The unruly making of rules

With a reduction from intentional to reckless, and a good record dropping the charge to below 100 points, this incident should resultin a reprimand rather than a suspension…FINAL WORD
Nanjing Night Net

IN FOOTBALL’S year dot, Jerry Bryant, mine host of the Parade Hotel, arranged a scratch match on Richmond Paddock.

In the Sporting Globe years later, one player recalled that it was many games in a chaotic one. ”Englishmen, of course, played rugby, Scotchmen a nondescript game – the Association game [soccer] not having yet seen the light – while Irishmen for the most part contented themselves with punting the ball as straight as a die heavenwards.

”Each man played a lone hand, or rather foot, according to his lights, some guided by their own particular code of rules, other by no rules at all.

”Disputes, wrangling and utter confusion were the inevitable outcome … but we have to thank the football Babel for some of the best points in the game as now.”

This is a scratch on the surface of a history of Australian rules before the establishment of the VFL in 1897, written by art historian Mark Pennings, published by Connor Court and soon to be released.

It is, to say the least, comprehensive and compendious. It runs to four volumes! The last will contain the names of 6000-7000 players who appeared before football’s supposed nascence.

Few cities in the world can have mushroomed as Melbourne did following the discovery of gold. In little more than a decade from 1851, these sprung up: Parliament and its buildings, the town hall, the GPO, the state library, national gallery, museum, zoo, Melbourne university, Queen Victoria market, The Age, Australia’s first railway and the first Melbourne Cup.

Nearly half of Australia’s population lived in Victoria, and were considered to be the richest people in the world. The colony was feeling its oats.

Cricket was the sport, but variations of football began to manifest in parklands and schools. Counterintuitively, school football was more rugged. Hacking – the kicking of shins – was permitted for schoolboys, but not for men, for whom a broken bone might mean financial ruin.

Some, including historian Geoffrey Serle, have puzzled over why Victoria did not simply adopt Britain’s football games, as it did most other institutions. Pennings explains that soccer and rugby themselves still were evolving then, and had not been codified. One motive of the founders of ”Melbourne rules”, including Tom Wills, was to create a simpler game.

Rugby was the seminal influence. But rugby’s school code listed 33 rules, the new game just 10 (those were the days).

Pennings says one unique aspect of Australian rules is that its laws evolved on the field.

He also makes clear that the new game never saw itself merely as a derivative.

”There was considerable pride in the game, and a desire to spread it throughout the world,” he writes. In some quarters, there still is.

In July, 1858, Wills famously proposed the new code, to keep cricketers fit, but also cricket grounds, which would benefit from being ”trampled upon”.

In September, 27 ”gentlemen” of South Yarra -based at Fawkner Park and probably including some Melbourne Grammar schoolboys – challenged the Melbourne players north of the river – essentially Melbourne Cricket Club – to a match on Richmond paddock.

The South Yarra team brought its own set of rules, but, The Herald reported: ”They were more interested in the breach than the observance.” Melbourne scored the only goal, embellished by Punch as ”one triumphant joyous kick”, whereupon ”every motley-coloured kicker betook him to a special liquor”.

In the same month, Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College played a celebrated three-week match.

Eighty players roamed all over what is now Yarra Park, but one, an enterprising type, scuttled away with the ball inside the MCG fence, whereupon umpire Wills adjudged it out of bounds.

The idea was to become the first team to score two goals, but after three weeks, neither had, so a draw was declared.

The next year, Melbourne Football Club was formed and the new game’s laws set down. The signatories were Wills (then secretary of the MCC), Thomas Smith (a classics teacher at Scotch) and two journalists, and the venue was Bryant’s pub, the closest to the MCG. The MCG, schools, pubs and the press as forces in the game: has anything much changed?

Australian rules was at square one, though it was probably not yet recognisably today’s game. The stipulation to bounce the ball when running, for instance, was added later. It remained a game of the rough and ready.

Pennings writes of Alex Bruce, who had an artificial arm with an iron hook, and ”when he pushed from behind, always of course with the iron hook, it meant weeping and wailing to his unfortunate victim”.

Other clubs appeared, representing fast-growing suburbs, and from 1870 a premier recognised. In 1877, the VFA was formed.

In his introduction, Pennings writes that the game was revolutionised in the 1870s and ’80s by Geelong. ”Its scientific approach to the game put an emphasis on speed and accurate passing to players running into open spaces,” he writes. ”This marked a radical departure from a game previously reliant on big packs and nimble players who could run with the ball.”

Who says history does not repeat?

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.