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Breaking The Codes

Sean Fagan of

Football Codes - AFL History  For Australian footy fans, nothing is more important to them than seeing their club battle towards the Grand Final. Throughout the last 100 years or so Australian Rules (AFL) and Rugby League have dominated weekly sporting attention in their stronghold cities.

The southern states were the domain of the locally devised Victorian Rules game, while NSW and Queensland adopted Rugby League from England. This left Australia in a unique situation amongst the ‘football' playing nations - it was not dominated by one code.

In the two most populated cities, Sydney and Melbourne, the sporting-minded could enjoy summer cricket battles between NSW and Victoria. But during winter, the two biggest states could only look across the border and see a football divide. It seemed the only way this would ever change, would be in the unlikely event of one code taking over the other's territory.

However, in 1933 the administrators of both games thought they had the answer - they resolved to create a new ‘all-Australian football game' incorporating the best features of Australian Rules and Rugby League. In Sydney a secret trial match involving players from both codes was held to test the new game.

This though wasn't the first occasion there had been talk of a merged game. At various times in the late 1800s Sydney's rugby authorities were faced with growing popularity of the ‘Australian game'. To counter it, they toyed with rule changes to eliminate scrums, allow the taking of fair catches (marks) in the air and punt kicks for goal. The Rugby Football Union in England though, who the NSWRU was bound to follow, would not countenance such changes.

When Rugby League kicked off it's inaugural Sydney season in 1908, it became Australia's first professional football code. Entrepreneurs such as J.J. Giltinan provided the money to establish the game, and they were well aware of the huge crowds that patronised Melbourne football and the possibilities it offered. In July of 1908, on behalf of the NSWRL, Giltinan proposed a set of rules for a merged football code to the Victorian Football League.

Giltinan also offered the bait of international fixtures, telling the VFL if agreement on the game could be found, he would encourage the English Rugby League authorities to adopt the new rules while he was away with the Kangaroos. The tour proved to be a financial disaster for Giltinan and the VFL closed the matter - but not for long.

In mid 1914 a Rugby League match was held at the MCG between England and NSW, renewing interest in the possibilities of an Australian-wide professional football code. In November of that year, officials of the NSWRL and the Australian National Football Council held meetings in Melbourne to thrash out rules for a merged game.

It was agreed to trial the rules the following season, incorporate adjustments if needed and then make a final decision. The conference decided the game should be played on oval fields, with dimensions slightly less than used by Australian Rules. Scrums were eliminated, and the re-start of play after a score would be a centre-field bounce. The Rugby League off-side rule would apply, but only when played reached within 35 yards of the goal. The posts were to be rugby style with a cross-bar.

While ‘behinds' were excluded from the new game, taking a mark in the air was to be allowed. Tries could be scored and were worth two points while all goals, whether from the field or conversions after tries, were valued at one point. Full tackling was permitted, provided it was made between the attacker's shoulders and knees. The ball could only be passed backwards and with no need to punch the ball. There would be no knock-on rule provided the same player regained possession.

However, the increasing seriousness of World War One quickly saw the matter put aside and it was soon forgotten - or so it seemed.

The July 1933 touring Kangaroos travelled to Melbourne to connect with the ship sailing for England. The team was entertained by the VFL at a luncheon at the MCG. With officials of both codes present, discussion came round to the possibilities of a combined game. The proposal of 1914 was resurrected, and this time it had serious momentum.

The news quickly broke in Sydney and Melbourne's papers and the officials of both games enthused at the prospects of increased popularity and financial goldmines. Mr Hickey (Victorian Rules) said: "If a NSW team, playing a truly national code, could travel to Perth playing en route in Melbourne and Adelaide, I doubt whether the ovals would be able to accommodate the crowds. The financial possibilities are unlimited. There are excellent features in both codes that could easily be adopted."

Mr. Dargan of the NSWRL agreed with Hickey's view, but pondered "whether the increased interstate competition would compensate us for the loss of international fixtures".

A conference was arranged for early August 1933 as the movement grew in popularity amongst officials. Mr More (VFL) was as enthusiastic as most, calling on all to "search for a game for Australia, and forget about England." So confident had the movement become, they announced the game would be called the ‘Universal Football League'. Mr O'Connor (Qld Australian Rules) was an exuberant supporter of the cause: "If the brilliant, spectacular features of Australian Rules were combined with the hard, solid features of Rugby League we would have a game with which to storm the world."

A trial match was held at the Sydney Showground on August 11, 1933. The rules provided for 14 men a side, but they could only muster 12 each on what was a workday. Mr O'Connor was the referee and described the match "as a cracker". Other observers noted the players struggled with the rules and were constantly pulling out notes from their pockets to read what they should do.

The conference ended with both parties agreeing to go back to their respective bodies with a recommendation to gradually implement the rules into their games and eventually the sports would be combined. It was also proposed to introduce a summer night match competition so players and supporters could familiarise themselves with ‘Universal Football'.

Mr. Flegg, President of the NSWRL, was not so captivated by the concept. He denounced those who supported the fusion as being disloyal to Rugby League and added that the new game would be a competitor: "Even if they retained 90% of League rules, and only 10% of the other rules, it still would not be Rugby League. There is nothing in common between League and any other game." Flegg added: "If they want a new game, get out of our game and form their own."

At the next NSWRL meeting the report on the conference was considered and then politely put away.

Copyright © 2006 - Sean Fagan. All rights reserved - the article above may not be reproduced (in full or part) in any form without written permission.
Copyright © Sean Fagan 2000-2006
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