Not even Kevin Sheedy could trump Maurice Rioli jnr’s desire to join Daniel at Richmond

Richmond training had finished and players were taking shots at goal. Xavier Clarke, the forwards coach, started talking about celebrations. “MJ, do a backflip,” Clarke said to Maurice Rioli jnr.

“You can’t do a backflip. No way you can do a backflip,” said spearhead Tom Lynch, goading his small forward.

Maurice Rioli junior and nephew Daniel Rioli have an unbreakable bond.Credit:Wayne Taylor

So, Maurice did a backflip. Then Daniel Rioli saw what Maurice had done and did one too. He couldn’t let MJ outdo him.

They then decided to do one together. So, in perfect synchronicity they snapped a goal and both did backflips. Synchronised football. It should be added as a sport at the 2026 Commonwealth Games.

“It’s all the way from the Tiwi Islands that one,” said Daniel, who is Maurice jnr’s nephew. Together, they are a key to Richmond’s hopes in Thursday night’s season-opener against Carlton.

“We practised that one a lot growing up – [kicking up against] the tree and doing a somersault, on the beach doing a lot of backflips. We can do a side-flip too.”

Maurice Rioli jnr and Daniel Rioli turn backflips.Credit:Richmond FC

Maurice jnr says he’d be too scared to do one in a match for fear of coach Damien Hardwick’s reaction. “Maybe if we get to the grand final and we are six goals up in the last quarter and I kicked a goal then I’ll definitely do one,” Daniel laughed.

There is a lot about the two Riolis that is synchronised. Both are from the Tiwi, both came to Melbourne and went to boarding school – Daniel at St Pat’s in Ballarat, MJ at Scotch – both were drafted to Richmond. Both started as small forwards. That is until the arrival of MJ in Richmond’s forward line coincided with Daniel’s departure to the backline.

“He kicked me out of the forward line,” Daniel laughed.

How Maurice jnr knocked backed the Bombers

Despite his surname signalling football royalty Maurice jnr, the son of the late Richmond Norm Smith medallist Maurice Rioli, was never a certainty to play AFL. He was a chubby, small kid and there were doubts about his endurance.

Recruiter Matt Clarke remembered a game at the under-16 championships at Metricon Stadium when in the second quarter Maurice had worked so hard he slumped to the ground with a full-body cramp. The doubts turned out to be misplaced. The Tigers discovered after he was drafted that while he was a speed athlete, not an endurance one, his work ethic could not be questioned.

Before he was drafted to Richmond, Essendon made a pitch to Maurice jnr. The Bombers took him to the Hangar and legendary former coach Kevin Sheedy led the presentation, talking to him about the club’s long history with Indigenous players and in particular with the Tiwi Islands through Michael Long, Dean Rioli and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti . The pitch was sincere and impressive but not, as it turned out, persuasive.

“I was just like, ‘I want to play with Daniel’. Family is a bit different. It’s awesome to play alongside him. It’s a dream come true,” Maurice said.

The relationship between the pair was already close; now the bond is as tight as paint.

“We were really close growing up. Obviously he’s my uncle – he calls me nephew, I call him Little Unc, or Unc because he’s got musclier than me now. We grew up in the same community on Melville Island. We used to play backyard footy, kick the ball up to each other. ‘Markers up’ is what we called it. Yeah, we were really close. Obviously a big age gap [five years] but he was obviously still good at footy. My dad’s dad and his dad are brothers,” Daniel said.

Daniel’s close call with a Tiwi croc

When they play they have their own connection … and language.

“We call each other ‘Turtle’ out on the field. In language, though. In our Tiwi language. Jaarrakalaninga (pronounced Jad-a-ka-la-ni) – it means turtle,” Daniel said.

“It’s our totem. We just call each other that. Nobody knows that, they probably think we’re out there saying Maurice, Daniel.”

Club dieticians are no fan of turtle. It’s very fatty and Richmond’s Riolis don’t eat it.

“We could eat turtle, but it’s not great for you. And it’s our totem, so we try and stay away from it,” Daniel said.

“It’s nice, but it’s not good for you. There’s too much fat on it,” MJ added.

Both players were home again over summer. They return to the Tiwi each year but there was a moment a few years ago when Daniel was in danger of not coming back to Melbourne.

He had gone to a waterhole with family and mates. It was one of the “safe” waterholes to swim in. They were there for more than an hour, swimming, playing footy and mucking about doing backflips. Eventually, they packed up and left. Driving away they passed a car coming from the opposite direction. Soon after returning to town the car they had passed arrived back as well.

Maurice Rioli jnr gets a laugh out of coach Damien Hardwick.Credit:Getty Images

“They told us they found a crocodile there straight after we left. So we were pretty lucky I reckon. If we stayed another five or 10 minutes one of us could have been in strife,” Daniel said, smiling. “You’re never safe on Tiwi. When it rains the crocs move waterholes.”

When Daniel was younger he had an even closer brush with a croc.

Daniel Rioli gets a kick away.Credit:Getty Images

“We went out fishing. We had two boats and one boat was in the mangrove and there was this croc. It wasn’t a big croc, it was like a metre or two so it could still do damage. It was stalking us. We could see it.

“My little brother, he was about 16, he was on a pontoon of the boat and we took off the pontoon and he had to jump off the pontoon onto the boat.

“This crocodile was like 20 metres away from us. My little brother jumped and he hit the side of the boat and bounced back in the water. We were all grabbing him [and pulled him into the boat]. The croc went underwater as soon as my brother landed in the water coming after him.

“Ask anyone on the Tiwi Islands and they’ve all got a story about crocs.”

How Hardwick taught Maurice jnr to snap

On the Tiwi Islands there’s an assumption everyone can play footy. When you are a Rioli, the assumption of having skills that are bred, not taught, is greater still. It’s partly misplaced according to Clarke.

“Daniel, Cyril, Willie jnr, they have all probably got more flair and skill than Maurice jnr. He has had to work hard at it. He is fast but he has worked hard on his skills and the flair,” said Clarke, who is Maurice’s line coach.

“There was a funny moment two years ago at training when Damien Hardwick was teaching a Rioli how to snap a goal. Dimma the half-back flanker was teaching a Rioli how to kick a goal! MJ has worked hard.”

What comes naturally to him is speed and running down players. Maurice has got Daniel covered for anything less than 80 to 100 metres in a foot race, but neither of them likes to put it to the test.

At training and in intra-club games they always try to pit the forward-turned-defender, Daniel, against Maurice the small forward. They hate it.

“I try not to match up on him because I don’t want to get tackled by him or run down by him,” Daniel said.

Maurice added: “I don’t like playing on Daniel because he runs off the whole time. Like, I don’t want to run the whole way to the back line just to come back again. Pretty much we hate playing against each other.”

“He’s got me a couple of times in a few one-on-ones,” Daniel said.“I think it’s pretty even but thank God we are on the same team.”

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