Australian rules football lore tells us the code began with the celebrated school match of 7th August 1858 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar.

The schoolboys game, umpired by Tom Wills, is commemorated in a famous sculpture at the MCG.
The schoolboys game, umpired by Tom Wills, is commemorated in a famous sculpture at the MCG.

What the ‘Australian rulers’ don’t choose to mention is that everything known about the contest suggests it was played under Rugby principles, and that the need to bounce the ball when running with it didn’t arise until 1866.

To say that that the 1858 match was the game now known as Australian rules is nonsense.

To paraphrase Kipling, ‘Rugby is Rugby’, and what came after doesn’t change what was played in 1858.

The AFL is looking at a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly.

The only connection that game has with AFL is that it was played in Melbourne and was part of the city’s growing interest in playing football. The first local rules of football were not written until members of the Melbourne FC met and laid them down the following year.

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.”

The schoolboys game, umpired by Tom Wills, is commemorated in a famous sculpture at the MCG.

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 / ABC Radio)

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), was a straight from the traditions in place at Rugby School.

The Rugby game had spread through the British Empire like wildfire in 1857 and 1858 on the enormous popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a book about Tom’s fantastical life at Rugby School. Young Brown was the Harry Potter of the 19th century.

The book included a dramatic and enticing chapter about the joys and excitement of a football game. Tom Wills, who had just returned home from Rugby School armed with innate knowledge of the rules and ways of the game, was to Melbourne’s schoolboys a football wizard.

 The Argus (16 August 1858) writing on the schoolboys match stated:

“The match at football between the Church of England and Scotch Schools, which was to have been completed in the Richmond Park on Saturday afternoon, remains undecided, as the members of the Church of England School did not appear upon the ground … Football seems to be coming into fashion in Melbourne, and as it is a most manly and amusing game we hope that it may continue to grow in favor until it becomes as popular as cricket.

To lookers-on a well-contested football match is as interesting a sight as can be conceived, the chances, changes, and ludicrous contretemps are so frequent, and the whole affair so animated and inspiriting.

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.”

The way the AFL tells it their code’s birth was an innovative (and uniquely Australian) response to the helter skelter of a lawless nondescript football in Melbourne.

The reality is the first rules of 1859 were a reaction to the violence and complexity of Rugby football, and that could only mean that Rugby football must pre-date AFL in Australia. 

It was a reaction to these earlier football games in Melbourne, and the way that they were played, that led to the suggestion of a meeting [held on 17 May 1859] to frame playing rules for the Melbourne FC. One of the men present was William Hammersley, who wrote in 1883 (reproduced in The Referee on 9 September 1908):

“When the game first started in Victoria on anything like a sound footing (that was 1857), it was a very rough game and no mistake. My shins now show honourable scars, and often I had the blood trickling down my legs. No wonder, for hacking was permitted, and no objection was taken to spiked shoes. One day, however, after a severe fight in the old Richmond paddock, when blood had been drawn freely and some smart raps exchanged, and a leg broken, it occurred to some of us that if we had rules to play under it would be better. Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself…We decided to draw up a simple code of rules, and as few as possible, so that anyone could quickly understand. We did so, and the result was the rules then drawn up form the basis of the of the present code under which the game is universally played in Victoria and most other parts of Australia.”

© Sean Fagan