Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian SportAustralian IdentityAustralian animals


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Why aren't American sports more popular in Australia?

How did AFL evolve?

How has class warfare shaped the NRL?

Why does rugby union have a private school boy image?

Does soccer suffer discrimination in Australia?

How have notions of identity been expressed in cricket?

Why does only one code play State of Origin?

Why are there 4 football codes in Australia?

What are some team names in Australia?

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:

"When I was at school we played a sort of rugby. It was a mixture of soccer and rugby, and was called the Australian game"

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.

"The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise."
Mr. Thomas, Aboriginal Protector, 1841.

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:

"As Captain, I once protested that such tactics were against the rules, but the only satisfaction I got was the forceful reply, 'to H- with your rules! We're playing the - Irish rules. "

Marngrook and Caid

Australian football; a hybrid of caid, rugby and marngrook?

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.

Mr Burns

A cartoon that mocks the mayor of Melbourne for using a visit by an English rugby union as an excuse to pour scorn on the Australian game.

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

"that there are scores of footballers ... who play the Rugby game under protest as it were, and who would gladly welcome a radical change in the present method of playing football." A week later, over 100 footballers formed the New South Wales Football Association (NSWFA) to play the Australian game.”

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.

127 South Sydney Football Club

1927 South Sydney Football Club

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.

Activity 1- Battle of the Codes

Look at the statistics comparing the fortunes of Australia's football codes

  1. Do you notice any trends?
  2. Find up to date figures to identify any trends
  3. Is there a sign of any change in the status quo?
  4. If one code emerges to dominate all others, which one do you think it will be? Why?


Activity 2 - Join in the banter

Polite civilities are often suspended in a football crowd. For each AFL club

  1. Research their history and find examples of novelties
  2. Define a culture of the club
  3. Find a picture of a player or fan that you feel represents the essence of the culture
  4. Find a picture of the area that the club represents and which you believe represents the area
  5. Create a slogan to describe the club

Some examples are found below


St Kilda and the Simpsons

St Kilda Saints - The AFL's answer to The Simpsons

Despite their lack of success, St Kilda became tremendously popular. The correlation between on-field failure and off-field popularity was first noted in the 1920s when "St Kilda fluctuated between mediocrity and abject incompetence, a mix which paradoxically seemed to endear them to the public. " Aside from being reflected in its spoon collection, St Kilda's losing culture is reflected in its club song. St Kilda footballers have never really taken the issue of a victory song seriously because it never seemed likely that they would need one. Consequently, the club has had a habit of choosing ridiculous songs. One of their early songs was about living besides the sea. It started off singing about being by the sea, then predicts that St Kilda will be premiers, only to then say that there is a chance that St Kilda will be premiers. For some reason, it then finishes by singing about being beside the sea.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,
Oh I do like to be beside the sea.
And down at the junction there's a football ground
And there St Kilda can be found.

So let's give a cheer for old St Kilda,
For next year's premiers they will be;
Though it's not yet in the bag there's a chance of winning the flag
Beside the seaside, beside the sea (??????????????????????)


Hawthorn Hawks

Hawthorn Hawks - Because Fashion sense isn't everything

The foundations of Hawthorn's metasexual image can be traced to its entry into the VFL in 1925. Along with hideous colours of brown and yellow, administrators didn't see the need for an intimidating name for the club was initially known as the 'Mayblooms' and then the 'Mayflowers'. Admittedly, Mayblooms wasn't as effeminate as other flowers under consideration, such as daisies and tulips; however, Mayblooms still lagged a significant way behind more imposing flowers such as snap-dragons.


Carlton Blues - Making use of the brown paper bags

In the beginning of the 21st century, Carlton players showed they were mercenaries and the administration showed they were crooks. In 2002, Carlton players were collectively paid $1,400,000 more than players from any other club and then rewarded Carlton for its generosity by delivering the club its first wooden spoon in its history. The club then started to reveal that it was anything but a happy family. Board members vowed to sack the coach, and then sack each other. The coach and his assistant refused to talk to each other. Even the players were infected with the anti-social vibe. Players broke into each other's houses to steal things that could be pawned. Worse still, the club's captain, Lance Whitnal, had a very public falling out with his brother. It seems his brother's kids didn't turn up to his son's birthday party so he retaliated by not inviting them to the zoo. This escalated to vows from each brother to enlist hit men to kill each other.

Women came to the club complaining of being raped by players, and instead of advising them to go to the police, the club just made use of its ample supply of brown paper bags to once more buy them off.

Collingwood fan

Collingwood Magpies -No teeth? no problem, all welcome

Known as "Colliwobbles", if Collingwood does make the grand final, they have an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In total, they have appeared in 40 grand finals, and have lost 26 of them. The most famous example came in the 1970 grand final against Carlton.  The Magpies completely dominated the first half and at the main break led 10.13 to 4.5. Inexplicably, they ended up losing by 10 points. More recently, the club made the 2002 grand final and after entering the home stretch with their noses in front and momentum in their favour, they once again showed that Greg Norman is their pin-up boy.


Voss - Brisbane Lions

Brisbane Lions - DOH!

"Kings of the jungle" is the slogan of the Brisbane Lions. Obviously the club isn't aware that unlike Tigers, Lions don't live in the jungle (kings of the savannah might be more accurate.) Getting the ecosystem wrong is hardly a surprise from a Queenslander. Afterall, they have a beer called XXXX because most Queenslanders don't know how to spell. The club was established in 1987 and based on the Gold Coast. Why it choose to base itself on the Gold Coast but have Brisbane in its name can only be attributed to another case of Queensland intellect at its finest.

Geelong Cats

Geelong Cats - Where even the ugly are loved

Geelong is the type of city that a tourist brochure may associate with the words "gateway to...." This basically means there is nothing interesting in the city itself, but nearby there might be something worth visiting. Perhaps the small town mentality explains why Geelong fans are arguably the most positive of all Victorian clubs in regards to the players, they just have nothing else to be positive about. Although this results in hero worship reaching unrealistic proportions (even of ugly players like Cameron Ling), it also breeds the kind of eccentricity and creative flair that is shackled at critical clubs that demand accountability to tried and true methods. At Geelong, players have the confidence to showcase their individuality without fear that fans will turn on them. As a consequence, Geelong has produced some of the great individual players and feats alike. Furthermore, the club has drafted good players that other clubs would reject as being too ugly.