afl-vflThe AFL announces it intends establishing two more clubs in its “non-football states” – as they call NSW and Queensland in their lofty manner – and the other codes are portrayed as suddenly facing their ultimate hour of darkness and peril at the feet of the superior Australian game.

Hold hard fellow rugbyites (of either brand) and footballers of the round-ball kind, we’ve heard all this hot air before.

The AFL trumpeter’s fanfare echoes all the way back to 1883.

Speaking at a meeting of the VFA (the forerunner of the VFL/AFL) in Melbourne, a Mr Stafford boldly announced that the Australian game had been taken up in Brisbane, following the earlier formation of clubs in Sydney (1880).

In continuing, Stafford told of “the strides which the Melbourne game had of late made in NSW, which was considered to be the stronghold of rugby in the colonies, and ventured to assert that before long the Melbourne game would assert its superiority over rugby, which would be eventually stamped out, and become a thing of the past in the Colonies.”

Several members of the Victorian clubs “also spoke in glowing terms of the superiority of the Melbourne game over that of rugby” and of “British Association” (soccer).

Such was their confidence of supremacy over all else in the colonies, the committee resolved to henceforth call their game “Australasian rules” football, and fired-off letters to the rugby union bodies throughout the NSW, Queensland and New Zealand, suggesting the immediate adoption of the Melbourne-born game on the grounds that everyone else was playing it.

According to the Otago Witness, in one example, “upon being read (the letter) caused considerable laughter.” Rebuffed by the Kiwis, the VFA adopted “Australian rules” instead.

Two years later, the English FA issued a tour invitation to its fledgling counterparts in Sydney. The idea, which ultimately failed, was to send to England a team of Australia ‘s best footballers, who would play soccer against the clubs of the FA.

Great offence was taken in Melbourne that the colonial football team would not “consist of men who represent the football strength of Australia ” as these “nearly all play the Australian game, and (they) will not be induced to discard it in favour of one which certainly does not possess equal attractions.”

The criticism against the tour was so pronounced that the Victorians argued that the Australian soccer team should never be permitted to leave our shores “for the sake of Australia ‘s athletic prestige.”

However, more than one sports editor was prepared to point out that “I fancy the Australians (rules) will wait a long time before they will be asked to send Home a team to play the Victorian game.”

OTAGO WITNESS 13 April 1888: “The Victorian game is played in Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania, and to a smaller extent in New South Wales and Queensland. The Rugby game, on the other hand, reigns supreme in New Zealand, and has hosts of followers in New South Wales and Queensland.”

The years immediately after Federation quickly changed the focus of many – no longer colonial-Britons, but Australians. In 1903, a small group of men thought it was time Sydney football fully embraced the “the Australian game.”

Led by Edward O’Sullivan, a NSW politician and one of the prime-movers of the Federation movement, an 11-club Australian football competition was formed.

Foresaking any arguments about the merits of the code itself over rugby or soccer, O’Sullivan declared that NSW should “support a game that was invented by Australians for Australia.”

The VFL aided the campaign by sending Fitzroy and Collingwood north to play at the SCG. More than 26,000 Sydneysiders flocked to the ground. It was a spectacular result in terms of Sydney crowds. Australia ‘s first home rugby union Test against New Zealand, held a few weeks later, attracted just 4,000 more.

The gate-money from the SCG match was used to employ “lecturers” to visit schools. They taught the boys the rudiments of the game, and left behind a football for their use – a substantial and highly-prized gift in those days.

The investment paid off. By the winter of 1905 rugby’s hold on schools and juniors had been cut in half as youngsters embraced the alternative of Australian football – including Dally Messenger’s two younger brothers. Some accounts even place “Dally M” himself playing first grade Australian rules for Easts in that same year.

NSWRU officials were startled by the trend, but could do little to prevent it. Tied to the RFU in England, rugby in Australia could do nothing to improve the playing rules to aid players and spectators. The popularity of rugby was on the wane, and the NSWRU were facing a real challenge to hold the support of the city. If Sydney fell, the rest of NSW and Queensland would quickly follow.

Worse still for rugby, being an amateur sport, it could not address the growing call for Sydney footballers to be paid a cut of the gate-money. The long term view was that Australian rules would establish professional football in the state capitals. In the face of such competition, as soccer and rugby had found in Melbourne, there was little hope for survival.

Ironically, the advent of professional rugby league in 1908 settled the dispute, leaving NSW and Queensland with the football landscape of today – where four football codes, each with their own coitre of enthusiastic players and followers, fight for supremacy.

In the century that has passed, rugby league has held the ascendancy above the other three codes, but each has enjoyed its large crowds and periods of popularity.

“Australia is a big paddock,” offered O’Sullivan back in 1903, “and there is room enough for all of us to play in it, whatever game we may prefer.”

Even perhaps in Melbourne.

© Sean Fagan

An edited version of this article was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 23 Feb 2008