Aussie Rules – The most English game

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.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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12 Responses to Aussie Rules – The most English game

  1. FDB says:

    “I only ever feel like I’m watching a group of athletes preforming remarkable feats and effort rather than a team.”

    A group of athletes performing remarkable feats together, with a common goal, but without stringent rules about exactly how they must achieve that goal, seems like the ultimate test of teamwork to me.

    A group of players in rugby (league or union) look more uniform in purpose, even when they’re being flogged senseless, than does a champion AFL team in full flight. Is this a virtue? Perhaps to some (e.g. cultural stereotypes would put a ritual-loving Japanese person squarely in the frame here), but not to this little black duck. I love the chaos, and how it forces genuine collaborative creativity in teamwork in place of formulae.

    “the AFL remains more a sport of the body rather than both body and mind”

    BWAHAHAHAHA!!!! More so than the rugbies? You simply must be kidding.

  2. FDB says:

    Also, this account elides Tom Wills. Not essential for the point being made, assuming there is one beyond being bitter about losing two of your best players, but he did more or less single-handedly develop AFL from Rugby Football.

  3. Leinad says:

    Interesting piece, Richard.

    Daniel Silkstone explores similar ground here and I think you’ve both – from different angles – hit on one of the main reasons people used to more structured codes struggle with Aussie Rules. As a soccer fan I’m always struck by how, despite the vast field and eighteen-man teams, I don’t get the sense of rythym, tactics and interplay I do with soccer or rugby.

    There doesn’t seem to be the sort of play-reading that goes with rugby or the working of space essential in modern association football – live and on TV I feel like I’m watching a lot of mini-games broken up by repeated chasing after the ball as it bounces in giddy spirals.

  4. Butterfield, Bloomfiled % Bishop says:

    Actually Leinad I thought Aussie rules was very similar to an under 6 football game

  5. Yobbo says:

    “There doesn’t seem to be the sort of play-reading that goes with rugby or the working of space essential in modern association football”

    Obviously there is, but since Aussie Rules is played on a ground much larger than any other football code, less of it happens inside the spectator’s field of vision. If you are looking at the player with the ball then you can’t see what is happening on the 50% of the Aussie Rules ground simply because it is too large.

    This is – as the poster suggested – probably the biggest downfall of Aussie Rules as a code. The vast distances required mean that to be successful at Australian Rules you must first be a top-class endurance athlete simply because professional AFL players are required to run 20-25km during a game.

    20-30 years ago this wasn’t the case, because tactics hadn’t been fully fleshed out. People mostly stayed in their fixed positions (despite there being no formal rules compelling them to do so) out of tradition more than anything else. The few players who had uncommonly good endurance and bucked this trend and ran all over the place (Kevin Bartlett, Michael Tuck and later John Platten) became the best players, and as more people emulated them we got the game we have today where everyone is a rover with a few increasingly rare exceptions (the last Genuine Key Position players like Tony Lockett, Alistair Lynch, Matthew Lloyd, Glenn Archer, Simon Prestigiacomo etc are either recently retired or close to it).

  6. Richard Green says:

    Leidad – I think we may have to concede, as Yobbo has posted right as I was typing this sentence, that we may be limited by what we can see, especially on television (which might explain why Swans games in Sydney usually rate less well than more confined spaces of Kitchen Stadium). That said, the live matches I attended as well didn’t improve things much for us.

    FDB – and yes, I attended matches to increase appreciation because there’s no narrow code chauvinism here. Code chauvinism is a strangely inane thing, so I’m disappointed you can’t understand any other motivation but.

    In terms of Tom Willis. Most codes tend to mythologise their origins, and whilst Willis’ role isn’t utterly ficitonal like Webb Ellis’ in Rugby, or Doubleday’s in baseball, it does need to be placed in contxt. Once we remove features that were used because of their simple availability (oval balls and round fields) the game produced is in no way special amongst mid 19th century footballs. The concept of “creation” is thus not very applicable, certainly not “single handedly”.

  7. Jedda Baxter says:

    Well done Richard Green. Good stuff and very insightful.

    Tom Wills and his “Game of Our Own” story seems to be more of a myth than you credit.

    I also suggest to all a read Dr Tony Collins (Professor of social history at Leeds Metropolitan University) “Aussie Rules – a Very British Game“.

  8. Keith Campbell says:

    Those of us who exist in the Aussie Rules footy world do not deny that our game has English origins. (Yes not all of the inhabitants on this planet are consumed by Soccer football)
    When the four gentlemen who included Tom Wills sat down in May 1859 in a Melbourne pub to draw up a rule set they had in front of them copies of ALL of the existing English football rule sets. These were perused very carefully and several decisons were made.
    The initial 10 rule set they produced that night naturally contained bits and pieces of the various english rules. What other outcome could have been possible.

