The Australians are naturally fiercely proud of the sport they simply call “footy”, a sport they invented and have been playing for over 150 years, but whose origins never hinted it would go on to flourish as that country’s premier spectator sport.
How Did Australian Rules Football Start?
You need to go back to the winter of 1858 to discover the origins of Aussie Rules, Australia’s premier spectator sport and one of the most fast-paced, exciting and tough team sports to be found anywhere on earth.
Indeed, there are many who think you need to go back further than that, to an indigenous Australian mass-participation kick-about game called Marn Grook, and it’s quite possible that it was a game known to Tom Wills, one of the sport’s pioneers.
Wills, probably Australia’s first cricketer of note and captain of the Victoria team, wrote an open letter in July 1858 encouraging the state authorities to form a football club to ensure his fellow cricketers had a means of staying fit during the winter.
A few barely-organised kickabouts later, there was then staged a 40-a-side school match with barely any rules, played across three weekends, which ended in a draw and is immortalised in a statue outside the MCG.
In the following year, Melbourne Football Club was officially established.
Refining the Rules – And Seeing off the English
The Rules of the Melbourne Football Club were drafted in 1859 and were deliberately simple. There were only ten of them – and this is somewhat ironic given what we know about the modern game – an emphasis on clean play by eliminating some of the early thuggery they associated with, for example, rugby.
Other changes followed quickly as the sport’s popularity grew. The running bounce was introduced in 1866, the round ball became oval, so too the grounds on which they played, there were high marks and long kicks and finally, with the whole of the country now touched by this rising phenomenon, the name Australian Rules was born.
Any whiff that the game might be successfully exported, however, didn’t amount to much. An England team toured in 1888, did well, but the visit was never reciprocated and the “people’s game” as Australians called it, remained firmly within their shores.
From Melbourne to Sydney
South Australia and Victoria formed the sport’s first leagues in 1877, quickly followed by the other states, except Northern Territory where competition didn’t arrive until 1916.
There was no national club competition but occasionally inter-state fixtures, though the Victorian Football League flourished, especially from the 1950s-1980s when crowds in excess of 100,000 regularly attended the Grand Final.
The origins of an all-Australian competition were sowed in 1982 when South Melbourne made the decision to move across the state border to Sydney and became the Sydney Swans.
That pricked interest in other clubs and the Australian Football League was created in 1990 to become the most powerful body in the sport.