Why did Aussie rules fail to conquer Sydney, Brisbane and New Zealand? Listen to AFL fans, and it was all down to hard luck and being thwarted by the dastardly deeds of other codes, and never that the game itself simply didn’t find enough supporters.
Let’s look at each of the areas and the usual reason given.
From Geelong FC website [link]:
The code of Australian Rules football has been played in Queensland for 150 years. Yes, 150 years … By 1884 there were over 50 Australian Rules clubs throughout Queensland, and only two rugby clubs in the township of Rockhampton.
From AFL Queensland website [link]:
In 1883 Queensland sent delegates to the Inter-colonial Football Conference which was the forerunner to the Australian Football Council. At the time Queensland boasted more than 300 teams … Mythology suggests that in 1901 the Brisbane Independent Schools headmasters took a vote to determine which football code would be adopted in the Independent Schools. Our game was defeated by 1 vote due partly no doubt to its reference as Victorian Rules.
To attain 300 teams (in the days of 20 players-a-side) would have necessitated well over 6,000 footballers. However, we know that in the Brisbane-Ipswich area in the early 1880s there were at most six teams.
In April 1880 four clubs – Brisbane, Wallaroo, Excelsiors, Athenians/Ipswich – held a meeting and resolved to form the Queensland Football Association (QFA), which played games under both codes (Aussie rules and Rugby).
The playing rules in Queensland football in the late 1870s had varied between Rugby laws and local rules; the teams were not playing to Victorian rules.
The permanent split came in 1883 with the formation of the QRU (Rugby) and a new QFA (Australian rules). Brisbane’s first two Rugby clubs under the QRU were organised at the start of the 1884 season.
Queensland Figaro [Brisbane newspaper] reported (4 July 1885) that Excelsiors “form the only club which has, by its constitution and rules, adopted the Australian Rules pure and simple.”
A useful comparison of playing numbers is provided by The Queenslander (2 September 1882) which noted in all of NSW there were 48 Rugby clubs and between 2,500-3,000 players. To suggest Queensland could boast 300 Australian rules teams in the early 1880s is patently ludicrous.
It was reported at the QRU meeting in April 1886 that Toowoomba Grammar School had crossed over to Rugby, but the move was cautioned as premature unless all three schools (Toowoomba, Ipswich and Brisbane) agreed.
The defining moment in the code battle came with the 1886 Queensland Rugby side who defeated NSW for the first time in Sydney. One of the stars of the team was Fred O’Rourke – an outside back who a year earlier led an (unsuccessful) call amongst fellow students at Brisbane Grammar School to change from Victorian rules to Rugby.
However, O’Rourke’s on-field deeds and fame for Queensland in 1886 in Sydney led to the boys demanding the change be made. The Queensland Figaro wrote (23 April 1887) of “More deserters from the Australian Rules of football – it is currently rumoured that the Brisbane Grammar School this season will adopt the Rugby rules.” In August 1887 the Brisbane and Toowoomba schools played their annual match under Rugby rules for the first time (The Brisbane Courier, 22 August 1887).
While legend has it that a meeting of ‘Independent Schools headmasters’ in 1887 agreed by just one vote to switch to Rugby, it is a story that ignores (as in the instance at Brisbane Grammar referred to above) that the choice of football code and rules was in the hands of the students, not the headmasters (see also Courier-Mail, 24 March 1951). Moreover, there was at the time only three such schools in existence, no ‘Independent Schools’ group, nor any evidence of any collective vote between the schools at all.
Indeed, at Ipswich it was not until two years later that “the Grammar School…made their first appearance in the Rugby field” against the town’s Athenian FC (The Brisbane Courier, 10 June 1889), an event confirmed by the School’s headmaster (The Queenslander, 27 December 1890) who stated “last year the school abandoned the Melbourne rules, and what is called the Rugby game is now played. Our school would have been isolated from the other schools had the change not been made.”
