‘I do it for our people’: Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls reflects on Dreamtime debut, fifteen years on

15 years on from his AFL debut, Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls has become a leader in Western Australia's Indigenous community - Photo: AFL Media

This year’s Dreamtime match has taken on another meaning, as the fixture is set to be played in Perth on Noongar Country. Whadjuk Land to be exact.

With the game moved to a venue away from the MCG for the second year in a row, the opportunity is presented to showcase the many Indigenous cultures across Australia and their relationship with the game.

Former Richmond Tiger, Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls is a proud Indigenous man with cultural ties to the Noongar Nation.

To him, this year’s Dreamtime game is a chance to present Noongar history and culture, using football as the vehicle. An occasion to champion and empower a greater Indigenous voice into the National consciousness, something that he cares deeply about.

Then, of course, there are the sentimental attachments to the annual event that hold a place within his passionate heart. Fifteen years ago, he debuted in the second-ever Dreamtime game.

“I found out on the Wednesday,” Oakley-Nicholls told The Inner Sanctum.

“I was doing a bit of a weight session and funny enough, I got called over by Andy Krakouer and Terry Wallace at that time who let me know I was playing my first game.

“Finally getting to that point to be playing your first game was just a massive achievement. But I suppose being the Dreamtime game made it all that more special.”

In a nail-biting finish, Richmond came from behind late in the last quarter to beat Essendon by two points. Pivotal to the result would be a behind kicked by Jarrad.

After receiving a sweeping handpass from Andrew Kellaway on the wing, he cut through center-wing with a running bounce, remaining composed as the energy from a tense crowd engulfed the MCG.

Although the subsequent shot on goal from the arc would fade to the right, it was the score to put the Tigers in front in the dying moments. With the result in the balance, he was able to stamp his influence on proceedings.

He could have quite easily been excused for being overawed, however. After all, here was an eighteen-year-old man being thrown into the fire – a huge crowd, a marquee game at the biggest stadium in the country, and a significant personal meaning attached.  

That being said, Oakley-Nicholls was lucky enough to have steady influences within the team to help him remain grounded and focused on the task at hand.

“I remember walking out into the middle of the ‘G probably an hour and a half before the actual game even kicked off and just sat and just watched the people come in, the crowd fill in,” he recalled.

“Then you obviously have the pre-game entertainment which you see them setting up and that sort of stuff. But when you go down into the rooms it’s about switching on.

“I was fortunate, I had Andy Krakouer there and Richard Tambling, the two other Aboriginal boys that I was able to really stick to and see how they prepared and how they went about not allowing the distractions.

“The leaders at the time of the club really set the scene in terms of how you prepare and don’t allow the distractions to overwhelm you.”

“You prepare yourself for those big games.”

Richard Tambling (left) and Andrew Krakouer (centre-left) were a constant form of support for a young Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls (centre-right) – Photo: Coburg FC

Jarrad has a similar level of enthusiasm towards this years’ game. His feelings of excitement revolve around the opportunity to showcase Noongar culture to the rest of Australia on a grand scale.

The stories about the players from his Country who have written themselves into the history books, their legacy, and their achievements, take over him.

Then of course, there are the players who will be taking their place in the match.

He hopes they can acknowledge the significance of the occasion and gain their own special Dreamtime moment in the same way that he did fifteen years ago.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase football but also the cultural aspects of the game as well,” he said.

“You’ve got so many Aboriginal players within the AFL now and there’s been a high population of Aboriginal people that have gone into the AFL industry from Noongar country.

“Whether that be Whadjuk, Balardong, Yuat, whatever part of the Noongar nation they come from, there is a high population.

“Straight away when I heard that it was going to be here, my thoughts went straight to the people that were stalwarts for Aboriginal people back in the day in football. Your Polly Framer’s, your Stephen Michael’s. Those types of people and what it would actually mean to them to have this on this land.

“They put a lot of time and effort into football and breaking down those stereotypes around Aboriginal people who played footy in that era where there was high racism and high discrimination both on the field and off the field. That’s the way that I look at it.

