his previous trip to the oval, but they did not discourage local children from running on there.
“There’s a whole change of culture when you’ve got that central green space that’s healthy to play on,” Pert says.
“It really changes the self-esteem of the community.”
Dust has also contributed to trachoma, a bacterial disease that is an issue in Santa Teresa and other remote communities.
The infection, which causes a roughening of the inner surface of the eyelids and can occur through rubbing the eyes with dirty hands, can lead to permanent blindness.
Australia is the only developed country with endemic trachoma.
Low says before the grass was laid, the dust was “absolutely crazy” at times.
“You couldn’t see, the dust has been so bad,” she says.
On Thursday, there is a stall with information about trachoma and a mascot named Milpa the Goanna, who promotes healthy eyes to NT children, mingles with youngsters.
Melbourne’s off-field efforts in Santa Teresa include pushing the campaign ‘clean faces, strong eyes’ in its visits to the community.
Over the speakers, ground announcer for the day Phillip Alice shares another health message: “Covid, Covid, Covid — getting that needle should be number one on your list”.
Alice, aged in his 50s, is a retired police officer who has lived in Santa Teresa most of his life.
He has battled his own health issues, having been on dialysis and needing to fly to Adelaide in 2017 to have a kidney transplant.
Now Alice stays active by going for walks and as team manager of Ltyentyies.
He is also a former president, coach and key forward, as well as helped form the club.
“I was full-forward and centre-half forward – centre half-forward because I have long kicks,” Alice says, before adding “bang, 50 metres” as he mimics having a shot for goal.
Alice loves football but is also looking forward to the ground being used for carnivals for other sports.
“This oval belongs to us all, let’s use it well, look after it and respect it,” he tells the crowd.
Once the siren sounds, sealing a 78-23 victory to the younger players, both sides link arms in the centre square.
Ltyentyies’ senior coach Francis Hayes, at the helm for last year’s premiership, says the club really appreciates the chance to use the new-look oval.
“First lights, now the ground, it’s just amazing for the community,” Hayes says.
“It’ll be great if we use this oval next year (for games).”
Children run back on for another kick as soon as the players walk off.
A short time later, four footballers re-emerge from the change rooms and pick up musical instruments that have been set up on the red dirt near the canteen all afternoon.
They are the Eastern Reggae Band, a local group that plays gigs across Central Australia.
Their 20-minute set prompts a flag-waving dance routine from both goal umpires.
After they wrap up, the band’s lead singer, Charlie Lynch, kicks with children on the oval.
The two-time Ltyentyies premiership player came out of retirement for the game and the result did not surprise him.
“They were so fast,” Lynch says with a laugh.
Lynch hung up his boots two years ago because he had lost his speed and was “getting old inside”.
“My bones were getting crinkled,” he says, smiling.
He pulled the pin just as his sons, Kayne, 19, and Casey, 17, were rising through the ranks at Ltyentyies.
Casey and his dad were opponents on Thursday.
“Playing on the lawn is different,” Lynch says.
“But it was awesome, fun.
“It’s bringing everyone together.”
So does the AAAC, which organises community events and health and sports programs for the town.
Its first two letters stand for Atyenhenge Atherre, which means grandfather to grandson and grandmother to granddaughter.
The organisation’s mission is to represent generations looking after each other.
Knowing what the new oval will do for the community, Low says the day has been emotional.
“I’m a mess, a total mess,” she says.
Pert and the Demons plan to head back to Santa Teresa next year, saying the club feels very connected to its oval and community.
Melbourne chose an Arrernte artist from the town, Amunda Gorey, to design its Indigenous guernsey for last Friday night’s game — a 22-point win against Brisbane.
The Demons are excited to see what the ground looks like in 2022 and what influence it is having in the community.
The town is counting down until their return.
Who knows, it may even be a double celebration if Melbourne, which is top with an 11-1 record, can claim its first flag since 1964 and Ltyentyies make it three premierships in a row.
Regardless, Low says: “We’ll have another ceremony when they come”.
Originally published as How the MCG of the Desert came to life