The traditional “kick-to-kick” game of Australian rules football is claimed as unique to the code. In reality it is a tradition from Rugby School, where it was called the “punt-about”.
I was interested to read that the AFL’s picnic day at the MCG commemorating the 1858 Scotch College match, included what was described as the traditional Australian rules game of “kick-to-kick”.
For those that are unfamiliar with the term, kick-to-kick is a game (more an informal pastime) where two players stand apart, and simply punt or drop kick the football to each other.
The beauty of kick-to-kick is that all you need are two people, a little space, and a football (or even something that can substitute for a football if need be!).
For many Australian rules football teams, kick-to-kick is a warm up routine of match day or before training sessions.
At suburban and country games, “invasions” by fans onto the ground are a frequent occurence at half-time or full-time. It makes for a wonderful sight, with a mass of footballers covering the grass, footballs filling the air as they cross from the kickers to the catchers. The field buzzes and the air sings.
Kick-to-kick is described as a “well-known tradition of Australian rules football”, having existed since the game’s beginnings – hence its use at a picnic commemorating the birth of the code.
There are some that suggest kick-to-kick is the link between the Indigenous game of Marn Grook and the birth of the code.
It is claimed by Australian rules enthusiasts that kick-to-kick is a unique custom and that, while the rugby games use a similarly shaped ball, few League or Union players and fans are interested in kicking, preferring to indulge in forms of touch football and throwing the ball about.
No doubt a few rugbyites (of either code) will disagree with that definition! – and, by inference, if we are witnessed in the park or on the street kicking a rugby ball per “kick-to-kick”, does that mean we are to be (mistakenly) taken to be advocates for Australian rules?
What is useful is to refer to some texts from the mid-1800s, and put some context to Australian rules’ birth and customs.
A must-read are the rules of football at Rugby School – first documented in 1845 and featuring off-side play and “knocking-on” (punching/striking the ball forward).
The other is Thomas Hughes’ classic novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Published in 1857 Tom Brown’s Schooldays was the Harry Potter of its day. Based on Hughes’ own experiences of Rugby School, the book was a worldwide phenomena.
Courtesy of a colourful and descriptive chapter recounting a football game on the School’s field, the winter sport was suddenly thrust into popularity throughout the English speaking world.
A year later, was anyone really surprised to see that the boys of Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar are more than eager to take part in a “Grand Football Match” under the eye of former Rugby School old-boy, Thomas Wills?
Which brings us back to “kick-to-kick” football, and where it originated from.
A quick read of Tom Brown’s Schooldays explains it all – and reveals what is celebrated as an Australian rules game day and park tradition, kick-to-kick is simply the “punt-about” custom of Rugby School, where the boys catch and then punt or drop kick the ball to each other.
Excerpts from Tom Brown’s Schooldays (Rugby School, England, 1857):
From Brown’s first encounter with the playing field…
He hadn’t long to wonder, however, for next minute East cried out, “Hurrah! here’s the punt-about; come along and try your hand at a kick.”
The punt-about is the practice-ball, which is just brought out and kicked about anyhow from one boy to another before callings-over and dinner, and at other odd times.
They joined the boys who had brought it out, all small School-house fellows, friends of East; and Tom had the pleasure of trying his skill, and performed very creditably, after first driving his foot three inches into the ground, and then nearly kicking his leg into the air, in vigorous efforts to accomplish a drop-kick after the manner of East.
Presently more boys and bigger came out, and boys from other houses on their way to calling-over, and more balls were sent for.
The crowd thickened as three o’clock approached; and when the hour struck, one hundred and fifty boys were hard at work.
Then the balls were held, the master of the week came down in cap and gown to calling-over, and the whole school of three hundred boys swept into the big school to answer to their names.
“Hold the punt-about!” “To the goals!” are the cries; and all stray balls are impounded by the authorities, and the whole mass of boys moves up towards the two goals.
So, every time a game of “kick-to-kick” is on the park or in the backyard, Australian football fans and players are doing more than celebrating their game’s traditions, they are confirming the code’s origins in Rugby School.
William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown may well find more familiar surroundings in 21st century Melbourne AFL football than they would watching England battle on at Twickenham.
There are also numerous references to the “punt-about”, including its pre-match tradition, in The Book of Rugby School: Its History and Its Daily Life by Edward Meyrick Goulburn (1856). The sketch image “Puntabout” above is from this book.
© Sean Fagan