Posted on August 25, 2012

It’s an intriguing question: Through the last quarter of the 19th century, how did rugby in New Zealand, New South Wales and Queensland manage to repel the advance of Australasian (later Australian) rules football – a code that was deliberately made safer to play and more spectacular to watch than rugby, and unashamedly wrapped itself in a cloak of patriotism, tugging at hearts as the colonies moved towards becoming one country?

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in Inside Sport]

By the early 1880s Australian rules football (established in Melbourne in 1859) had spread from its native Victoria, becoming the only code played in South Australia and Tasmania, and about to win over Western Australia too. It had also successfully established clubs and competitions in the remaining Australasian colonies (NSW, Queensland and New Zealand), but rugby was keeping them at bay.

So, while supporters of Australian rules football saw their game as “refined gold” that could not be improved upon, what was it that Sydney, Brisbane and Wellington footballers of the 1880s-90s saw in rugby that made them turn away from a “football Federation” with the Victorians and the other colonies?

Sure, there was a bit of jealous rivalry between NSW and Victoria that made many Sydneysiders frown on the Melbourne-born game, particularly on the need to bounce the ball if you chose to run, and the absence of any off-side rules.

The prospect of one day exchanging overseas tours against England and the other “home” nations (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) was also a particularly appealing reason to remain with “the Empire game” of rugby….a cause aided by NSW’s Australian rules team in 1881 being thrashed in two matches by Victoria (9 goals to nil at the MCG, then 9 goals to 1 at the SCG).

Ultimately, it came down to playing the game itself; more footballers preferred playing rugby over Australian rules. That’s not to say that they all disliked the Australian game – far from it. The two codes were still relatively close on the football evolution tree, with most seeing Australian rules as “the rugby game divested of its off-sides and scrimmages” – successfully switching codes wasn’t beyond the skills of many players if they were of a mind to try.

In Sydney, the NSWRU pronounced that none of its member clubs were permitted to play against clubs playing by other rules. The NSWRU couldn’t stop though the frequent occurrence of players forming their own informal teams to play against Sydney’s Australian rules clubs.

In Brisbane, before the formation of the QRU, the QFA (now AFLQ) administered all football, setting down matches under Australian and rugby rules on alternate Saturdays to satisfy the competing demands of the players.

The controlling bodies soon put a stop to these cross-code dalliances. A clear demarcation began to emerge between the codes, and a public opinion battle waged over the pros and cons of each game.

The Sydney sports editor of the 1885 edition of the Australian Year Book declared that by staying with rugby instead of Aussie rules that NSW was “cutting its own throat.” In the Courier a Brisbane footballer wrote that he could only “shudder at the Melbourne game, with its childish absurdities, such as bouncing, free-kicks, and mode of placing players in the enemies’ goal.”

“Australian (no) rules” was portrayed as a simpleton’s game, played and watched by those who couldn’t cope with rugby’s physical demands, nor its complex rules and traditions (its cross-bar between the goal posts to make kicks a challenge, allowances for players to “run in” the ball behind the goal line for a “try at goal” kick, and off-side laws to keep the two teams in army-like positions).

Already drawing crowds of 10,000 to club matches in Melbourne, rugby supporters in Sydney argued that Australian rules favoured a game devised for spectators, not players. While later Australian rules officials would admit “the game we want is one which talks loudest at the turnstiles,” Melbourne’s crowds were outstripping Sydney because the ball itself was visible to the spectator throughout the match, and even without recourse to the written rules, the unaccustomed onlooker could quickly work out what was going on.

To the rugby players, the scrum was the game – that’s where all the action was. At games on Sydney’s Moore Park (adjacent to the SCG) the crowds were not content to watch from the touchlines, preferring to follow the scrummage as it meandered about the field. For the bulk of the game the spectators and even the players couldn’t see the ball at all, just a “violent agitation” in the middle of the scrum where undoubtedly the pigskin was being fought over.

Don’t imagine for a moment that these scrums are remotely like those in the rugby game of today. In the 1880s a scrum still involved most of the players – this was praised as an advantage over Aussie rules where the 40 players were scattered around the field in 20 matched pairs, jostling and nudging their opponent while they both waited for the ball to finally come their way.

In rugby scrums each man stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his comrades, hard up against the bodies and faces of the opposition. To look downwards for the ball was cheating. Both teams would shove, push, kick, use whatever it took to forge a gap in the opposing pack, and hope to kick the ball goalwards (not backwards) and chase after it like a marauding horde.

You were a brave man to pick up the ball and run with it, knowing that if you were caught both packs would descend upon you. But that was the thrill of it, to “adventure your life” by running with the ball. It was an exhilarating feeling. If you succeeded via a long run or to crown it with a try, you were lauded by one and all. Rugby’s advocates argued that it was the only football game that truly tested a man’s character, while at the same time developed a muscular body from the physical exertion required.

Rugby was a game for the players, and no one else. The Argus (Melbourne) informed its readers that the English game wasn’t worth watching or playing: “In the Rugby game half the time is wasted by the scrummaging; which is neither skilful nor graceful, but sheer bulldogism.”

Rugby was painted as a dangerous sport, full of low-grade tactics, high in risk of injury, and abounding with underhanded abuses and a place for publicly tolerated assault….an easy argument to win when witnessing the game for the first time.

Melbourne’s Leader newspaper pushed the message, offering up “Our game is to rugby as a Sunday school picnic to a bull fight.” There is little doubt that it was. One of the founders of the Melbourne FC in 1859 plainly stated the code’s first rules were a deliberate attempt to tame rugby.

Hardier souls amongst the Australian rules footballers sometimes called out after full-time: “Let’s have a bit of Rugby!” The call wasn’t always well received with “No rugby! No rugby!” a frequent response as the players quickly headed from the field.

After reports were re-printed in the Australian press from London’s satirical Punch journal in 1888 facetiously described rugby as “thugby,” the moniker spread like wildfire amongst Australian rules enthusiasts. Conversely, rugby supporters categorised the Australian code alongside effeminate drawing-room games such as ping-pong, which later morphed into the derisive “aerial ping-pong” tag.

By the late 1890s reforms in rugby had led to the development of today’s four-man three-quarter line and the passing game, making the sport safer to play and more spectacular to watch, and leading to a boom period. By 1907 rugby matches in Sydney attracted crowds of 50,000 – a number larger than Australian rules could draw in Melbourne, comparable to the Harvard-Yale college football contest in America, and only topped by English FA Cup soccer finals.

[originally published in Inside Sport]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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