Posted on August 25, 2012

Australian rules lore tells us the code was born of a single match played in 1858. What the “Australian rulers” don’t choose to mention is that it was played between two schools using rugby rules on a rectangular field, and that the first uniquely Australian rule (the need to bounce the ball before running) didn’t arise until 1866.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Sunday Telegraph]

To say that that 1858 rugby match was the game now known as Australian rules is nonsense. To paraphrase Kipling, “rugby is rugby” – what came after doesn’t change what was played in 1858.

The AFL is looking at a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly.

The only connection that game has with Australian football is that it was played in Melbourne.

Many clubs in England, including those playing “Sheffield rules” (from the Sheffield FC formed in 1857), began with a remarkably similar story to the first “Melbourne rules” (1859).

Sheffield rules were formed “to keep cricketers fit in winter”, had no crossbar, awarded a free-kick for a mark, and recorded “minor points” for missing a goal.

Rugby spread through the Empire like wildfire in 1857 and 1858 on the enormous popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a book about Tom’s fantastical life at Rugby School. It included a dramatic and enticing chapter about the joys and excitement of a football game.

Rugby rules in the 1850s were scant – for most part they only covered matters where there had previously been argument.

They set out what could not be done, rather than what could. At the start of each winter the schoolboys would haggle and find consensus on the rules for the coming matches. It was their prerogative to shape rugby rules each year however they wished.

When the first clubs were formed, their members did the same. In England, this created mayhem as every club had its own take on the rules. Those favouring a kicking game codified their rules into soccer in 1863 with the formation of the FA.

The “ball-carriers” codified in 1871 by forming the RFU.

Other versions, including Sheffield rules, disappeared as soccer and rugby consumed all else.

But Melbourne football, geographically isolated, continued to evolve on its own, and was codified in 1877 when the VFA was formed.

Since federation the Victorian-born code has screeched that the rest of the nation should adopt the game “invented by Australians for Australians”.

At first they covered over the story of their true origins; and now, generations later, have forgotten it.

To admit now that its so-called first game was rugby, and that the code wasn’t “invented” by Australian ingenuity in 1858, but that instead it took decades before a uniquely Australian game existed, will no doubt be difficult to accept.

But now that Australian rules has gained greater exposure in NSW and Queensland, it has in effect returned to the wider football world. Its marketing messages will be received by not only those devoted to its code, but by others who will question the validity of the stories being told.

The isolation of Australian rules is over. That can be taken as a sign of successful expansion. But with it will come greater scrutiny, and even occasional criticism.

Interestingly, if inventing an Australian football code was such an imperative for the Victorians, why didn’t they see any need to contort the rules of cricket into an Australian equivalent of baseball?

[originally published in The Sunday Telegraph]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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