THE AFL FOOTBALL: A SON OF RUGBY

VFA field umpire, Mr Tiernan, with a Rugby 'Match' ball (Melbourne Demons team photo, The Australasian, 22 June 1895)
VFA field umpire, Mr Tiernan, with a Rugby ‘Match’ ball (Melbourne Demons team photo, The Australasian, 22 June 1895)

It is claimed that TW Sherrin in 1879 created the first ball designed specifically for Australian rules football, making the ball smaller and rounder, replacing the pointed ends of the larger Rugby ball.

Others go so far as to wax lyrical of the AFL ball’s unique shape, convinced it came into existence in a momentary flash of Melburnian ingenuity at the code’s founding, and dare not utter the R-word [Rugby] in its presence.

Yet, while Melbourne would not have it first Rugby clubs formed until 1888, the city’s newspapers in the preceding 30 years trumpeted in sporting store advertisements the availability of “genuine Rugby footballs” imported from England.

“The well-known firm of Boyle and Scott [Bourke St, Melbourne] announce that they have received from England a large consignment of Gilbert’s best match Rugby footballs.”
‘The Australasian’, 25 April 1885

If there was no Rugby being played in the Victorian colony, who was buying and using all these highly sought after Rugby balls?

Melbourne sport store's newspaper advertisement offering Rugby balls direct from England ('The Australasian, 1870) .
Melbourne sport store’s newspaper advertisement offering Rugby balls direct from England (‘The Australasian’, 1870 – Isard’s Cricketing and Football Warehouse, Swanston Street).

Take, for example, Melbourne’s most reputable cricket and football goods store, ‘Marshall’s’ (established by Victorian professional cricketer George Marshall), when it advertised in The Australasian in June 1870 that it had:

“Just received first shipment real Rugby footballs, the only genuine lot in Melbourne … Sole Agent in the colony for the only genuine Rugby footballs, which are always proved before sold. The only ones that are used by the principal clubs and schools in England and Australia. None to equal them.”

Photo of an unidentified footballer in a Melbourne city studio c.1880
Photo of an unidentified footballer in a Melbourne city studio c.1880 [State Library of Victoria]
A Melbourne 1876 publication, The Footballer: An Annual Record of Football in Victoria (page 8) stated:

“The game is played with the Rugby ball”.

The Australasian Sketcher, in an article “Football in Victoria” (12 June 1875) wrote:

“The ball used in all matches is the small Rugby oval ball.”

A match report in St Kilda’s The Telegraph in June 1879 told readers:

“Pearce roused the hopes of the anxious beholders, obtained a mark a short distance off, and by a fine place kick steered the rugby straight for the first goal for East St. Kilda.”

At a Geelong FC meeting in May 1866 (reported in the Geelong Advertiser):

“Mr Groom called attention to the fact that Messrs E. Sander and Co had recently imported a small stock of Rugby balls, and alluded to the difficulty the club had met with last season in obtaining a really good one. He was requested to avail himself of the opportunity thus offered, and by so doing secure sufficient ovals to prevent the members from having to apply their toes to an ugly round [ball].”

Though custom dictated the norm, Rugby Union did not specify the size and shape of the ball until 1892, and a close look at photos of teams and games in both codes shows the Victorian ball the same as those used in Rugby, which was much fuller and rounder than that of modern times.

Jack Worrall, famous Victorian rules footballer (Fitzroy) of the late 19th century and later coach (Carlton), wrote in The Australasian in 1926 that:

“… the ball we use is allied to the one played in the Rugby code.”

The first laws of the VFA in 1877 stated “The ball to be used shall be the No.2 size Rugby (26in. in circumference)”, and this was unchanged when the VFL [now AFL] commenced its inaugural competition in 1897. Rugby Union had in 1892 for the first time set the ball’s maximum size as 26 inches wide by 31 inches long.

In The Australasian in 1871 (4 Nov) ‘By An Old Stager’ claimed to have been involved in Melbourne football since before the first rules (1859) were formulated at the Parade Hotel, opening his treatise on the game’s past with the words:

“No matter who was the actual father of football in this colony, who got the first Rugby ball, and kicked it – if the writer was not that identical being he is very nearly related to him, and took part in the first match of any note ever played.”

Though ‘Old Stager’ remembers a Rugby ball, and this is the ball depicted in the Tom Wills sculpture at the MCG, some texts today claim the celebrated school match of 7th August 1858 (Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar), and the code itself over its first few seasons, used a round soccer-type ball.

Yet, while the reports of that 1858 game do not unequivocally state what ball or rules were used, with forty players on each “big side”, the manner of bringing about a result (best of three goals) and duration (game declared a draw if not won after three afternoons play), there was much in common with the football traditions of Rugby School, and The Argus (16 August 1858) speaking on the school-boys match maintained:

“Let those who fancy there is little in the game, read the account of one of the Rugby matches which is detailed in that most readable work, Tom Brown’s School-days, and they will speedily alter their opinion.”

Rugby ball in the Tom Wills sculpture at the MCG (photo courtesy Stan Correy)
Rugby ball in the Tom Wills sculpture at the MCG (photo courtesy Stan Correy)

The same writer at the start of the following football season (still before the first Melbourne FC rules were formulated and written) said in The Argus (18 April 1859):

“Nor are the public schools lagging in the matter, so that before the month is out we may, on all favorable occasions, expect to see every available portion of Richmond Paddock, and other ‘lungs of the city’, dotted by animated groups in full pursuit of the leathern spheroid.”

