Saturday, April 26, 2008

Early history of Australian Rules Football, and the future expansion of the game

Australian Rules Football will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year on August 7th. This is actually an inaccurate reckoning of history. It is more accurate to place the origin of a code of football at the date of the codification of rules which was first done on May 17th, 1859.
Some historians like to argue that Australian football can be traced back to the Ballarat goldfields in 1853. There can be no doubt that games of football were played there, but these were likely of varying rules just as the many varied games played by public schools and clubs in England at the time. It has been argued that Gaelic Football had an influence on Australian football, and if this is true, the goldfields are certainly a place where this could have happened.
The only code of football that existed in 1853 was Rugby. Some schools and clubs played by Rugby rules and others had their own rules. Before a game of football the two teams would have to agree upon the rules of the game. Agreeing upon the rules was actually a tradition for a long time even after rules had been codified. Such traditions could allow for a New Zealand Rugby team to play some Australian Rules games when touring, or a Melbourne Aussie Rules team play Rugby rules against a Sydney club. So the various games of football played on the goldfields would likely have been played to varying rules.

(An Australian rules football match at the Richmond Paddock, Melbourne, in about 1866. The building in the background is the Melbourne Cricket Ground pavilion.)

Tom Wills is credited with being one of the original inventors of the rules to Australian Football. Tom Wills' life is an indicator of how important the game of Australian Rules is to our culture. He was the grandson of a convict, and as such his influence was denied in the early decades of the game. Wills was born near Gundagai, NSW 1835, but spent most of his childhood in the Ararat District of Victoria, moving there at the age of 4. He grew up with the Tjapwurrung people and even spoke their language. He knew the dances and games of the Tjapwurrung people. Although there is no direct evidence that he played the game of Marn Grook, it would be very likely. Wills was sent to the Rugby School in England at the age of 14 (1849) and returned to Australia in 1856 at the age of 21. By that stage in his life both the games of Marn Grook and Rugby were a big part of who Tom Wills was as a person.
Tom Wills also had an extensive cricket career, representing the colony of Victoria on numerous occasions. Great significance should be attached to the fact that Wills was the coach of the first Australian touring cricket team to England in 1868, which was made up of all indigenous players. Wills had a close relationship with many indigenous Australians and it is clear that his relationships were genuine. The stake holding of indigenous Australia in the game of Australian Football was high from the beginning and this can be seen today in high representation in the AFL. (2006 figures place the indigenous representation at 10% in the AFL, where as indigenous people in the general population are at 2%. See Traditional Recreation.)
Sadly, Wills later life ended in tragedy. His family moved to Queensland in 1861 and were massacred by a group of local indigenous people while Tom was away for a couple days. The perpetrators of the massacre had no idea who they were hurting, their vengeance poorly placed it only resulted in more pain and suffering. This tragedy caused Wills to turn to alcoholism and although he maintained good relationships, (the 1868 cricket tour was after the massacre), it took him on a path towards suicide in 1880 at the young age of 44. His contribution to Australian sport was none the less invaluable, and his efforts still provide today one of the strongest possibilities of reconciliation between European and Indigenous Australia.

(Aboriginal cricket team with Tom Wills at MCG in 1867.)

The AFL would like to celebrate the game between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College on August 7th, 21st and September 4th, 1858 as the first Australian Football Rules game. In reality it was a game with few rules, similar to many public schools in England, but with perhaps even less rules. Wills was one of the umpires in this game and it would have had some similarities to Rugby. The rules of the AFL game we know today were still under development.

The codification of the rules is the true birth of the game. Events prior to codification were simply formative and embryonic. The rules were drawn up at the Parade Hotel in East Melbourne by Wills, W. J. Hammersley, J. B. Thompson and Thomas Smith on May 17th, 1859. These rules were established on behalf of the Melbourne Football Club, three days after its founding. The game was based heavily upon Rugby with some obvious influence from Marn Grook. Other creators of the rules had experience at Irish games, which also had some level of influence. The original Melbourne rules did not require the ball to be bounced. Geelong Football Club formed on July 18th, 1859. While they did not codify their rules as Melbourne FC did, they did play with a rule that the ball needed to be bounced every 20 yards. In 1866 agreement between clubs led to the Victorian Rules, which required the ball to be bounced.

The game spread to various parts of Australia at a fairly rapid pace. Adelaide formed a club in 1860 (now defunct), by 1877 the South Australian Football Association was formed, months before the Victorian Football Association. The game was played in Tasmania by 1864, Queensland 1866, New South Wales 1877, Western Australia 1881, Northern Territory 1916. While the game continued to be successful and grow in most parts of Australia it had greater competition from Rugby League and Union in Queensland and New South Wales.

The New South Wales Football Association was formed in 1880. A game was played against Victoria in 1881. The first recorded game in NSW was between Carlton Football Club and the Waratah Rugby Club in 1877. The Waratah club enjoyed the game so much that they switched codes in 1882. The NSW Football League was formed in 1903. By 1911 it was more popular than Rugby Union in Sydney. Rugby League was formed in 1908 in NSW. The NSWRL was denied access to many grounds by the NSWRU. The NSWFL graciously allowed the RL two weekends at the SCG in 1908. Rugby League performed very well infront of healthy crowds over those weekends and Australian Rules lost their impetus. As the Rugby League game was professional many players switched to that code. Professionalism was approved by the Australasian Football Council in 1911, for a limit of 30 shillings per game, but by that stage Rugby League had taken a big lead in Sydney. Australian Rules never caught up again. The game has always been popular in the Riverina region of southern NSW.

