‘Unification’ Rules: Attempts to Surmount the Great Divide between Australian Football and Rugby League

A few seasons back there was some talk in the media about the possibility of a rugby match between the Australian Rugby Union and the Australian Rugby League sides under composite rules. In the end nothing came of the proposed code versus code ‘showdown,’ but it did have echoes from the past of Australian football. In 1909 an exhibition game of sorts between the two national rugby codes did take place as a “one-off” [‘Kangaroos v Wallabies hybrid game: Why?’, The Roar, 25 October 2011; ‘The game begins’, League of Legends:100 Years of Rugby League in Australia, www.nma.gov.au/].

In practice there has been one experiment in hybridised football – the fusion of Australian football and Eire’s game of Gaelic football. An all-Australian (AFL-selected) side has played a Gaelic football national side from the Republic of Ireland in a hybrid form of football (known as “International Rules” in Australia and “Compromise Rules” in Ireland) every year or every other year since 1984.

Back in the early days of rugby league in Australia (1908 to the start of WWI), some concerted efforts were made by both the Victorian Football League (VFL) and the NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) to concoct a single, universal code of Australian football using elements of both professional games (Aussie rules and rugby league). On two separate occasions, 1914 and 1933, the executives of both associations sat down together and tried to negotiate agreement on a universal code of football. How serious the codes were about achieving this objective, and whether the realisation of a single, composite set of rules would have led to an actual merger of the two codes, remains a moot and ultimately unanswerable point. It was interesting of itself that the idea was taken as seriously as it was by both executive bodies.

In 1914 the initiative for a merger appears to have come from the VFL. Elements within the VFL led by Charles Brownlow, Geelong Club secretary and delegate to the Australian National Football Council (ANFC) (with some support from the South Australian and West Australian Leagues), viewed the 1914 All-State National Rules Carnival in Sydney as much of a failure. Interest in the carnival and in Australian football in general was down compared to that in the fledgling sport of rugby league, which was drawing big crowds (especially the Australia-Great Britain tests of that year). A point not lost on the VFL – the 1914 Victorian Grand Final (Carlton v South Melbourne) drew only 30,000 odd spectators to the MCG compared to crowds of up to 41,000 for rugby league test matches during the same season! Brownlow (later memorialised eponymously in the Brownlow Medal) was of the opinion that a new combined sport of rugby league and Australian rules could produce a better spectacle, which would add thousands of pounds to the gate takings for games. The NSW Rugby League’s long-time secretary, Horrie Miller, was also disposed to the idea of a merger [‘The Australian and Rugby League Game Combine?’, NSW Football History Society (July 2014), www.nswfootballhistory.com.au].

A series of conferences were held during 1914 where the representatives of VFL clubs, the other equivalent, state football bodies and the rugby league authorities, discussed the various pros and cons of such an amalgamation. The Australian Press conducted a running commentary on the universal code proposal, with some commentators wholeheartedly talking up its merits, e.g., WH John in The Winner. John’s article in the Melbourne paper, ‘Universal Code further examined: Success predicted in Australia’ (9 December 1914), argued that 18 players-a-side in “Australian rules” was too many and the field was too large! The Registrar (Adelaide) suggested that a fusion of the two codes would demonstrate the best of the “British race”, quoting outgoing NSWRL Secretary Ted Larkins’ view that the hybrid game would embody the “characteristics of Britishers” (a statement which seems to echo the eugenics thinking widely in favour in the early 20th century) [The Registrar (25 May 1914)].

Other newspaper commentators were less sanguine about the chances of merging the two codes. JC Davis writing under the apt pen-name, “The Cynic”, opined that the status quo would not change, because the love of the games of Aussie rules in Victoria and rugby league in NSW was too deeply ingrained in each state’s “grass-roots” supporters to allow them to accept the proposed alterations to their preferred brand of football [‘The Universal Football Code’, The Referee (Sydney), 14 October 1914].

Another factor in the dynamic, as Martin Sharp has observed, was that Sydneysiders, even prior to the advent of rugby league in 1908, were reluctant to embrace Australian football due to the perception that “Victorian Rules (was) a Melbourne invention”. Sydney taking ownership of (and embracing) the South Melbourne Swans was still a long way off in the future. Sharp’s view is endorsed by Matthew Healy who noted that Sydney was a rugby (union) stronghold from 1880 to 1914, with the Victorian football establishment making little inroad in promoting the ‘southern’ code up north during this period [M Sharp, ‘Australian Football in Sydney Before 1914’, Sporting Traditions, Vol 4, No 1 (November 1987); M Healy, ‘Hard Sell: Australian Football in Sydney’, unpublished MA thesis, Victoria University (Melb.), 2002].