A ‘spheroid‘ is not a perfect sphere, but an ellipsoid, an oval. In a time when writers were careful and particular about their choice of words and descriptions, there can be little doubt the “leathern spheroid” is the Rugby ball, not a round ball. Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes (1857), in an account of the football game in 1835:

The new ball you may see lie there quite by itself, in the middle, pointing towards the school or island goal; in another minute it will be well on its way there.

1881 scene Carlton vs Melbourne in The Australasian Sketcher
1881 scene Carlton vs Melbourne in The Australasian Sketcher

That’s not to say that round (roundish) footballs were not to be found in games played in Melbourne, indeed they no doubt were favoured by some. It may be that ’round’ did not mean a sphere, but as a rounder ball than an ‘oval’ plum-shaped ball. It’s also important to keep context though – footballs were still individually made, with the perfectly round ball we know today not achievable in England until well into the 1860s. 

In July 1859 the advertisement columns of The Argus included news of the arrival from Britain of a case containing 32 large leather footballs “manufactured to order from Gilbert, of Rugby”.

Gilbert Rugby football displayed at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The distinctive shape is still found in AFL balls of the 21st century.
Gilbert Rugby football displayed at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The distinctive shape is still found in AFL balls of the 21st century.

In 1860 Tom Wills (then captain of Richmond FC) refused to allow a match to commence unless the opposing Melbourne FC captain agreed to play with a Rugby ball and not a round ball. JB Thompson, who had been part of the group that formulated the first rules of the Melbourne FC the year before, and was often at odds with Wills over cricket and football matters (including Wills’ persistence for Rugby traits to be added to the game), twice commented in his column in The Argus (28 April and 14 May 1860) of a Rugby ball being used as if it were a novelty to him and Melburnians – if Thompson was the newspaper’s football writer in 1858 and April 1859 or not is unknown – the earlier columnist was seemingly well familiar with and enamoured by Rugby School football, but after the Melbourne FC rules were formulated the sentiment was reversed:

“The ball, which was of rather a novel shape — oval, was kicked about merrily until the waning light rendered it difficult to distinguish friends from foes” and “Another drawback to an otherwise almost perfect afternoon’s enjoyment was the objectionable shape of the ball, which was oval, and is said to have gained the prize at the Great Exhibition, besides being of the kind now in use at Rugby School. This class of ball may fly further than a round one, but assuredly, in nine cases out of ten, does not fulfill the expectations of the propeller [kicker], more particularly if there be any wind. Considerable dissatisfaction was expressed when the game began at the Richmond captain’s maintaining his right to the choice of ball, and a great deal more after the play was over. Next year we may expect to have patent octagonal or parallelopipedal cricket balls, or some geometrical monstrosity equally inapplicable to the required purposes. There can be no objection to a man playing football in thigh boots or in pumps, if he has a weakness that way, for no one else suffers; but the ball is, as it were,  common property, and any abnormal condition in it affects all alike.”

The Argus reported in September 1865 of a Carlton and South Yarra game:

“The Carlton Club ascribe their defeat to the fact that they were obliged to play with the oval, or Rugby ball, while they had always been accustomed to a round ball.”

“Football in Yarra Park” – The Illustrated Australian News, July 1874

The size of the Aussie rules ball did not finally commence the change towards its present smaller dimensions until in 1905 (The Daily News, 8.6.05) when the VFL, while still prescribing a Rugby ball be used, reduced the circumference from 26 inches down to 24.5 (with a minimum of 23.5), and for the first time set a maximum length, which was 30.5 inches (min. 29.5). The National Football Council’s rules for the game across Australia in 1906 also contain these new requirements.

Reports in The Argus (4/11/38 & 2/3/39) show Syd Sherrin advocating at this time to the National Council for a change to a smaller ball his business manufactured (and presumably must have been in use in some leagues in Victoria):

“Mr Sherrin said that several makes of balls were smaller than the standard previously adopted. There had been objections in Victoria to the long pointed ball. He thought the best size was 22 5/8in. by 29 1/2in., which was smaller than that in general use…it was agreed that the desired shape was 22 3/4in. by 29 1/2in., and not pointed.”

The Canberra Times (“New Design of Ball” – 1/4/39) refers to:

“A sweeping change in the size and shape of the ball that may revolutionise national football….the outstanding feature of the new ball is its semi-flattened ends, compared with the old sharp-pointed ball” [producing a] “more even bounce.”

https://i0.wp.com/prod.static.cardinals.clubs.nfl.com/assets/images/history/THORPE.jpg
Jim Thorpe – gridiron 1920s

In 1931 the Rugby Union ball was made thinner and given its present shape when the maximum circumference was reduced from 25.5/26 to 24/25.5 inches. The length was retained at 30/31, meaning the ball appeared more pointed and narrow than it had in the 1800s.

The AFL Sherrin is distinctively different in dimensions to that used today in other football codes, but its shape is that of the Rugby ball as it was in the 19th century.

A similar story of beginning with a Rugby ball is told with the gridiron ball used in the NFL and college football.

Through the 1880s-90s Spalding’s famous and revered football guide-books edited by Walter Camp contained full-page advertisements for Rugby balls from firms in New York and across America, some locally manufactured, most imported from England.

However, after the 1906 rule change that allowed the forward throw of the ball, the size was reduced over time (by rules in 1934) to make it easier to pass and catch, while drop- and punt-kicking by quarter-backs faded out of the game by the start of WW2 (though not the rule book).

© Sean Fagan

See also:
“The Same Game, A Different Ball” [AFL] [link] & “The Last Dropkick” [NFL] 
[link]
Gilbert football (Rugby) produced for the 1851 Great Exhibition [link]

“Dally M” rugby football (1932)
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