Posted on August 25, 2012

If “Australeague” talks were successful 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have an excuse to hate those other footy codes … We’d all be watching the same game.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in Inside Sport]

It seemingly wasn’t a big enough laugh for the sporting gods to have “blessed” Australia with four rival football codes. No, while Australia’s divided footy landscape alone guarantees that supporters and administrators are often off-loading a sly dig or two at a rival code, history has deigned that every 50 years that friendly banter will erupt into a full-blown cross-code war.

In a quirk of history, the rugby codes in Australia split from each other in 1908 – exactly 50 years after Australian football first came to life in Melbourne (1858).

Thus, in 2008, we’ve seen both the Australian Football League (150 years) and National/Australian Rugby Leagues (100 years) celebrating the founding of their codes and their rich histories.

If only one code had started a year earlier or later, life would be so much easier for the nation’s football fans today.

Adding spice to the mix, it’s a centenary since the Wallabies (rugby union) and the Kangaroos (rugby league) made their first tours of Britain, while the Melbourne Demons, Richmond Tigers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Sydney Roosters and the Wests Tigers (in a manner of speaking) are all celebrating their founding.

The upshot of it all is that 2008 has witnessed accusations of codes attempting to spoil each other’s celebrations.

That season 2008 should coincide with a time when all four codes are posturing over expansion plans, the fight for fans, juniors, corporate support and television money, what was a “cold war” has come decidedly close to flashpoint.

How each code must envy the position of soccer in most other nations, gridiron in the United States, rugby union in New Zealand, where national dominance lets everyone just concentrate on the football on the field.

The sad reality is – depending upon how you view such matters – that Australian football’s jubilee anniversary (50 years) party in August 1908 almost brought our never-ending football war to a halt before it had even really begun, thanks to a secret meeting between Australian rules and rugby league officials … to merge codes.

Instead of in 2008 hearing about codes attempting to “rain on the parade” of their kindred branch of footy, we could’ve been celebrating 100 years of rivalry between the Collingwood Magpies and South Sydney Rabbitiohs, and watching a New South Wales vs Victoria State of Origin series.

If nothing else, our football predecessors in Sydney and Melbourne a century ago certainly weren’t afraid of setting themselves lofty dreams of a national united football code.

Rugby league’s founders in Sydney, entrepreneur James J. Giltinan and cricketer Victor Trumper, had started out with the goal of not only bringing professional rugby to Australia, but of a national football code that brought all of our major cities together – particularly Sydney and Melbourne, where a NSW vs Victoria football series would produce a gate taking bonanza for all involved.

Rugby league had also hooked up with their counterparts in England, and “Ashes” style football tours and “Tests” were also on offer for an Australian team.

Early attempts to showcase rugby league games in Melbourne were thwarted by Giltinan’s inability to lease any enclosed grounds away from wary Australian rules clubs, even for just one Saturday afternoon.

Rugby league in Sydney, though, was quickly gaining in popularity over rugby union with footballers and fans alike. While 15-man rugby was “on the nose” for rigidly sticking to its amateur principles by refusing to compensate injured players for lost work time and not providing its largely working class footballers with a share of the gate takings, its playing rules were also the source of much criticism. In comparison to the open play of Australian rules, rugby union was decried as a boring “run-kick-and-shove” game. In comparison, rugby league, with two less players on each team and streamlined rules, was called “new rugby”; it had far more ball-passing movements, no line-outs, rucks or mauls, while scrums were far less frequent and quickly over with.

While these features found favour with Sydney’s rugby fraternity, rugby league as a game produced an unexpected bonus – it was described as being a “halfway house” of a game, being just as close to Australian rules as it was to rugby union. As in Aussie rules, the “held” and “play-the-ball” rules in rugby league at that time came into operation the very moment a defender clutched a ball-carrier. With no guarantee of maintaining possession from a play-the-ball, attackers avoided being tackled at all costs, dropping, passing or kicking the football away rather than be caught.

Rugby league also had rules that provided for kicks at goal from “marks” (catching the ball on the full from an opponent’s kick or knock-on), and soccer-style goals (kicking the ball off the ground and over the crossbar).