The change in the schools mirrored the trend throughout the colony, with the QRU boasting 25 clubs in 1887. In listing the QFA matches for 1887’s Brisbane competition there were just four senior clubs. The final games under Aussie rules in Brisbane and Ipswich were played in 1889, revived briefly in 1892, and then re-commenced again in August 1903.
There was no vote by school headmasters over football in 1901 or at any other time.
As for Australian rules having been played in Queensland for 150 years…when founded in 1866 Brisbane’s first football club adopted Victorian rules, but a decade on was a Rugby club [link].
As noted above until 1903 the existence in Queensland of teams actually playing to Victorian/Australian rules was sporadic or non-existent.
The code has a long history in Queensland, but to outright declare it has been ever-present in the state over the past 150 years is folly.
From Wiki ‘Australian rules football in NSW’ [link]:
… the proponents of the Australian game formed the NSW Football Association in 1880 and in 1881 the first Australian rules game between NSW and Victoria was played in Sydney. The NSWFA was small, with only a few clubs, including Waratah who switched code in 1882, and competition did not begin in earnest until 1889, when clubs competed for the Flanagan Cup. Having trouble gaining access to enclosed grounds, and therefore gate receipts, the association also had trouble with antagonism between its clubs, and it collapsed in 1893.
From AFL Sydney website [link]:
The game attracted a reasonable amount of newspaper exposure and rivaled the rugby code until 1894, when during one of the worst depressions to hit the country, the game fell from favour and the association collapsed. It was revived in 1903 … a new competition and the NSW Australian Football League was formed. To use a contemporary phrase , `the league was powering’. In 1911 it purchased a ground on Botany Road, Alexandria, and appointed a fulltime secretary. However, World War I prevented the game from establishing itself as part of Sydney’s culture, and at a very delicate time finances dried up, the ground was sold and clubs were reduced to five, playing only a first grade competition between 1917-1919. When hostilities ended, the game gradually resumed in Sydney, but never to the level it previously held, with clubs coming and going.
Sydney lacked the number of centrally located enclosed grounds that Melbourne enjoyed, but to extend that circumstance so that it becomes the NSWRU’s doing in an effort to stymie Australian rules growth takes some imagination.
The SCG was the primary sporting facility, and in the early 1890s the NSWRU held the lease. Should it have vacated the ground just to aid the NSWFA and injure itself? In fact the SCG was made available by the SCG Trust and the NSWRU for all Australian rules inter-colonial games and visits from the prominent clubs from Melbourne and Adelaide.
While the NSWFA didn’t have the SCG for club games, it did in the early 1890s have the adjacent Showground (Agricultural Ground) and Wentworth Park – by way of comparison, when rugby league started in 1908 these were its two only city grounds for its early seasons, and despite being ovals rather than rectangular, proved sufficiently popular with the public to fund the new code. In the early 1890s the NSWFA also used the open field of Moore Park (near the SCG).
To suggest the NSWFA ‘rivaled’ Rugby in Sydney is more than a stretch. In 1891 in Sydney the NSWFA had 10 teams competing in two divisions (four in first grade), while in comparison the NSWRU had 65 teams (ten in first grade) over four divisions (The Referee, 29 July & 5 August 1891).
The failure of the NSWFA was brought about by its own clubs, and that the standard of play offering no appeal to Sydneysiders as a spectator sport, not the supposed lack of grounds or effect of the economic depression.
Australian Town and Country Journal on 11 July 1891 offered hope:
Concerning the exciting match played on Moore Park on Saturday last between the Sydney and West Sydney clubs, under Australian rules, Mr. Francis Andrews, of Surry Hills, writes:- Sir, After waiting several seasons I was rewarded on Saturday afternoon by seeing a game of football under Australian rules that closely presented the attractive features seen at football as played in Victoria, Adelaide, Hobart, etc. I refer to the match, Sydney versus West Sydney, played on Moore Park. I, in common with the large crowd who witnessed the play, came away thoroughly satisfied with the fact that the Sydney public only want to see a good contest under these rules to roll up in quite as many tens of thousands – as they did in single thousands last Saturday; and I feel sure we shall soon have the game popular in this city as it is in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Hobart, and our own Northern and Southern districts and other large centres, if our athletic youths will only sink all prejudice, and give our only really colonial national game a fair show. At any rate, after last Saturday, it seems to be only a matter of time, and the sooner the better.