The history of Australian football in New Zealand is largely another unknown story. The game in New Zealand also had an early chance of success. The Christchurch Football Club played a game very similar to Melbourne Rules in 1863. Many men from the Australian colonies first came to the Otago region in the 1860s for a gold rush. There was another large migration of Australians to New Zealand in the 1890s, some of those men looking for work had played in the VFA and VFL. By 1882 there were 36 clubs in New Zealand, by 1901 there were 115 clubs in New Zealand. The game was so popular in New Zealand that they were a founding member of the Australasian Football Council in 1890. The name of the game was officially changed to Australasian Rules Football to reflect this change. The highpoint of New Zealand football was the Jubilee Carnival in Melbourne in 1908. New Zealand defeated NSW and QLD and finished fourth out of seven teams. World War 1 halted the development of the game in New Zealand. For what ever reason. many of the Australians who migrated to NZ in the 1890s returned to Australia after the war. Many of the NZ players of Australasian Football were killed in WW1. Australasian Football never really recovered in New Zealand and it died out by the 1930s. In 1927 when the Australasian Football Council met, there were no delegates from New Zealand, so it was voted to change the name to the Australian Football Council. (The council no longer exists. The game is now administered internationally by the AFL.) Australian Football was reestablished in New Zealand in the 1970s, and there are now three leagues in the country.

The New South Wales and New Zealand stories are interesting accounts of what could have been. AFL is a minor code of football in today's world. It is however a force to be reckoned with in Australia. It is now undisputedly the largest code of football in Australia based upon attendance figures. It is second to soccer in terms of participation, which is largely due to many parents feeling that soccer is a safer game for children. AFL games regularly attract more people than Rugby League games in Sydney and Brisbane.

The market for football codes is by no means fixed or saturated. Soccer and their A-League have had some real success in the last few years in Australia. While Rugby League may be expanding on the Gold Coast in Queensland, it is not growing as a game in Australia. It was greatly hurt by the Super League division of the 1990s. Rugby Union turning professional in 1995 has further eaten into the Rugby League market with the introduction of the Super 14 competition against New Zealand and South African teams. Soccer is AFL's biggest threat in Australia in the long term. The AFL still have a clear lead, but they can not afford to rest on their laurels. They are well aware of the situation, thus their current expansion plans for Gold Coast and western Sydney. The AFL plan to have a Gold Coast team in the league by 2011 and a Western Sydney team by 2012. These plans of expansion are wise and will keep the AFL on a strong course of growth, by taking in new markets.

The AFL's recent rejection of a Tasmanian government petition for a team seems harsh in some ways. The issue of debate is whether the AFL is an open market and if anyone should be allowed to compete. The AFL have no desire to stretch themselves too thin, They will need to inject a lot of capital in the early years to the 17th and 18th teams before they turn a profit independently. Tasmania have not lost their chance for an AFL team. Either they need to be prepared to wait longer until the new teams are established or they should continue to court a Victorian team. The Hawks have a good relationship in Tasmania, but may be unwilling to leave Hawthorn behind. A second Victorian team could set themselves up for 4 games a year in Hobart like the Hawks have done in Launceston. A total of 8 games for the state would be only a little less than the 11 they would have with their own state team. A state team would likely split their games between Hobart and Launceston anyway.

The game of AFL (the official international name now) has established leagues in 14 countries. This is a long way behind Rugby Union which is played in 129 countries and Soccer which is played in 207 countries. But the game of AFL is expanding healthily none the less. Over the last couple decades there have been a handful of players recruited from Ireland, as the game of Gaelic Football is similar to Australian Football. The exciting new success story is in South Africa. There are currently 10000 people participating in the sport. The exciting factor is that people from all races participate, where as only white people play Rugby and only black people play Soccer. AFL is becoming the game for all people and has even been officially recognised by the South African government as the football code of reconciliation. It is not hard to establish AFL in South Africa as it is best suited to cricket grounds which have remained unused in the Winter (Rugby and Soccer have their own stadiums.) The business plan in South Africa is to see 30000 people playing the sport within 3 years. It is widely hoped that players will be recruited to the AFL even within the next 5 years and that the competition there will be as strong as South Australia or Western Australia within 20 years.

To be continued....


Laws of Australian Football.

History of Australian Rules Football.

Geelong Football Club.

Australian Rules Football.

Indigenous Australians.

Australian Rules Football in New South Wales.

Oldest Football Club.

"Rules" almost had Sydney's paddock.

Aussie rules almost had Sydney.

History- Australian Football.

History of Australian football in New Zealand.

History of the game in New Zealand.

International Leagues.

AIS tour of South Africa.

Australia's battle of the codes- statistics.

The English origins of Australian Football.

Australasian Football Jubilee Carnival.

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