Tom Wills, recognised by many (mistakenly perhaps) as Australian football’s founding father, always reckoned the Rugby rules were worth having a closer look at. In fact, if Wills had initially got his way, there might never have been an Australian football code at all.

Tom Wills
Tom Wills

As John Harms explored in The Age [16/5/09], Australian football turned 150 years old on May 17 of 2009, marking the anniversary of the initial rules meeting of the fledgling Melbourne FC, in which Wills took a major role. While Wills was NSW born and Victorian raised, he spent his teen years as a boarder at England’s Rugby School. His father had hopes that young Tom’s time at Rugby would lead to his emergence as an educated and refined gentleman. Wills though quickly found that he much preferred Rugby’s cricket and football, games at which he excelled, instead of scholarly pursuits. William Hammersley, a fellow member at the Melbourne FC rules meeting, recalled how the debate to the set the laws down began:

“Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except them himself.”

Wills, it seems, recognised there was no point in being obstinate. He was reasoned enough to realise that some adjustment was needed if English school football was to be transformed into a new leisure game for men played on the harder grounds of Melbourne. The group went on to reach a comfortable compromise of a safer and simpler game than that played at Rugby School, formulating and putting down in writing the first rules of Australian football. However, as Greg de Moore, author of a 2008 biography on Wills explains, Rugby was at the forefront:

“Australian Rules football owes its defining features – emphasis on handling the ball, the importance of kicking, the shape of the ball, receiving a free kick after marking the ball and much more – to the Rugby School rules that Tom Wills brought.”

Wills later unsuccessfully argued for further Rugby traits to be adopted, including the addition of a cross-bar between the goal posts (to eliminate fluke goals and “grubbers”), and even dared to suggest that each team should appoint a designated kicker to take place-kick shots at goal. The Geelong Advertiser in 1875 (Geelong s Kardinia match):

A dispute arose on the ground with reference to Mr T. W. Wills, who was acting as central umpire, allowing the Geelong captain the privilege of selecting his man to kick for a mark given for holding. The case in dispute was where Satchwell was held, and Mr Wills allowed Hall to kick the ball, thereby securing a goal. Most decidedly the central umpire was correct, on the grounds that as an injustice had been done to the Geelong team the captain had a perfect right, as a free kick was allowed, to give it to the best kicker in the team. The decision of Mr Wills should have been sufficient, as, being an old Rugby captain, he is perfectly well aware of the laws of football.

The Melbourne FC’s rules committee cast aside Rugby’s complex off-side laws, as were the code’s darker attributes of scrummaging, wrestling and full tackling – all features that led to hard falls, serious injuries and the frequent loss of temper. It was argued that men could ill afford to present themselves for work on Monday morning still suffering sore bones and deep bruises from Saturday afternoon’s football.

So, the codes went their separate ways, as indeed did – eventually – Australia’s cities and towns in their football preferences.

In Sydney and Brisbane “the Melbourne game” gained enthusiastic adherents from the 1880s onwards, but not the ascendancy.

More than the many care to admit though, both codes still had much in common, particularly in regard to kicking the egg-shaped ball.

The Rugby traits of place- and drop-kicking for goal were by far the most regular form of scoring in Australian football well into the 20th century.

The “treacherous punt” kick was derided by generations of Melbourne old-timers as the resort of the novice footballer.

No doubt if Albert “the Great” Thurgood (Essendon and Fremantle star of the 1890s) could be resurrected he would find much in modern AFL to marvel at, but if he wanted to re-live his favoured “places” and “drops” he would have to venture out to one of the city’s Rugby matches.

Melbourne and Rugby football are far from unacquainted with each other, with the first Rugby clubs founded as long ago as 1888.

© Sean Fagan