A couple of years ago 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 [‘Kangaroos Vs Wallabies hybrid game: Why?’, The Roar, 25 October 2011]. In the end nothing came of the proposed code versus code match, but it did have echoes of the past in Australian sport. In 1909 an exhibition game of sorts between the two national rugby codes did take place as a “one-off” [‘The game begins’, League of Legends:100 Years of Rugby League in Australia, www.nma.gov.au/].
The best empirical example of hybridised football has probably been the fusion of Australian football (AFL) and Gaelic football. An all-Australian AFL side has played a Gaelic 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 this country (from 1908), fairly concerted efforts were made by the Victorian Football League (VFL) and the NSW Rugby League (NSWRL) to arrive at a single, universal code of Australian football using elements of both professional games (Australian Rules and Rugby League). On two separate occasions, 1914 and again in 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 this goal, 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 but ultimately unanswerable point.
In 1914 the initiative for a merger appeared to come from the VFL. Elements within the VFL (with some support from the South Australian and West Australian Leagues) led by Charles Brownlow, Geelong Club secretary and delegate to the Australian National Football Council (ANFC), 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 Melbourne Grand Final drew only 30,000 spectators 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 favourable 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, eg, 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 notion which seems to echo the then popularly accepted belief in the validity of eugenics) [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 pseudonym, “The Cynic”, opined that the status quo would not change, because the love of the game of Aussie rules in Victoria and of rugby league in Sydney was too deeply-ingrained in each code’s grass-roots supporters to allow them to accept the proposed alterations to their own game [‘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” [M Sharp, ‘Australian Football in Sydney Before 1914’, Sporting Traditions, Vol 4, No 1 (November 1987)]. This point 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 Healy, ‘Hard Sell: Australian Football in Sydney’, unpublished MA thesis, Victoria University (Melb.), 2002]. The era of the Sydney Swans was still far into the future in those says.
It wasn’t from any 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 visiting school ‘lecturers’, but by the early 1910s rugby league was easily pulling the biggest crowds in Sydney [Sean Fagan, ‘Aussie Rules almost had Sydney’; ‘The Superiority of the Melbourne Game’, Australian Rugby History, www.saintsandheathens.wordpress.com]. The Sydney Football League competition launched in 1903 remained a minnow in Sydney when compared to either rugby code.
At the conferences on amalgamation Brownlow and Miller’s proposals to combine the codes met with a mixture of vocal and determined opposition from individual VFL club delegates (especially Carlton) and indifference. Despite the NSWRL and the SANFL in February 1915 agreeing to amalgamate, no decision was reached at the conferences involving Victoria, Tasmania, West Australia, Queensland and NSW. 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 [op.cit. ‘Australian and Rugby League Game Combine?’].
In 1933 elements within the Australian football and 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 NSWRL 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 code 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 (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 numbers 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 – and so did not advance the cause of the composite code game! [op.cit. (‘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” to the negotiators[ibid.].
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 [‘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]. Thus, all discussion of a hybridised AFL/RL football code was quietly dropped … this time for good!