This post continues my series, Introduction to Australian History, which is written for people who have recently settled in Australia or live outside Australia and want an introduction to our history and culture.
This weekend the AFL Grand Final will be held between the Sydney Swans and Hawthorn football teams. This is a huge event. Around 100,000 fans flock to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or simply The Gee) for a full afternoon of intense Aussie Rules football. Over three million viewers will be glued to the game on television around Australia and it will be broadcast throughout the world.
Australia’s home-grown football code ranked fourth in the world for attendances at games in 2012. AFL games in 2013 attracted an average of 32,163 fans passionately barracking for their team. Only the US National Football League, the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League exceeded these attendances. AFL is the most prominent Australian Rules (Aussie Rules) competition in Australia, but it is only one among many Aussie Rules leagues in both cities and country areas.
Aussie Rules is the principal code of football played in the four southern states of Australia: Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Its origins are not clear. A number of Victorian Aboriginal peoples played a game called marn-grook. Other Aboriginal people in Australia also played some form of football, elements of which can be seen in the Aussie Rules game of today. These video clips from Australian Screen tell some of this history. Aboriginal players are an important part of the modern game in the AFL and other leagues around the country. Aboriginal players, Nicky Winmar, Michael Long and the current Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes have made Australia think hard about racism in this country and helped us to aspire to a better way. Please take a moment to click on the links and read about these great men.
Other football codes which may have been drawn on in the development of Aussie Rules are rugby, soccer and the football played by the Irish who were among the first settlers in Australia.We know that the first code was written in 1859 but this was after the game had been played in the colony for some time.
Aussie Rules has long been popular in Melbourne. In his book of observations of Australian colonial life published in 1883, writer and journalist, Richard Twopeny, observed, “the average number of people who go to see football matches on a Saturday afternoon in Sydney is not one-tenth of that in Melbourne” (p. 207). Twopeny said that the games in Melbourne at the time could attract around ten thousand people and he also noted that Melbournians were prepared to pay to see games, whereas Sydney-siders were not.
The differing enthusiasm in Sydney and Melbourne for their main football code continues today. Whereas average attendance in 2013 for AFL games was over 32,000, the average attendance for games in the major rugby league competition based in Sydney during 2013 was just short of 16,000.
Twopeny was educated in one of the well-known private schools in England, Marlborough College. “I suppose it is a heresy for an old Marlburian to own it”, he confessed (p. 206). “[B]ut after having played all three games, Rugby, Association and Victorian… I feel bound to say that the Victorian game is by far the most scientific, the most amusing both to players and onlookers, and altogether the best” (p. 207). I don’t think that any footy fan would describe the game as scientific today but the statistical analysis of the game by coaches and commentators today would probably appeal to Twopeny. I wonder what he would think about the controversy and ongoing investigation into the use of sports science at the Essendon football club?
This year the AFL Grand Final is being played between a Sydney and Melbourne team. Melbourne is renowned for the popularity of Aussie Rules, but the game has had a more chequered history in Sydney. A New South Wales Football Association was active in Sydney during the 1880s. At their annual general meeting in 1882, they were optimistic about the continuing popularity of the game in Sydney and the prospects ahead. The prominence of Aussie Rules in Sydney at the time warranted the Sydney Morning Herald publishing the report. The Association emerged from public meetings in 1880 which were attended by many rugby players including representatives of some rugby teams. The subject of some discussion as reported by The Town and Country Journal was the merits of the ‘Victorian game’ compared to the rugby played in Sydney.
The optimistic view of the New South Wales Football Association for the future of the game in Sydney was not fulfilled. Eventually Rugby League became the dominant code.
The Sydney Swans team has a long history. It started life in 1874 as South Melbourne but by the 1970s was a struggling team. In the 1980s the club moved to Sydney and became the Sydney Swans. It also became the only privately owned team in the league. This was a tumultuous time for the club and its fans. The experiment in privatisation did not work so in the early 1990s it reverted to the traditional member-based model that all AFL teams today use.
The Sydney Swans has been a very successful team in the last few years. It has appeared in the grand finals of 1996, 2005, 2006 and 2012, winning the 2005 and 2012 grand finals. But will Aussie Rules football cement its place in Sydney where the traditional favourite is Rugby League and Soccer is also very popular? Success on the ground by prominent home teams helps but there needs to be widespread adoption of the code in schools and on weekends throughout the city if it is to overtake Rugby League. Soccer is becoming very popular among parents in Sydney who are worried about the risk of serious injury to their sons from playing rugby and many girls also enjoy playing soccer.
As always, the best way to learn about a new sport is to have a go at playing it with friends or sit with Australian friends who can explain the game while watching it. Even if you don’t know much about it go with some friends to a game. The crowd is often as entertaining as the football. If your team wins enjoy hanging your team’s scarf out the car window on the drive home. Watch this video from the US AFL for a simple and entertaining introduction to the rules.
“A good football match in Melbourne is one of the sights of the world”, stated Twopeny in 1883. It continues to be a spectacular event today. I’m looking forward to an afternoon off to indulge in it.
Carn the Hawks!
I’ve dug deep into our family’s vocabulary when watching football:
- Carn – This derives from ‘come on’ and is said with a loud, ferocious roar.
- Chewy on ya boot – This is yelled at the opposition in the vain hope that the command will cause the player to miss kick the ball. ‘Chewy’ is chewing gum and having chewing gum on your boot would mess up a kick.
- Footy – usually pronounced ‘foody’. This is another word for football.
- Mark – when a player catches a ball after it has been kicked off another player’s boot they are said to have ‘marked’ the ball. A ‘mark’ can be made by a spectacular leap in the air and is one of the most distinctive and entertaining aspects of the game.
- On ya hawkers! – Derives from ‘good on you Hawks’, but of course genteel English does not have much of a place in Aussie Rules. ‘On ya hawkers’ is an encouragement to keep going. It can be delivered with a loud guttural roar when winning, or be said in a quietly voice of solidarity when the team is losing.
- A screamer – A spectacular mark.
- Ump – umpire. There are three field umpires, four boundary umpires and two goal umpires as well as the newly introduced video umpire. The grounds are large and the field umpires in particular have a lot of running to do in order to keep up with play.
- What a bewdy! – This praise is often yelled by fans when a player takes a spectacular mark or kicks a great goal. It derives from “what a beautiful [mark/kick etc]”.
There are other words used in Aussie Rules Football which English speakers may not be familiar with, particularly those which relate to the rules of the game. The Australian Football Association of America has a useful list of words.
- Richard Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, first published 1883, (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1977).
- ‘The history of Australian Rules Football’, Museums Victoria website.
You may also wish to visit the National Sports Museum which is at the MCG. It has sections on the Olympics, cricket and football. We bought tickets to the cricket last year which included entry to the museum and had an enjoyable time looking at the exhibits. There are also some interesting displays about the history of women playing cricket.