The AFL9s Kungkas Grand Final. Picture: AFLNT

THERE'S one main road into Ltyentye Apurte, or Santa Teresa – it's an 80km route south-west of Alice Springs, and about 60km of it is unrelenting, bumpy red dirt.

As you drive in (four-wheel drive territory only, particularly after it rains, when it turns into QUITE the wet'n'wild adventure), there's a big cross on the mountain, above the white church at the end of the road.

On your right, the general store, with the school and basketball court just next to the church.

But on your left? The 'MCG of the Desert', Santa Teresa oval.

An impossibly green, grassed oval, surrounded by rich red clay, courtesy of a fundraising drive which was directed in part by Melbourne and the MCC.

Launched in 2021, the grass has held up remarkably well considering its location, although there's plenty of green scrub surrounding the area as we head into the cooler months.

It's here that a slow cultural change is taking place – teenage girls are playing football.

Friday marked an AFL9s Kungkas Grand Final for local girls in the area, with a composite Central West side taking on the Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Bulldogs.

A few weeks earlier, an extraordinary football festival had played out at Yulara, in the foothills of Uluru, a tournament attracting young women from Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Most of the local community in Santa Teresa are members of the Arrente mob, but Kungkas is a Pitjantjatjara word for "young women".

For many, football has been for the brothers and uncles, and there's "shamejob" (embarrassment) attached to being the first women in the area to play the game.

But these teenagers are – kick by kick, mark by mark – forging a new path, one that their little sisters, who are now thriving in Auskick clinics, can now follow.

The players were given a guard of honour out onto the field, much to their initial reluctance, but they ran together as one, breaking apart into their teams for a pre-game chat.

They say the dry conditions mean desert footy is played in the air, compared to the ground-style of the more humid Tiwi Islands up the other end of the Territory. To generalise, think Shane McAdam vs Maurice Rioli jnr.

Tackling wasn't a huge feature – the crowd and players collapsing in helpless giggles as a Central West girl had a moment and took down her own teammate – and it was a game played on the run, the ball pinging from one end to the other.

Players had received new boots, half of which were abandoned by half-time as the blisters kicked in and the familiarity of bare feet or socks came calling.

The boots were courtesy of the rebel Boot Drive in Adelaide during Gather Round this year, where pre-loved or donated new boots were cleaned and sorted by recycler TreadLightly, and distributed on Friday to both the young women and the kids of the community.

The Ntaria Bulldogs side had a handful of players who also participate in the competition in town, the six-team Central Australia women's football league in Alice Springs, and it shows on the day.

Faye, a silky mover through the midfield, was named best on ground as the Bulldogs romped home – both sides wearing guernseys they designed themselves – while skipper Taren, a rock at full-back with a thumping bare foot, won her side's coach's award.

Taren – who spray-painted the front of her hair in the Bulldogs' colours of red, white and blue, complete with a long red ribbon around her pony-tail – is the first woman in her family to play, and hopes her younger sisters will eventually join her as they grow up.

"I came from a family that's crazy about footy, and I also play in town with the Pioneers," Taren said.

"I'm the first girl in my family to play. I've got four little sisters, too.

"I grew up playing footy with my brothers, so I decided to join, too."

Family and community members were dotted in the two small grandstands (five metres wide at most), dogs roamed and hassled those eating sausages and hamburgers from the barbeque, while the younger kids played endless kick to kick with whomever they could rope in.

The teenage boys had their own kicking partners – Kozzy Pickett and McAdam.

Ahead of the men's match against Fremantle, the Demons were in town, along with AFLW clubmates Tyla Hanks, Sarah Lampard, Maeve Chaplin, Saraid Taylor and Lily Johnson.

Chaplin enthusiastically took the imaginary goal umpire flags for the Grand Final, creating her own unique and elaborate way of signalling goals, while head of AFLW Jessie Mulholland ran water.

After helping run an Auskick session with the younger kids – which has a deliberate bent towards unstructured and free play, building skills in that way rather than a focus on rigid drills – the remaining quartet of AFLW players continued to muck around with those not playing.

Football in remote communities is not just kick-mark-handball, it also provides a conduit for health and wellbeing, schooling and getting the community together.

AFLNT has between 9-12 remote development managers who clock up thousands of kilometres a week, living in the communities and delivering clinics in their areas.

At Santa Teresa, it's Alice-based Simon Treiber and Tommy Dutton, who focus just as much on empowering local community members to run their own sessions as the kids themselves.

The kids jump all over the shorter Tommy, taking mock speccies, and he takes it all in his stride, grinning as he bustles from task to task on the day, cognisant of the far-reaching impact of his job.

Melbourne vice-captain Hanks – also a smaller target at 157cm – was also used as a launching pad for speccies.

"Today's about coming out here and representing the club, but for us, it's more so trying to lead where we can and help girls be involved in footy. Sport gives us a lot of lessons in life, and as much as we think we're giving them and their community something, we're learning a lot too," Hanks said.

"It's not a one-way relationship, we've all volunteered to be here just before pre-season to get exposure and experience in these communities. We're trying to make a difference where we can, but we're also gaining an understanding of our communities in our NGA zone out here.

"As soon as we got here, kids just wanted to kick the footy, and there's just a genuine love for the game. Some of the girls are playing in bare feet now, but footy is such a strong part in how they connect. It's similar ground we've got."