Sydney’s Evening News on 9 May 1893 explains what eventuated:
Mr. J, Buckley presided over the annual meeting of the New South Wales Football Association, held at the Oxford Hotel last night. The report stated that the past season had been the most unsatisfactory and disastrous in the history of the association. The troubles, disagreements, and petty jealousies existing during the season 1891, and the decision of the association at the end of that year to have a final match played for the Flanagan Cup — which was attended with such evil results — was a bad omen for the succeeding year. With the opening of the 1892 season, the delegates seemed to have awakened to a keener and more bitter form of antagonism. Although the year 1891 was practically disastrous to the progress of the game, yet it remained for the close of 1892 to almost crush it out of existence. The West Sydneys were deprived of a victory in their second match against the Sydneys by playing a man who was not eligible. The Sydneys, however, decided to play a final match rather than win the cup by a protest; but the Wests failed to put a team into the field. The Sydneys were therefore awarded the match, and became premiers for the season 1892, and winners of the cup. It was hoped that this year the junior association would have amalgamated with the senior body, as neither association had sufficient clubs to enable it to carry on business separately in a satisfactory manner. The juniors had, however, declined to amalgamate.
Others have suggested that Sydney and NSW were never going to accept ‘Melbourne rules’ or ‘Victorian rules’ as their game.
Some have gone so far as to state the latter monikers for the code were disparaging tags that began in the Sydney sporting circles and newspapers as means to stymie growth of the game.
This stance is seemingly oblivious to the fact that these terms were originated and adopted by Melburnians and Victorians, not the Rugby rules devotees of the northern colonies.
The ‘Melbourne rules’ (as in those of the Melbourne FC) is a phrase found in Melbourne’s and Victorian newspapers of the late 1850s and early 1860s, including The Age, not Sydney newspapers.
In 1866 at a meeting of Melbourne’s football clubs they adopted, as reported and indeed published and printed at the time, the “Victorian Rules of Football”.
They didn’t in 1866 adopt the ‘Australian rules of football’ or ‘Australian football rules’, if they had in fact even held such a lofty vision at that time.
Sydney’s major newspapers reported on local ‘Australian Rules’ games in the late 1880s and early 1890s when the code was at its peak, not ‘Victorian rules’.
The source of this mischievous and long-held rationalisation is the quote below (the underlined section). In many modern sources the pompous composition is attributed to be that of a Sydney rugby or sports writer in a newspaper in 1880, when in fact it was a ‘straw man’ voiced by a rancorous Aussie rules correspondent called ‘Orange and Blue’ in Victoria’s The Footballer in 1881. It serves to show the quote within the context of the sentences before and after it to see its full meaning:
This bringeth me to the gist of my article. The great objections to the rules in New South Wales was the fact that they were styled “The Victorian Rules of Football.” Had they been dubbed the Scandinavian rules, well and good; but ‘Victorian’—perish the thought! Sooth to say, my irate Victorians, ye have no right to call them by that name … I think that the sooner their name is altered to “The Australasian Rules of Football” the better.
Invigorated by the arrival of Federation (combining the former colonies into a continent-wide nation) ‘Australian rules’ was revived in Sydney in 1903 and 11 clubs were formed (Sydney, Paddington, East Sydney, Balmain, North Shore, West Sydney, Redfern, Newtown, Ashfield, Y.M.C.A. and Alexandria).
