Sean Fagan of RL1908.com
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
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.
‘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
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.
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."
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
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."
the next NSWRL meeting the report on the conference was considered
and then politely put away.
© 2006 - Sean Fagan. All rights reserved - the article above may
not be reproduced (in full or part) in any form without written