“For Marlion (Pickett) and Shai (Bolton) running out being from here – I know they’ll be playing for themselves and playing for the team – but they’ll have all their mob behind them to support them.”

To this end, Jarrad believes that Dreamtime in 2021 is also about empowering Aboriginal people by using sport as a teaching tool.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a spectacle of football, but also to showcase the Aboriginal culture within the game.

“It’ll also keep on shifting people’s mindsets around Aboriginal people and discrimination and the culture that we can bring to the game and our communities.

“Dreamtime at the G is one area where we get an opportunity to educate people on our culture and allow the voice to be heard I suppose.”

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Empowerment is a principle that he believes strongly in. Part of his life’s mantra focuses on the idea of giving back in a similar way to those that he has been lucky enough to receive support from.

Although his debut would be one of the thirteen AFL games he played across a six-year stint in the system, they all makeup part of his story. One that he is more than willing to share on behalf of his mob.

“I played a handful of games – but the six years I spent in the AFL system, people are intrigued, people want to know about it and people want to see how you come out the back end of it,” Oakley-Nicholls said.

“You get that opportunity and all of a sudden, people want to talk to you about those times which is great for us as individuals.

“More importantly, I do it for our people. To create that talking point around how we can bridge the gap between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people.”

As an Indigenous ex-AFL player, leadership in this fashion is something that Jarrad has constantly been surrounded by.

Drawing from the example set by fellow community role models, Des Headland and David Wirrpanda, he now hopes to create and encourage positive outcomes for Indigenous people in the construction industry.

In September 2019, Oakley-Nicholls founded Oaks Civil Construction, a company with a shared focus on providing high-quality service and meaningful, sustainable employment for Indigenous people in Western Australia.

“Being able to create my own business and lead my team into an industry where there hasn’t been a lot of Aboriginal contractors – in the civil construction space and now there is multiple – is great to be a part of,” he excitedly told.

“Being a leader is all about being able to really set a standard and set that quality throughout your team and lead by example.

“We’ve got to be able to do that as a business, but also for the people within my company – to be able to lead them to a point where they feel as though they’re growing and developing, not stuck in a corner.

“It’s all about building that capacity to create those pathways within the industry.

“It’s awesome to be able to have your own company and that, but it’s all about being able to employ our people because a lot of the time they wouldn’t get an opportunity at another company.

“I’m willing to be flexible and work with our people to upskill, train and develop. We get a lot more people that invest back into it because we’re given them their first opportunity, their first go to get off the ground.”

In 2021, Jarrad Oakley-Nicholls is giving back to the Western Australian Indigenous community through the civil construction industry – Photo: Oaks Civil Constrution

As his business has grown, self-awareness has become an increased part of Jarrad’s make-up. He is cognisant of the role he has inherited and the future he wants to construct.

“The generation before us has led a pretty good path for my generation to come through to be heard and have a voice,” he said.

“At the end of the day, that’s all we’ve ever wanted, for Aboriginal people to have a voice and be at the table and make decisions. That’s why I’ve created my own business because the buck stops with me. I’m the 100% owner of Oaks, I’m the sole director.

“For me to be able to ensure that our people are being looked after and that decisions are being made in the right manner is powerful. That’s what we’re here for.”

In a sense, the art that becomes personified through the game of football has started to imitate life.

Just as the spectacle of the Dreamtime game has blossomed from a noble concept to capture the imagination of a footballing public willing to embrace Aboriginal culture, so too has the desire of Oakley-Nicholls to aide his mob to thrive in an Australia that is making incremental steps in the right direction.

The corner is being turned in the realm of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous relations, but he believes it is not yet passed.

In his eyes, the journey has just begun.

“The foundations are being set.

“We’ve got a long way to go in terms of educating and allowing other people to come along on the journey with us, but there’s a massive willingness to do that now,” he concluded.

About Liahm O'Brien 54 Articles
Liahm is a features writer based in Burnie, Tasmania. His writing focuses on the human side of combat sports, painting a full picture of the athletes we see from the stands or on our tv screens. In 2017, he was published in The Footy Almanac.

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