The recent signings of Rugby League players to the expansion clubs of the AFL has me thinking about the history of football (used here generically for all codes) and just what makes Aussie Rules distinctive in the current world.
Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson has a interesting account of football has it changed from a vaguely defined and informal village game into codified forms played by clubs and public schools. What is of note is the virtues that were ascribed to the sport. It was a bulwark against excessive intellectualism, against solipsism. It promoted exertion over thought and exercise over mental masturbation. It was an important part in fostering Muscular Christianity and Anglo Saxon virtue.
The informal village forms all allowed the use of both hands and feet to propel the ball against the physical impediment of the opposition. The closest modern from to this is Harrow Football. Different codes began to emphasize different form of exertion rather than skills or tactics. A split occurred when Northerners, who favoured grappling disagreed with the Southerners who preferred hacking at the shins of the opposition, resulting in the codes of Rugby and Soccer respectively. Each then felt obliged to produce further rules to promote the aspects. The offside rule in soccer to prevent passing forward instead of dribbling, and the offside and forward pass rules in Rugby and offshoots to emphasize running.
Here I begin enter my own speculation.
These rules were designed to deemphasize in favour of physical prowess, but ensured the future of tactics. These extra rules provided far more structure to the game, and thus to the defence which became a wall. The return for a person who could think a way through or around that wall suddenly became much higher than someone who continued to try and barge right through. Such a person wasn’t in England at the time, but as Wilson describes, soccer expanded to places where the dichotomy between athlete and academic was less strong they were quickly found. First in Scotland and then amongst Jews on the continent whom were far too uncultured to realised how gauche thinking was. It was these who then expanded their teachings to South America where managers are still addressed as Doctor. Belatedly even England, after decades of humiliation, had to fall in line. The running codes, which remained in the English speaking world, took longer, but as professionalism made victory more lucrative first American Football, then Rugby League in the 70s and Union (belatedly) in the 90s began to produce coaches who could develop a game plan. In retrospect, it is amazing how much of Rod Macqueen’s success in Rugby Union stemmed from the adoption of the most basic tactics from Rugby League.
This brings us to AFL. Unlike soccer and the running codes, Aussie Rules never embarked on the same expansion of rules to promote one form of exertion. It remained similar to how all the other codes existed in the mid 19th century prior to codification. This is after all was when the oldest clubs in the league were founded. Despite perculiar fairy tales about aborigines inventing the sport it remains amongst the most pure of English footballs. The only similar throwbacks are Harrow (played at one school) and Gaelic Football (which ironically has strong anti-English semiotics), neither of which are professional. So the AFL is unique indeed, and worth protecting, if not for the reasons of the most zealous evangelists.
Unfortunately, the absence of structure makes it rather tactically unsatisfying to me at least. I have been trying to develop an appreciation for Australian Rules since my early teens (the same time I came to soccer), having no preconceptions about the sport at all. There certainly wasn’t a state based parochialism – Novocastrianism always trumped New South Welshism, and I’m not sure the latter exists in Sydney either. With no structure in the defense, the scalpel needed in other codes is left unused in favour of the broadsword. I only ever feel like I’m watching a group of athletes preforming remarkable feats and effort rather than a team. Buildup is not a patient setting of the chessborad but prolonged exertion to be rewarded. I may as well watch basketball. My wife in turn, who was born and raised in Japan and thus ignorant of most codes, quickly developed an appreciation of Rugby League, but sneeringly dismisses Aussie Rules as looking like “a six year olds match, all chasing after the ball” despite my best attempts to defend the sport.
This brings us way back to Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau. If we assume that they are not merely publicity stunts but genuine attempts to sign athletes they think will be successful, it seems to confirm my feelings. It betrays a sense that any great physical specimen can be drafted and perform well without the long development of tactical understanding to the point it becomes instinctive. I was highly bemused when this post by Sam Wylie declared that the AFL and soccer both were after players who “could run all day”. The FFA has recently torn up and changed the rules of junior football to tear out this attitude from soccer root and branch as a relic of an amateur era. They instead have decided to promote a small side game to find and develop those players with understanding as well as the physical, and in fact to stop players from running as much. I guess now Wylie is simply voicing the conventional wisdom of the AFL, that has not had the value of the non-physical forced upon them.
I wish Hunt and Folau all the best, and wish they succeed, but if they do, I think it may be because the AFL remains more a sport of the body rather than both body and mind, and that it is the last bastion of Anglo Saxon virtue.