As it was unlawful to kick the football into touch on the full, and no one had yet mastered the art of kicking the ball on the bounce into touch anyway, the football was constantly on the move – this was rugby played with the frenetic urgency and, yes, scrappiness, of Australian football.

The effect was that rugby league quickly attracted not just rugby union devotees, but also many of the footballers and fans who had over the past decade turned away from rugby union to Australian rules. The legendary South Sydney fullback Howard Hallett was just one example of an Australian rules player who turned to league and found fame.

In a telling example of the closeness of the two codes, in 1911 the leading kickers in Sydney (Easts’ Dally Messenger) and Melbourne (Essendon’s Dave McNamara) both scored just over 180 place- and drop-kicked goals for their premiership-winning teams. The “treacherous punt kick” was reckoned by Melbourne footballers to be the tool of the novice and the schoolboy.

It had quickly dawned upon Giltinan in mid-1908 that in Sydney’s favoured code of rugby league, he had in his hands a brand of football that could be readily “fused” with Melbourne’s Australian rules and that a football code to bring the nation’s two largest markets together was within realistic reach.

There was also acknowledgement that while soccer wasn’t an immediate threat to either code (with the FA clubs in England repeatedly rejecting calls for a tour due to the likely poor gate returns and lowly standard of Australian soccer), it did have the potential to one day give the nation a “uniform football code.”

Giltinan travelled to Melbourne to meet Australian football officials and financiers. The Age in Melbourne reported that Giltinan, armed with a set of modified rules (later called “Australeague”), put to the VFL that neither code had a chance of usurping the other in its adversary’s home city and that the only solution was for them to merge.

Giltinan was even bold enough to suggest that if quick agreement could be arrived at, he’d broker a deal with English rugby league officials during the Kangaroos’ upcoming British tour to adopt the merged code, thus creating international competition as well.

Australian rules officials were far from dismissive of Giltinan – offering a means for rapid interstate competition and the chance for Ashes-style Tests against England did far more than just pique their interest. It was agreed that Giltinan and his Kangaroos, on their way to England, would attend Australian rules’ “Jubilee of Australasian Football Carnival” at the MCG in August 1908.

The Carnival offered the chance to have extensive talks on “assimilation of the codes” and for the Kangaroos to play an exhibition match. However, with the limited availability of berths on ships to England, it meant that the ’Roos spent only two days in Melbourne.

The exhibition match was abandoned, but discussions on the merger still proceeded. Later reports refer to a merged game of 15-a-side, all scrums replaced by an open ruck (play-the-ball), an oval field and offside laws applying “inside a section corresponding to the Rugby twenty-five.” The combined game would provide the openness of Australian football, but also allow for the hard rough-and-tumble tackling of the rugby codes, and some application of offside laws.

No agreement, though, could be reached in the limited time, but the parties agreed to resume talks once Giltinan had sounded out English rugby league officials and returned home in April 1909.

It was a tantalisingly close opportunity missed – Giltinan was soon bankrupted by poor gate takings from the Kangaroo tour after it was dealt the worst English winter in living memory. Had the fusion succeeded, the combined code would have out-scaled soccer and rugby union to the extent that they would have been fortunate to survive, let alone thrive. Rugby union in New Zealand too, bereft of any Australian competition, may well have joined the new code.

Though further attempts were made to merge rugby league and Australian rules (in 1914 and 1933), the passing of each year, with changes in rules and tactics, drew the codes further apart. The cultures and history of each were also firmly established, making it practically impossible for universal agreement for a merger.

Though the plethora of high crosskicks in today’s NRL – where the attacking players soar into the air alongside the defending backs in a contest for the football – mimics the signature trait of Aussie rules, the play-the- ball and held rules are no longer applied in rugby league with the ruthlessness of the AFL.

League’s modern “contest” at the play-the-ball has retreated back to its rugby union origins of wrestling and mauling the man as much as the ball, and the two rugby codes are now as close to each other on the football evolution tree as they have ever been.

Where once it seemed plausible to merge rugby league and Australian rules, today the only conceivable merger on the horizon is the two rugby codes. Yet even that is remote.

Unless total support for a merger exists at all levels of both codes, there would be nothing to stop the two traditional games continuing to be played in competition to the merged code. All of which would leave us with a fifth football code, further dividing the footy resources of our nation.

[originally published in Inside Sport]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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