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The country with the highest AFL participation rate in the world isn’t Australia – it’s Nauru, the Pacific island nation where the game is played by almost one in three people. Six clubs compete in the national league but, according to Wylie Detenamo, President of AFL Nauru, there is never any shortage of people keen to hit the oval for a kick, come rain or shine.

“Any time we get the chance to play, people just come,” he says. “You just need to put up a Facebook post saying there’s a game on, and all these young boys will come out to play footy.”

In February 2024, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) through its Pacific Sports Program worked with Wylie and his colleagues to deliver a sports training program aimed at fostering advanced skills in areas such as coaching, umpiring and first aid.

Pacific Sports Program Director, Commander Paul Cottier, said the program aimed to create a lasting legacy that would benefit the Nauruan community for years to come.

“Everybody wants to play sport, but what’s often lacking is the people to put the games on: the volunteers, the committee, the presidents, officials, umpires, coaches and medical expertise,” he says. “Part of the aim of the program was to show people that once they finish playing, there are other opportunities for them to continue being involved.”

AFL: a national sporting obsession

AFL has been played in Nauru for over a century, brought back home by Nauruans who had spent time at Australian schools. Today, the country is part of the AFL South Pacific High-Performance Pathway, funded by PacificAus Sports and featuring the Nauru AFL Talent Academy for the country’s up and coming stars.

“There’s a lot of passion about AFL here in Nauru, they absolutely love the game. The standard has been fantastic–and the enthusiasm of the people,” says Commander Cottier.

Wylie confesses to being as eager for a game now as he was when he was a child.

“All I know is football,” he laughs. “I remember, growing up, I had to sleep with a football. I just want to play. I just want to get a kick somewhere!”

The stony ground of Linkbelt Oval, Nauru’s premier playing field, can represent a challenge to visiting teams. Commander Cottier remembers a game played against a combined Nauru side in 1984 that saw some serious first aid required for scrapes and bruises among the ADF players after the match.

“Linkbelt Oval is something to see,” he says. “It’s gravel. It’s very hard – and that doesn’t stop the local people going in tackling!”

According to Wylie, the tough playing conditions are just part of the game for local players.

“It’s just normal for us to be running and hitting the ground,” he says. “When it rains, we get puddles but, rain or no rain, we’ll be running all over the oval. We enjoy a bit of a splash here and there!”

Aiming for success at the highest level

Despite the resilience and the good humour, Wylie is committed to taking the game he loves to the next level in Nauru – and that means making improvements in infrastructure, developing new skills on and off the field, and exposing players to tough competition against international teams.

The ADF’s week-long training program provided a tremendous boost, with participants earning internationally recognised Level One and Level Two qualifications in coaching and sports training. The ADF also contributed playing and training equipment to local clubs.

“We have loved working with the ADF and we learned a lot,” he said. “They shared a lot of resources with us and we feel so fortunate they were able to spend time with us and develop AFL.

The success of the initiative has paved the way for future collaborations between AFL Nauru and the ADF, in addition to the ongoing partnership between AFL Nauru and PacificAus Sports. In the meantime, Wylie will continue making progress towards his ultimate goal.

“My biggest dream is for just one player to get into the AFLW or the AFL,” he says. “If I could see just one, I would believe I’d done something to help the country.”


The Pacific Sport Program is a key initiative within the Australian Defence Force’s Sports Cell focused on enhancing relationships in the Pacific and reinforcing people-to-people connections through the delivery of quality sports engagements that increase the capacity and capability of regional partners. The Pacific Sport Program sits alongside the high performance focused PacificAus Sports and sport for development program Team Up as key Australian Government sports diplomacy initiatives connecting Australia and the Pacific through sport.

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