    What has evolved today from 1859 however is a sport that is still growing in Australia in a competitive enviroment, and lately Internationally driven by expats desperate for a kick of the footy far from home. This is despite its perceived lack of “structure” claimed by non followers of the sport.
    It does have structure but not the rigid structure of Soccer football and the Rugby Codes. It has an -Dare I say it – Australian structure – Free flowing – Quick decisions – 360 degree awareness -Some high marking – Some body contact – Free running -Kicking to position over 50 metres while on the run.

    We do not expect converts from other codes in large numbers as witnessed by the original article but we will try to introduce the game to thousands of uncommitted boys and girls everywhere who we hope will take the sport up.
    Some say “Pipe Dreaming” – We say wait and see.

  9. Keith Cotter says:

    Australian rules is just a dumbed down and emasculated version of rugby.

  10. Michael C says:

    I do think people over rate the importance of a very basic and vague set of 10 or so rules.

    The 10 rules of 1859 only described so much of the game. The ‘season’ of football in Melbourne in 1858 saw many variations and combinations attempted and illustrated that something unique was required. However, even after the set of 10 rules was written – the game played on any given day was subject to the captains/teams confirming the rules for the day, both prior to and during the game.

    The game of football in Victoria was certainly NOT a transplant of Rugby. Although, in the early days, there were similarities for sure, and for a time, a touring Rugby team might play against for example Carlton first by the Rugby rules and then the week later by the VIctorian rules.

    re the lack of structure – to others, that’s the relative freedom that draws them to the game. Beauty as they say is in the eye of the beholder – all the better that truly distinct games exist, because, in reality, how truly distinct are RU, RL and American Football.

    For those of us who play AUstralian Football, there are structures, positional, zonal, strategic, they tend to be more fluid, harder to identify. When talking about a scalpel, well – the need for such can depend upon who you play on a given day. Is the game played more defensively, or as a shoot out, do you match up well or better or worse than your opponent. There are many different ways to play the game. Structures though – well, there’s no off-side and the teams aren’t aligned as two opposing rows of ‘soldiers’ on a 19th century battlefield. Believe me though – for any team on a given day, the way they ‘structure up’ is super important. A match can become a case of finding a way to ‘unbalance’ your opponent whilst getting your own structures right. This means that EVERY player must play their role. IN Aust Footy, just one player being a bit loose can allow the opposition to create the ‘loose man’ (get the ‘overlap’ working), and to ‘create space’, to exploit the ‘fat side’ and to hurt you on the rebound. DOn’t for a minute believe that the better drilled as well as skilled team should do best – but, they have to be able to keep it up for 120 minutes.

  11. Michael C says:

    Just as a bit of an update – I covered the recent 4th installment of the Aust footy International Cup, 18 teams in Mens Div and 1st ever Womens division. No expats.

    Some of the nations having been to every of the 4 tournaments (2002, 2005, 2008, and 2011). The Danes were back for their 3rd after missing the 2005 tournament. In 2002 they included some Swedes in their squad. In 2008 Sweden debuted and returned this year. The Danish league saw a number of Icelandic lads in Denmark play the game, who since returned to Iceland and set up footy there – – thus, non Australian ‘expats’. Iceland hoped to debut this year but it’s a long costly journey for amateurs to self fund.

    Point of it is – the game is distinct, it’s played overseas by expats and non expats alike. Why?

    I did an interview with Tonga captain Peni Mahina (whose father is a cousin of Israel Folau’s father). Peni’s dad is a level 3 RU/RL coach. His family were Rugby. Now they are footy. Peni discovered the game via a clinic held at his school. Being a champion athlete and a good ‘footballer’ (RL), he found the perculiar mix of Aust Footy of skills, athleticism, it’s disciplines – and he found it was the game for him.

    He’s over the last couple of years been the inaugral captain of the Tongan U16s in the Oceania Cup, and played for the South Pacific side in the Aust National U16s Div 2. Sure, the Tongan ‘senior’ side debuting this year at the IC was a very young squad, but, the foundations are being laid.

    Perhaps, and ironically, Aust Footy, which straddles perhaps the midground (on the scale of rules) between soccer on one side and the rugby codes (and Grid Iron) on the other – that Aust Footy might benefit from the rule evolutions of soccer (Etonian football) and Rugby to become more distinct from the other.

    Soccer removed all hand usage (other than the side line throw in and the goalie). Rugby devalued the goal so much that a ‘try’ is now the object (or ‘goal’) of the game and a ‘goal’ is a secondary ‘conversion’. RL has all but killed off the field goal.

    Thank god then – for Australian football. Because, when in the mid/late 1800s the ‘English’ were more concerned about distinction – the Melbournian’s in particular were more concerned about inclusion. Which, to me, actually doesn’t seem the ‘most English’.

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