The great pretension of the Melbourne FC and Aussie rules is that their founders in 1859, unlike elsewhere, eschewed the existing football codes from England and boldly declared, “No, we shall have a game of our own.”

The reality is right across colonial Australia’s cities and towns, indeed throughout the English-speaking world, the majority of football clubs and schools had each adopted their own version of rules by which to play amongst themselves the game of football.

The Australian Town and Country Journal (9 May 1874) explaining:

“The rules of football, unlike those of cricket, are not universal; each district has its own regulations, which differ materially, though the general method is always adhered to … The principle of the game is pretty well understood. Each side has its “goal”; two upright poles are erected opposite to two similar poles at the other end; and from them side lines are drawn, and through them the ball must be propelled. These are protected by trustworthy members, and the game commences in the middle of the ground between them. The object of each side is to kick the ball through the goal, which either terminates the game or counts one of a number agreed upon…”

As time passed by, and matches began to played against other clubs, uniformity to rules came into place.

In Australia that meant either Rugby, English Association (“soccer”) or Victorian (later Australian) rules. 

AFL’s “game of our own” dictum is served up today as if the Melbourne FC had not only bravely done what no one else dared, but struck upon perfection of playing rules in the process.

Such ignores that as the game spread from the the Melbourne FC, and into becoming the Victorian rules, and finally Australian football, as its geographic influence grew and clubs fell into line, other forms of playing football once seen on the football fields of Adelaide, Brisbane and Tasmania were each in turn made extinct.

In NSW and Queensland, as Rugby and to a lesser extent soccer grew, here too unique football rules were cast aside and soon forgotten.

Were any of these other games lost along the way any better than the three major codes we ended up with? It is impossible to ever know – even after reading a full set of rules and match reports, should they ever be found, the written word can only convey so much, and often unwritten traditions spoke where to our modern eyes gaps appear.

We could presume the three games with the greater appeal to players and spectators are the ones that prevailed into the 20th century, for those very reasons, but that fails to account for power, influence, and the practicalities of clubs preferring to yield to ensure survival, rather than dying a lonely death of inhouse games and falling interest.   

Little is known of the playing rules of clubs in NSW and Queensland that put their own slant on the Rugby game in the 1860s-70s.

One interesting example that is at least partially documented, is Maitland’s Albion Football Club, founded in 1872.

Public notice of a meeting to form a Maitland football club, May 1872
Notice of meeting to form Maitland football club, May 1872

“The Albions” club began two years before the NSWRU – a body founded when nine clubs, primarily in Sydney, were seeking uniformity in rules so they could play each other without dispute, and affiliate to the RFU in England.

Playing all their games inhouse (dividing their players up along various lines each Saturday), the Albion club was, according to the Australian Town and Country Journal, one of at least four other Rugby-based clubs in NSW who opted to remain aloof from joining the NSWRU. 

‘Albion’ was the name for England given by the ancient Greeks and adopted by the Romans. 

How close to Rugby’s laws was the Albion club’s game?

The only available rules today – and those are incomplete – are from The Maitland Mercury in 1875. They are clearly not based upon the wording and arrangement of the RFU’s laws (which began in 1871), nor those of Rugby School or the NSWRU.

The rules may be a version of a Rugby club in England from the 1860s (i.e. from before the RFU was founded) or in Sydney in the early 1870s.

The famous Blackheath FC, which was recognised as the leading Rugby-playing club and thus provided a template for others to follow, did have a rule similar to that of the Albions that referred to attempts to throttle or strangle opponents in mauls as unlawful. The Wallaroo FC in Sydney had this rule as well. Even so, neither the rules of Blackheath or Wallaroo are similar to the format of Albions.

One view of the Albion rules 1-17 is they were originally taken from an English FA club as they were in the late 1860s, but were modified to provide for running with the ball, scoring tries, taking place-kicks at goal, not counting goals kicked by a punt, and that the ball must go over the cross-bar for a goal. The rules from 18 onwards appear to have been taken from a Rugby-playing club, but not those published by the RFU or NSWRU.

Of the game itself, and how it differed from conventional Rugby, much is speculative.

As with Victorian rules, there is apparently no provision that restricts off-side play (unless these are rules 13-17). There is however a rule (#19) that the ball cannot be passed forward or knocked-on. Indeed, this seems to be extended further by rule 12 making it unlawful to pass the ball on at all, apparently even backwards (though we don’t have the full wording of rule 12 to be certain of it).

As at Blackheath in the 1860s, there is nothing in the Albion club’s rules to stop a blocking type game being utilised, where team mates run ahead of the ball-carrier, either passively shepherding or deliberately knocking over opponents. 

Based on the above, the closest approximation that can made of what sort of Rugby the Albions possibly played, is that it was roughly along the lines of American football and its running game, no three-quarter line, and without the forward pass or laterals.

Match reports of inhouse games of the Albions in 1875, no doubt written by a member of the club, reveal nothing of note, other than making no mention of players passing the ball, and in one instance what was already established in Rugby lexicon as the “fullback” was referred to as a “goal keeper”. 

The Albions closed the 1875 season with their first game against another club, hosting Sydney’s Waratahs (Rugby club) in Maitland. Again the newspaper accounts make no mention of the teams coming into dispute over rules, or that the Waratahs were at the advantage given they were playing to the NSWRU’s playing laws.

The arrival of 1876 saw the Albions give up on their own rules and fully switch to those of the NSWRU, and began playing teams from other towns and Sydney.

The 1876 publication, The Footballer: An Annual Record of Football in Victoria, included brief details of major Rugby football clubs in NSW, noting the Albions playing kit was “Blue cap, white shirt and knee trousers, and grey hose.” [hose = socks]

By the early 1880s, with Victorian rules gaining strong support in Maitland, the Albions began to struggle to field a team and find other Rugby clubs to play locally. Australian Town and Country Journal (22 April 1882) reported five clubs had played Victorian rules under the NSWFA the previous winter, including two in Maitland (Northumberlands and Carltons).

In May 1882 The Maitland Mercury reported the Albion club “had taken its last kick” and was in a state of irreversible collapse. Another Rugby club came into existence in 1883, but disappeared after less than a handful of games. In 1884 the only code played in Maitland at all was by the two Victorian rules clubs.

However, from 1885 onwards, when the (West) Maitland Rugby Football Club was founded, the English code began to climb back, boosted particularly by a visit from the Sydney University club.

In one effort to resolve debate about which code Maitland footballers and public should favour, in July 1889 a cross-code match was played between the Maitland Rugby club and Northumberland. The teams agreed to play the first half under Rugby, the second using Victorian rules. The Singleton Argus reported that: “the contest caused great amusement to the onlookers, the men occasionally mixing their play, and giving a taste of Rugby when playing the Australian game, and vice versa.”

By the mid 1890s Australian rules was extinct in Maitland and all across the Hunter region, as well as in Sydney.

Why did Maitland’s first football club call themselves the Albions? The team was primarily organised by the caretaker of the Albion Sports Ground in West Maitland. A famous ground that played host to many touring international cricket and Rugby teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is now the Maitland Showgrounds. 

© Sean Fagan