For the Rioli men, it is a rite of passage that irrevocably leads to this one day.
When they are just boys, they are sent thousands of kilometres away from their Melville Island home. By the time they are young men, they are running onto the MCG on grand final day, ready to paint their unique family story on football’s broadest canvas.
Maurice, Dean, Cyril and now Daniel, the young Tigers forward whose four goals a week ago helped put Richmond into today’s grand final against Adelaide. They were all teenagers when they travelled south to seek their football fortune and there are still more on the way.
Maurice Jr, the 15-year-old son of the late South Fremantle and Richmond champion, will board next year at Scotch College, the Melbourne school where Cyril lived and studied before he joined Hawthorn. Brayden Rioli, Daniel’s younger brother, also plans to play football in Melbourne next winter.
“It’s the age where, if you really want to make it, you have to get adjusted to city life,’’ says Dean Rioli, who followed Maurice to South Fremantle and played for Essendon in the 2001 grand final. “We have been fortunate really; four Riolis have gotten to play in a grand final. It is a special day.’’
Throughout Richmond’s finals run, Daniel Rioli has regularly sought the company of Dean and Cyril, his family and footballing elders. Although they are technically cousins, Daniel calls both men uncle. They meet at Cyril’s place, where Dean and his brother Sabbo are staying. Football is often on the TV but rarely part of the conversation.
Daniel is just 20, playing in his first finals series. Cyril is an established star of the game. Daniel says that at the start of September, Cyril told him what to expect. “He said it was going to be gut running and scrappy and all about our forward pressure, our blitz pressure around the footy.’’ Beyond that, neither Cyril nor Dean tell Daniel how to play. “We understand that when you are
in the bubble, you have your instructions from the coaches,’’ Dean says. “We respect that.
Really, we sit on the couch and watch the footy together and enjoy each other’s company.’’
Throughout Daniel’s teenage years away from home, time spent with Cyril kept him chasing his football dream. When Daniel first came to Victoria from Melville Island, he was 14. His parents had enrolled him to board at St Patrick’s College in Ballarat. He arrived in the middle of a typically bleak winter.
Rioli remembers his first day at his new school. “We got to the boarding house late and it was cold,’’ he tells The Weekend Australian. “I didn’t even know where Ballarat was. I thought I was going to go to school in nice weather. Then I found out it was 11 degrees.
“I’d never gone to school with that many people or had so much work and homework to do. I remember ringing my mum and telling her ‘I don’t feel like doing this, it is too much.’’’
Belinda Rioli told her son that Cyril — Junior as Daniel calls him — lived close by in Melbourne.
“Every weekend I got the chance I’d go to Junior’s place and stay over. Dad told me that Cyril went through the same thing when he went to boarding school. He wanted to go home and he stuck it out. I ended up sticking it out as well. I couldn’t be more thankful for that.’’
Since joining Richmond, Rioli has developed a unique relationship with the Tigers’ coach, Damien Hardwick. At the end of school, Rioli needed a place to live. Without a host family to billet with, he moved in with the Hardwicks; Damien and Danielle and their three children, Benjamin, Isabelle and Imogen. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement but after a few months, Danielle Hardwick asked if he’d like to stay on.
“It was nerve-racking living with the coach — pretty frightening,’’ Rioli says. “But I took the hit and said ‘no worries, I’ll stay.’ ’’
Two years later, Daniel has no plans to move out and the Hardwicks would be distraught if he did. He and BJ are good mates and on Monday night he escorted 17-year-old Issy to the Brownlow.
Damien Hardwick says having Daniel around has made for a happier home. “He came in and he gets on well with all my kids, my wife loves him and he has actually bought my family closer together,’’ he said earlier this year.
Every night before a match, the Hardwicks and Daniel Rioli dine at the same Italian restaurant. Their regular table was expanded last night to include Daniel’s parents, Dean Rioli and his daughter, and Maurice Jnr.
Sue Leadan, and Helena Kalippa Rioli.
Sue Leadan, and Helena Kalippa Rioli.
Dean Rioli was teammates with Hardwick at Essendon. On the field, Hardwick was renowned as a ferociously competitive, flint-hard defender. Off the field, he is one of the more convivial figures in the game. “The Damien you get at home is not the Damien I knew on the footy field,’’ Dean Rioli says. “The Hardwick family are a beautiful family. They have warmed to Daniel and Daniel brings a lot to their family.’’
As with his uncles, Daniel Rioli doesn’t talk about football when he’s home with the coach. Instead, they talk about movies and binge on episodes of Friday Night Lights, a US television series about a high school coach and team in a football obsessed Texas town.
Hardwick likes to talk about fishing and life on the Tiwi Islands. Daniel has promised to take him there the first chance they get. “He wants to know everything about home.
“We talk about how to get mud crabs and fishing and shooting. He wants to come up. I’ll take him over and show him around a different environment.’’
It will be a different environment for every player tomorrow. No one on either team has played in an AFL grand final. Each will have been told what to expect but nobody knows for sure.
There are certain things, however, that every Rioli knows.
In 1982, Maurice Rioli played in a grand final for Richmond and won the Norm Smith, the medal awarded to the best player on the ground. That day, he wore number 17 on his back, the same number that Daniel will wear today.
In 1993, Michael Long, another Melville Islander and part of the extended Rioli clan, won the Norm Smith playing in a premiership for Essendon. Two years ago, Cyril won the medal and played in his fourth premiership for Hawthorn.
The Riolis and Long all come from Pirlangimpi, a former mission on the west coast of Melville Island. That’s a total of eight AFL grand finals, six premierships and three Norm Smiths from a community with a population of about 370 people.
Plus whatever Daniel and his Tigers can do today.
Could these boys be in our NGA Academy?