It was wasn’t for lack of trying! The VFL certainly made a wholehearted effort to create a foothold for Australian football in the harbour city. The Vics had a good local advocate for its game in NSW politician Edward O’Sullivan who declared that NSW should “support a game that was invented by Australians for Australia”. The VFL invested money into promoting the code in Sydney via funding visits to school by rules ‘lecturers’, but by the early 1910s rugby league was easily pulling the biggest footy crowds in Sydney. The Sydney Football League competition, launched in 1903, remained a minnow in Sydney when compared to either rugby code [Sean Fagan, ‘Aussie Rules almost had Sydney’; ‘The Superiority of the Melbourne Game’, Australian Rugby History, www.saintsandheathens.wordpress.com].

At the conferences on code amalgamation Brownlow and Miller’s proposals to combine the codes found a mixed reaction. There was a vocal and determined opposition to the idea from individual VFL club delegates (especially Carlton), but a willingness to come on board by some bodies, viz. the NSWRFL and the SANFL reached an agreement to amalgamate in February 1915. But the matter at the conferences stalled with the other football leagues, Victoria, Tasmania, West Australia, Queensland and NSW, not coming on board. With the nation becoming more preoccupied with its involvement as part of the British Empire in the Great War, the issue of amalgamation soon ran out of steam [‘Australian and Rugby League Game Combine?’].

In 1933 elements within the Australian football and professional rugby fraternity reignited the cause of a single, universal code of football. Again, the catalyst seems to have been that year’s 10-day interstate carnival in Sydney. Consequently, a conference was held in August, bringing together the state delegates of the ANFC and the delegates of the NSWRL (significantly the discussions were boycotted by the Queensland Rugby League). Supporters of an Australian football/rugby league fusion (including once again the NSWRFL Secretary HR Miller) held the view that the future of football would be assured by adopting one code which combined the best features of both games [‘One Code of Football’, Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 28 July 1933].

This time the proponents of amalgamation approached the issue in a more systematic manner. HR Miller drafted a specific set of rules for the new code which included 15 players-a-side (approximately splitting the difference in numbers between AF and RL), an oval field but reduced in size, abolition of the scrum and replacing it with a bounce, limited off-side would be allowed, behind posts replaced by a H-shaped rugby goalpost, and the scoring of both tries and goals permitted. In talks Miller pitched the new rules’ appeal to the Australian football leagues in terms of making it more of an open, action-plus game, “We are giving what you Australian rule (sic) people are asking for and what the Australian public require – that is action … at no stage of the game would the ball be dead.” [‘Amalgamation of Games – Second Time Round’, NSW Football History (July 2014); Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1933; ‘Rugby League Proposed Unification in 1933: The game they never played’ www.footystats.freeservers.com].

On the basis of Miller’s “compromise rules” a clandestine match was played at the RAS Sydney Showground at Moore Park with the players drawn from the Queensland Football League supplemented by some local rugby league players. The game was somewhat of a shambles – it was supposed to be 14-a-side contest but there was not enough players available, none of the participants were familiarised with the new rules, the Queensland AF players had just completed a hard game against the Canberra AF side the previous day. The demonstration game thus failed miserably in its aim of advancing the cause of the composite code game! [‘Amalgamation of Games’].

The proposals put to the ANFC by Miller on behalf of the NSWRL were taken back by the state delegates to their leagues for consideration. The football leagues ultimately however did not consider themselves bound by the ANFC’s recommendation. In the end the respective authorities of each code were not prepared to compromise by making concessions to any meaningful degree in the alteration of their game – the off-side rule remained a particular “bone of contention” in seeking a consensus on the rules.

As a consequence, the case for amendment leading to a universal code of football floundered. The NSWRL committee subsequently voted 15 to 10 against further consideration of a fusion with Australian football. Thus, all discussion of a hybridised AF/RL football code was quietly dropped … this time for good! [‘Football Merger: Rugby League not to Pursue – Not Impressed by Conference’, Canberra Times (ACT), 15 August 1933; ‘Football Merger left in Air – No decision for renewal of Conference’, Canberra Times, 12 August 1933].

Ultimately, the respective city strongholds, Sydney and Brisbane (rugby league) and Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth (Australian rules) pragmatically stuck with the code (today we’d be more likely to say the ‘product’) that it had built up to a position of pre-eminence over the years.

 

About Pagan Maven

Outside left for Gorky Park Cadres U12s; Kremlin Gremlins U14s - Stalinovskiy Vodka Juvenile League. Ricky Lenin B & F medal winner 1966-67. Mascot for Felchester Rovers senior side in the Q-League. Bolshevikskaya Primary School cadet sports journalist covering the USSR V Australia international amateur boxing tournament "From Russia With Glove" (Melbourne 1963). Emeritus Left Winger, Trotskiy Collectivisation Colts.

Comments

  1. Yes John … I was a bit puzzled by the QRL’s surprising contrariness too! Perhaps, like with the Queensland Senior scores defiantly having OP Bands in lieu of the standard Tertiary Rank to determine entry into university degrees, as is the case everywhere else in Aust., Queenslanders often seem to have a preference to be in a majority of one!

    Cheers,
    Pagan

  2. G’day Pagan –
    I reckon you’re responding to the Editor’s comment there about recalcitrant Queensland.
    That web editor today was me (on behalf of JTH).
    Your point stands.

    cheers, DJW

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