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Football

06/07/2011

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Australian Rules

Various forms of football were played in Australia during the Victorian gold rush, from which emerged a distinct and locally popular sport. While these origins are still the subject of much debate the popularisation of the code that is known today as Australian Rules Football is currently attributed to Tom Wills.
Wills wrote a letter to Bell's Life in Victoria & Sporting Chronicle, on July 10, 1858, calling for a "foot-ball club" with a "code of laws" to keep cricketers fit during winter.This is considered by historians to be a defining moment in the creation of the new sport. Through publicity and personal contacts Wills was able to co-ordinate football matches in Melbourne that experimented with various rules,the first recorded of which occurred on July 31, 1858. On 7 August 1858, Wills umpired a relatively well documented schoolboys match between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College. Following these matches, organised football matches rapidly increased in popularity.
Wills and others involved in these early matches formed the Melbourne Football Club (the oldest surviving Australian football club) on May 14, 1859. The first members included Wills, William Hammersley, J.B. Thompson and Thomas H. Smith. They met with the intention of forming a set of rules that would be widely adopted by other clubs.
The backgrounds of the original rule makers makes for interesting speculation as to the influences on the rules. Wills, an Australian of convict heritage was educated in England. He was a rugby footballer, a cricketer and had strong links to indigenous Australians. At first he desired to introduce rugby school rules. Hammersley was a cricketer and journalist who emigrated from England. Thomas Smith was a school teacher who emigrated from Ireland. The committee members debated several rules including those of English public school games. Despite including aspects similar to other forms of football there is no conclusive evidence to point to any single influence. Instead the committee decided on a game that was more suited to Australian conditions and Wills is documented to have made the declaration "No, we shall have a game of our own".The code was distinctive in the prevalence of the mark, free kick, tackling, lack of an offside rule and that players were specifically penalised for throwing the ball.
The Melbourne football rules were widely distributed and gradually adopted by the other Victorian clubs. They were redrafting several times during the 1860s to accommodate the rules of other influential Victorian football clubs. A significant re-write in 1866 by H C A Harrison's committee to accommodate rules from the Geelong Football Club made the game, which had become known as "Victorian Rules", increasingly distinct from other codes. It used cricket fields, a rugby ball, specialised goal and behind posts, bouncing with the ball while running and later spectacular high marking. The form of football spread quickly to other other Australian colonies. Outside of its heartland in southern Australia the code experienced a significant period of decline following World War I but has since grown other parts of the world at an amateur level and the Australian Football League emerged as the dominant professional competition.
 


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