Competition matches were held on the Agricultural Ground, Wentworth Park, Birchgrove Oval and ‘Sydney Cricket Ground No.2’. Sydney premiership grand finals were played at the SCG, which also hosted over 1903-04 three VFL games (Essendon vs Melbourne; Geelong vs Carlton; Fitzroy vs Collingwood).
As would be later evidenced by the country’s response to Britain’s call-to-arms in WW1, the coming of Federation should not be retrospectively presumed as evidence that patriotism for all things Australian (and the shunning of all that wasn’t) had become the dominating view. The ‘national game’ was belittled in Sydney by the majority who favoured the ‘Empire game’ of Rugby.
Despite having five years head-start on the yet to be founded rugby league, in 1907-08 Australian rules was not ‘powering’ well enough to hold its ground leases against the new code.
From NSW Football History [link]:
… a formal presentation of what is understood to be the oldest football trophy still contested in Australia. The elegant Black Diamond Cup was donated in 1887 by a Newcastle firm, the Richmond Tobacco Company and Hunter clubs have played for the trophy since then and holds a proud place in the history of the Australian game in NSW … The cup, first contested in 1888, pre-dates cricket’s Sheffield Shield, first presented for the 1892/93 season.
From AFL 150 Years website [defunct site]:
The first official football match was played in 1883 – between Newcastle City, which still exists proudly today, and Northumberland – and several years later the competition was named the Black Diamond Challenge Cup. In 1887 a trophy was donated to the league by Newcastle’s Richmond Tobacco Co. Today, this magnificent cup sits behind glass in the Newcastle Museum. It is only removed – ceremoniously, and very carefully – from its display cabinet on grand final day every year, to be held aloft symbolically for just a few moments by the grand final winning team. This makes it the oldest known sporting trophy in Australia which is still contested today. Footy around Newcastle increased in popularity until it ground to a sudden halt around 1890 as the depression caused many miners to be relocated to other mines outside the area. Unsurprisingly for the next century or so the competition went through a number of phases. World wars, another depression and the sporadic movements of itinerant mining populations affected the popularity of the game in a state where the rugby codes have always maintained strong support … A hundred and fifty years after the first match of Australian Rules football, the game on the north coast of NSW continues to increase in popularity. And a competition with rich traditions looks set to stride confidently into the future.
‘The Black Diamond Football League’ is cited as the oldest continuous football competition in Australia, that some of the original clubs are now among the oldest, and that the code has generally always held a permanent presence in the Hunter.
The Richmond Tobacco Company donated the “Black Diamond Cup” [‘black diamond’ being coal] for the region’s Victorian rules clubs to compete for in 1887. After Wallsend won the Cup in 1888 & ’89, it gained permanent ownership and it was no longer played for.
In May 1894 letter writers to The Maitland Daily Mercury debated the question as to whether Victorian rules was on the wane – from the supporters of the code there was agreement that in Newcastle itself “the old City Club was the only one [that had existed and it has now] been dead years and years,” but there were 5 to 6 senior clubs in 1893-94 still active in other townships, as well as many junior teams. However, in 1895 not one of the Victorian rules clubs reappeared.
Attempts to revive the code were made (1903-07. the early 1920s and the mid 1930s), but it was not until 1948 that anything permanent was established, with founding of the Newcastle Australian Rules Football League (which divided the area into four clubs: Newcastle, Waratah, Broadmeadow and Mayfield).
From AFLCommunityClub website (NZ page) [link]:
New Zealanders have been playing Australian football for just as long as Aussies have. In 1882 there were 36 New Zealand clubs playing the sport. By 1901, they had 115 Australian football teams.
From ‘A Short History of International Cup’ [link]:
44 clubs play the game in New Zealand (in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wanganui, Otago, Invercargill, Napier, Lyttelton, Timaru, Hamilton and Gisborne).
From Wiki ‘Laws of Australian rules football’ [link]:
In 1890, delegates from New Zealand were added and the Australasian Football Council was formed to facilitate a growing number of intercolonial matches which at one point also included leagues and teams from New Zealand.
