On a perfect spring night in Karratha, a game that has its spiritual home more than 14,000 kilometres away is helping further strengthen the connection between local indigenous youth and one of the Pilbara town’s major employers.

For more than a decade, Karratha’s Clontarf Academy has engaged in an annual Gaelic football match against long-standing partner Woodside.

The modified rules and the round ball aren’t something either team deals with on a regular basis. But as Woodside’s Karratha Gas Plant Maintenance Manager Aaron Bruce explains, the match is always eagerly anticipated.

“I’ve played in about five of these games – it’s sort of a highlight in my sporting calendar,” Bruce said.

“I love getting the mates from work together and playing against the Clontarf kids.

“What’s impressed me most beside their speed and their football prowess is the respect that [the Clontarf students] show – the shaking of the hands, the thanking us for the game and the chit-chat on the field.

“They have really good natures and I look forward to seeing them over the next couple of years.”

The 2020 edition of the Clontarf-Woodside showdown showcases the students’ electric speed, skills and teamwork, and by half-time the younger side has skipped out to a useful lead.

But the Woodside boys (helped out by a few Clontarf fill-ins) hang tough and manage to be within striking distance at three-quarter-time. And in the final term they do indeed strike, with a late arrival from Woodside’s corporate affairs team – in keeping with the eclectic flavour of the event, he’s a Scotsman! – inspiring a late flurry that closes the margin to only a few points in the closing stages.

It’s on for young and older.

When the final whistle blows it’s Clontarf 52 to Woodside 50. Had there been a few extra minutes then the result might have swung the other way.

But the score doesn’t really matter. As Karratha Clontarf Academy Operations Officer Greg Townsend explains, the match serves a much bigger purpose.

“It gives our boys an opportunity to see the people at Woodside in a different light – and it gives people at Woodside the chance to see indigenous boys in a different environment,” Townsend said.

“Generally speaking that’s what has happened over the past 10 years, breaking down all of the stereotypes about indigenous people and what they are capable of. 

“[The relationship] is getting into that stage of bearing fruit. We’ve assisted boys who are starting to get employment with Woodside. We’re also starting to get school-based traineeships and apprenticeships going.

“We have [Woodside] at key events for us like our employment forum, we do worksite visits out to Woodside and we have guest speakers from Woodside come to speak to us. The benefits of that relationship are also showing up with current Woodside employees who have come through the Clontarf system coming back to the Clontarf rooms.

“They speak about their journey to get to Woodside and their journey in Woodside – and that gives our boys who are currently in the system an understanding of what it takes to get to an employer like Woodside.”

Since launching its first academy built around Australian Rules football in Perth 2000, the Clontarf Foundation has expanded around the State and, indeed, Australia – with 120-plus academies currently operating across WA, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

Programs might have diversified to include other sporting codes but the overriding aim remains the same: to improve the education, discipline, life skills, self-esteem and employment prospects of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.

Post-match presentations help further strengthen the links between the two sides.

Townsend has been with Clontarf’s Karratha academy since 2010 and seen the program grow from around 60 boys to approximately 130.

One of the most recent crop is Braydon Fawcett, who completed high school in 2020 and is hoping to moving to Perth to further his football career with Swans Districts.

He says Clontarf has prepared him for much more than football.

“Being involved in the Clontarf Academy has definitely helped my public speaking,” Fawcett said.

“I used to be really shy and wasn’t really outgoing but now they have helped me develop my public speaking, get a part-time job and finish Year 12.”

At the end of the night, Tahn Simmonds from Clontarf is awarded best-on-ground for the match, with teammates Phil Fawcett and Tyson Horope also earning awards. For Woodside the awards go to Tim Nicholas and Lewis Hutton.

As the oval starts to clear a smiling Bruce isn’t too sure how his body will pull up. But he’s already looking forward to the 2021 clash.

“I probably didn’t prepare enough for this match, just stretching the hamstrings and making sure they didn’t snap during the game,” he laughs.

“I reckon the rest of the week I’m going to be limping around and sore, but that’s footy.”