What do the clubs say they stand for?
Gold Coast Suns
North Melbourne Kangaroos
Port Adelaide Power
St Kilda Saints
West Coast Eagles
Who invented Australian Football and how did it evolved into AFL?
Australian football has often been difficult to describe. The lack of an offside rule and the quick speed of the ball tends to produce a spectacle of complete chaos. In 1908, one of the greatest icons of Sydney rugby league, Dally Messenger, tried to describe it as a hybrid of the two English codes when he said:
While Messenger was complimentary to the sport of his youth, others have not been so kind. Some critics have likened it to a bunch of disorganised men chasing a chicken. Others have referred to it as raffeties rules, Mexican rules, GAFL, or aerial ping pong.
The exact origins of Australian football are a little unclear. The first 10 rules were written down in Melbourne in 1858. These rules may have had some similarity to the various un-codified forms games of football (games played on foot) that were being played in Britain at the time. These games included the predecessors to rugby and soccer. There have also been some suggestions that Australian rules was inspired by the Aboriginal jumping game of Marngrook, which involved kicking a possum skin filled with charcoal. An early description of the Marngrook does indeed bear resemblance to Australian Rules.
Over the next 50 years, more rules were added and many of these rules might have been proposed by Irish immigrants or Convicts familiar with the Irish sport of caid. Circumstantial evidence of an Irish influence comes from H.C Harrison, one of the fathers of Australian rules. In his autobiography, Harrison wrote that players were simply ignoring his rules and playing the rules of Ireland instead. In his words:
The ability to change in response to feedback gave rise to a number of innovations that are relatively unique to Australian rules. One of these was the bounce. Every 10 meters, a player must bounce the ball. The rule originated with H.C Harrison, who was far more athletically gifted than many of his fellow players. He started bouncing the ball to handicap himself so that it would be more difficult for him to retain possession. The rule was widely embraced because it forced the ball to be shared around.
Another rule was the hand pass, which involves punching the ball off the other hand. In theory, it is illegal to throw the ball (exceptions are made when the ball is accidently dropped or thrown onto the ground to bounce it.) Originally, the rule was implemented because the hand pass was quicker than a throw and it was felt that if everyone was forced to learn the art, then ugly packs would be less likely to form.
Another rule was scoring a point for a “behind.” This occurs when the ball is either touched before going through the goal, or goes between the area between the goal post and the wider behind posts. Initially, behinds were referred to as “near misses” and perhaps acted as an encouragement point for people a little short of motivation to learn the new game.
Australia's new code spread to Adelaide and Hobart where it became dominant. However, by the time it reached Sydney and Perth, rugby union had already been imported from England, and had forged connections in the corridors of power. At the time, Australia was extremely class conscious and rugby union was not just a game, it was also a reminded of the upper classes' Englishness.
In 1877, Australian football first challenged Rugby when the powerful 'Waratah' Rugby Club invited Carlton Australian football club to play two matches; one under rugby rules, and one under Australian rules. Despite being a rugby club, Waratah felt that rugby was boring, and hoped a direct comparison with Australian rules would demonstrate its deficiencies.
The match achieved the desired effect and in June 1880, Australian football supporters met at Woollahra to discuss a new league. The Sydney Mail's football writer said
While Australian football was popular, rugby union had powerful friends, and it used its friends to have the NSWFA banned from Sydney's enclosed grounds. Without gate money to spend on promotion or to pay players, the NSWFA collapsed in 1893.
Although football was down, it was not out. In February 1903, the code picked itself up and formed the New South Wales Football League (NSWFL). Clubs were initially established in Sydney, Paddington and the North Shore, and by the beginning of April there were eight more - Alexandria, Ashfield, Balmain, East Sydney, Newtown, Redfern, West Sydney and YMCA.
With eyes firmly set on the future, the new administration targeted kids and soon the NSWFL and the rugby union were having "a great struggle" for the allegiance of schoolboys. Union held sway amongst the private schools however the state schools were receptive to the Australian game.
In 1909, the NSWFL succeeded in renting the enclosed Erskineville Oval; thus managing to raise badly needed funds. If the battle had just been between Australian football and union, Australian football's ability to pay players would have ensured its eventual victory. However, in 1908 the professional rugby league was established in Sydney, and provided an alternative for football players that wanted money.
Both rugby league and Australian football had similar ideologies and market appeal. So much so, many of the famous Sydney rugby league clubs, such as the North Shore Bears, Balmain Tigers, and the East Sydney Bulldogs, took their colours and mascots from Sydney Australian football clubs. Likewise, working class players continued to swap between the two with a South Sydney rover by the name of Jim Stiff being the most famous example. Jim was voted best player at the 1933 National Australian Football Carnival. Four years later, he was chosen to tour with the Australian Rugby League.
Such was the affinity between the rugby league and Australian football, serious discussions were held about merging the codes. For a variety of reasons the merger never occurred. Australian football developed strong city-wide competitions in Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne. Rugby league developed strong competitions in Sydney and Brisbane.
By the 70s, Melbourne's league, the VFL, started poaching the best players from Adelaide's SANFL and Perth's WAFL. As the highest standard competition in Australia, the VFL became the first choice for television stations and was broadcast nationally on the ABC. This further strengthened its financial advantage over the other leagues.
When commercial flight became economically viable, football fans around Australia suggested that a national league be established. The VFL, however, closed ranks and said that the national league would be the VFL, and other states must enter a team and pay a licence fee. The SANFL and WAFL refused.
With South and West Australia refusing to play ball, the VFL was forced to expand to the virgin market of NSW. In 1982, the VFL relocated the failing South Melbourne Swans to Sydney. As the public face of Australian rules in Sydney, the Swans redefined the code's image. Instead of being seen as working class, Australian football became associated with chardonnay, ballet and yuppies. 105 years of Australian rules in Sydney was wiped clean and it instead came to be viewed the game as a recent Melbourne import. Local Australian football clubs folded or amalgamated, while others formed alliances with AFL clubs that required they take the AFL club's colours and logos.
In 1987, the VFL continued its national expansion with a new team in Brisbane and another in Perth. Adelaide remained steadfast in its refusal. This changed in 1999 when the Port Adelaide Magpies defected from the SANFL by making a submission to join the VFL. This ultimately led to the establishment of the Adelaide Crows.
For a long time, the AFL was a national league in name, but in substance weighed down by its VFL heritage. It didn’t really know how to expand into the northern markers. When faced with the choice between protecting the heritage of Melbourne clubs, or creating a new team to celebrate the culture of a north area, the AFL always chose Melbourne.
In 2011 and 2012, a cultural change was signalled with the establishment of the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants respectively. It was really the first time that the northern markets had been seen as worthy of their own team, rather than be a way to save a bum Melbourne team. Only time will tell whether the AFL succeeds.