From Auckland AFL history page [link]:
Pre World War One – It is a little known fact that football has been played in New Zealand for nearly as long has it has been played in Australia … Development of the game in New Zealand was stopped abruptly by World War I.
Reference is made to the figures provided in William Greenwood’s 2008 PhD thesis, Class, Conflict and the Clash of Codes / Massey University, pp. 275-7 [link] to give perspective to the claims that in 1901 there were 115 Aussie rules teams [therefore 2300 players] in New Zealand, and that WW1 stopped the rise of the code.
For example, in 1914 the combined number of Rugby teams across all grades in Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington was only 140 [i.e. 2100 players].
In 1908 Auckland had 8 Australian rules teams, but by 1910 it had declined to 4. In 1913-14 i.e. before the war, the Victorian game was already extinct in Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington.
There is no evidence of Australian rules being played at all in New Zealand in the early 1880s, let alone 36 clubs in 1882.
The greatest proliferation of ex-pat Victorians and their descendants were to be found in the Otago goldfields regions. Putting aside that this migration occurred in the 1860s and most were miners (raising doubt as to how savvy or interested with Victorian rules football they were), reports of a mere one club (the ‘Victoria FC’ playing both codes) existing in Dunedin 1879 to mid 1882 (Otago Daily Times 25 April & 29 September 1882) have been found.
The football columnist for the Otago Witness (15 July 1882) gives an unequivocal statement as to how many clubs were playing Aussie rules in New Zealand in 1882, and there weren’t 36 of them:
A writer (‘Peter Pindar’) in the ‘Australasian’ of the 17th ult. makes the astounding statement that the Victorian game is played by fully half the clubs in N.Z. I am afraid the gentleman in question has been imposed on, or that in his anxiety to prove the superiority of the Victorian game over every other in existence, he has indulged in the besotting sin of Colonials, viz., blow!
For my own part, I have nothing to say in disparagement of the Victorian game, except that I think the Rugby game infinitely superior to it but I do object to such a statement going forth uncontradicted. Will it surprise the writer to learn that from Cape Reinga to the Bluff [the extremities of New Zealand] there is not a solitary club which plays the Victorian rules?
There was no Australasian or Australian National Football Council formed until the 20th century. Since the early 1880s there was an annual conference hosted in Melbourne by the Victorian Football Association (VFA) of representatives of each colony’s Australian rules body, but no one from New Zealand was ever present until 1905.
Following the lead of ‘Orange and Blue’ in The Footballer (see above) the group had in 1883 resolved to call the game ‘Australasian rules’ football, and fired off letters to the Rugby bodies throughout NSW, Queensland and New Zealand, suggesting the immediate adoption of the Melbourne-born game on the grounds that everyone else was playing it. The Otago Witness (18 July 1885) explained it as:
With a view to completely justifying the application of the word Australasian as applied to the rules, the late secretary of the V.F.A. (Mr Jas. Boyd) communicated some time ago with the secretary of the Otago (N.Z.) Rugby Football Union forwarding copies of the revised rules and suggesting their adoption on the very excellent grounds that they were “universally acknowledged in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria, and that in New South Wales and Queensland they were rapidly superseding the Rugby and British Association rules.” Mr Boyd also pointed out that New Zealand would eventually have to adopt the Australasian rules if she had any intention of taking part in intercolonial contests. The letter upon being read “caused considerable laughter,” but for what reason it would be difficult to surmise. In the plenitude of its wisdom, however, the Otago Rugby Football Union enjoyed its little laugh over the letter, and passed a resolution “that it be received.”
The brief period in which Australian rules was played across the Tasman did not dawn until 1904, there was never anything like 115 teams, and while a New Zealand selection competed in the national carnival in Melbourne in 1908, the code’s existence was over long before WW1 could have any impact at all.
© Sean Fagan